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Guest op-ed: The horror that is academic writing

There is considerable debate in academic circles about whether those with advanced degrees should be given a great deal more respect and money or be given straitjackets in their school color. Being married to one of these people, I can say with all the love and respect in the world that the straitjacket wins, no question.

The problem lies largely with the rules that govern academic writing. There are many, many, many rules and, as far as I can see, their main purpose is to give the writing the joyful zest of a flat tire. But if you want an advanced degree, you must and will be initiated into the dark world of formatting.

For example, when you are accepted into any program that uses the popular APA formatting style (brought to you by the American Psychological Association — the same people who specialize in abnormalities of the mind), the first thing they do is handcuff you to the manual, which is filled with cheerful advice such as: “For tables, the source material is provided in a table note (see section 5.16), and for figures, the source is credited at the end of the caption (see section 5.23)” (p. 138). If you actually go to section 5.16 for a quick check, you’ll find that the explanation for this little detail is three pages long.

It is largely because of such rules that the time needed to write a Master’s thesis or a Ph.D. dissertation breaks down about like this:

10% meaningful research.

20% putting words on the page.

10% wondering if you should change your topic.

60% wrestling with the formatting and citations (not including the actual physical wrestling with paid and unpaid editors, the graduate school lady who collects the dissertations and assorted others).

5% crying.

10% on hold with tech people because your computer doesn’t work.

20% redoing the formatting and citations throughout.

5% meeting with your committee.

20% redoing the formatting and citations because they still aren’t right.

10% wondering why you are doing this to yourself.

This comes out to a total of 170%, which is why these students don’t look so good.

Once, while my Dave was sweating out his dissertation and had taken a break to stretch and moan like a lost soul, I took a turn at his computer and, using all the big words I could muster, added something about the anthropomorphic value of cheesemaking and the relative socio-cultural implication of triangle-shaped paradigms in a post-modern society (Camembert, 1984). I thought when he saw it that he would get a laugh or at least blow off some steam by swearing. Nothing. He just grimly plodded on. The next morning, he said, “Boy, I must have really been tired last night. I wrote some stuff about cheese that doesn’t even make sense!” That’s right. He was 100% willing to believe that he had written about cheese.

I want to publicly apologize to Dave for ever thinking that his dissertation was more boring than the IRS tax code. It was, of course, but it’s not his fault. APA forces everybody to write like that. To illustrate the horror that is academic writing, I’ve rewritten the exciting scene from the movie “The Empire Strikes Back,” in which Darth Vader reveals his relationship to Luke, according to APA guidelines.

VADER: There is no escape (Cloud City Construction Consortium, Long, Long Ago [LLA] p. 4547). Don’t make me (Skywalker, LLA p. 679) destroy you. As Lallafa and Dent (LLA) state in Coming to terms with the inevitable, the failure of modern earthlings in the Kuiper belt to accept reality (p. 2427), you do not yet realize your importance (Majikthise & Vroomfondel, (LLA p. 42). Join me and I will complete your training with Mulder, Kryten and Gargravarr’s Complete guide to the empowered Jedi (LLA p. 503).

LUKE: I’ll never (Lallafa, LLA p.269) join (Porthos & The Doctor, LLA p. 77) you!

VADER: Obi-Wan (Windu, LLA p. 6013) never told you who killed (Colluphid, LLA p. 666) your father.

LUKE: It was you who killed him (Kenobi, LLA p. 129)!

VADER: Luke, your indentations (VandenBos & Dalek, 2010) are incorrect.

LUKE: Nooooooooo!

You see what I mean? Personally, I’d fight Darth Vader any day rather than try to cite him properly. Knowledge is a wonderful thing — but when it comes to formatting, trust me, ignorance is bliss.

By Anneli Byrd, first published on https://www.standard.net/opinion/guest-commentary/guest-op-ed-the-horror-that-is-academic-writing/article_5756da1a-9304-56e1-a441-faf6f26d295b.html February 11, 2021