Review of Pamela Haag’s “Revise: The Scholar-Writer’s Essential Guide to Tweaking, Editing and Perfecting Your Manuscript” (Opinion) – Inside Higher Ed
Complaints about academic prose are nothing new. An article that appeared in the journal Studies in the Renaissance in 1965 identified a Zinger who, in one form or another, might have appeared in one of the numerous books that between the 15th to express it was obscure. He’s like the octopus that wraps itself in its own ink when it tries to contain itself. “
The analogy was originally coined by a sarcastic Platonist in the second century AD, but it really took off from critics of Aristotle during the Renaissance. Charles B. Schmitt, the author of the paper, points out an ironic aspect of the lawsuit: what most scholars knew about the mollusk they had almost certainly learned from the work of Aristotle. “For the sake of self-defense and self-preservation,” wrote the Greek polymath, “octopuses have what is called their ink… when [one] is frightened and frightened, it creates this blackness and mud in the water, holding a shield in front of the body, as it were. “
Bringing Aristotle down while relying on Aristotle takes some chutzpah. Be that as it may, the squid trope proved irresistible to polemics. “After its introduction by an author into the repertoire of rhetorical weapons of the time,” says Schmitt, “it would not be surprising if it was repeated again and again by the opponents of Aristotelian philosophy.” He suggests that the real target was “the conservative Aristotelian of the universities”, rather than the figure whom Dante called “the master of all who know.”
Schmitt cites a rejection from the 19th century about “this now flimsy comparison”. But it didn’t go away, it just changed shape – became a general-purpose method of criticizing an opaque author, replacing the octopus with the more familiar figure of the octopus scurrying away in a cloud of ink.
An element of the list – the deliberate bypass – is implied either way. Pamela Haag knows better. As a development editor of scientific works, she has been a consultant to university publishers and has given editorial guidance to monograph authors while also publishing her own books and articles, scientific and others. Experience has given her a thorough grasp of how manuscripts can go sideways – and what can be done about it. Your Revise: The Scholar-Writer’s Essential Guide to Tweaking, Editing, and Perfecting Your Manuscript (Yale University Press) is in the format of a manual, including a comprehensive but focused checklist for performing a “style check” on a draft. But it is as much an essay as a manual. You can and probably should read it more than once – in whole or in part.
“Scientific writing is inherently a challenge,” admits Haag, “but sometimes, for the wrong reasons, you write it even more opaque than necessary. In fact, scholarly prose is probably the only branch of the non-fiction family where one might strive not to be entirely clear. “The sensibility here is a world away from Strunk and White, whose classic The Elements of Style resembles Moses’ stone tablets that with “You’re not supposed to.” She admits that text can be as difficult to read as it needs to be. It is also possible to win the lottery, but probably best for everyone involved not to head for it leave.
The problem is not jargon as such that is inevitable. Each group with a common activity or interest develops its own language that is necessarily unknown, if not incomprehensible, to outsiders – and all too easily taken for granted by the initiated. A jargon “can become such a familiar short form,” writes Haag, “that you have the feeling that you have argued with the term alone … [rendering it] a crutch in your mind even before you even start writing. “It works” as a proxy for an argument or as a trapdoor to make one. “
It is a delicate duty for an editor to point out that this has happened without sounding reproachful. Authors revising a manuscript have the equally or more difficult task of recognizing and emphasizing their own over-reliance on discursive abbreviations and weird strategies for preserving the face. Because the problem with unrevised academic prose is, to use Haag’s own beautifully inverted jargon, “Psycho-Editorial”: a scholar’s research and insight are broken by a fear of demonstrating authority by reacting preventively to anyone who could question them. Revision implies a certain amount of soul searching, typically with the added pressure of meeting a deadline.
Revise contains both and extensive catalog of tendencies in academic writing worth revising and numerous examples of how Haag would approach them. At no point does the expression “dumb” apply. A handbook of psycho-editorial advice is scattered throughout the text in various places without any impact. “Instead of writing to appease your inner critic,” she notes, “sometimes you could write to confuse him, to throw him off course.” Revise can only have been written by someone who was there but escaped.
Here is a confessional passage from the book I gratefully quote for Inside Higher Ed’s removal of the comment section:
“I had an editor,” recalls Haag, “who once accused me of resorting to ‘academic obscurantism’ in order to avoid clear arguments, and that was a legitimate criticism. In my case, I was afraid of being shot by a man to become a member of the NRA, so maybe I wanted to make my argument about the arms industry so historically precise and circumscribed that it becomes harmlessly curious … So on certain topics I understand why the scholar-author may unconsciously seek refuge in the dark. The alternative – very clearly understood – could be worse. “
The squid has its reasons.