Academic writing, whether it be a math article or a philosophy textbook, most often fails to capture our imagination or even keep us awake long enough to trudge through its convoluted contents. In unlocking the universe’s greatest mysteries, these treatises fail to bring forth the awe and inspiration that is theirs by right. Why should science writing, whose job it is to describe our incredibly complex, inherently magical universe, be a less exciting read than Harry Potter?
I recently refereed an article that had significant and surprising results, a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that fitted beautifully into the set theoretic tapestry. Sadly, only a highly motivated reader could survive the stupor induced by its stale, unnecessarily technical and context-lacking prose long enough to realize the import of its content. It has been an evolving realization of mine for about a year now that my articles weren’t any better. This is all the more depressing because growing up I did not dream about being a mathematician, I dreamt about being a writer.
In a great New York Times article Zombie nouns, Helen Sword identifies an enlightening concept for those who still believe that creative academic writing is not an oxymoron. A nominalization is a noun formed from other parts of speech: liability from liable, relation from relate, activism from active. Sword calls them ‘zombie nouns’ “because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings”. Here is her example of this idea expressed with and without nominalizations:
The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.
Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.
What a difference! Academic writing is chock full of nominalizations. There are no heroes, no story, no insightful examples, or interconnecting webs. Sword writes: “In fact, the more abstract your subject matter, the more your readers will appreciate stories, anecdotes, examples and other handholds to help them stay on track.”
I fell in love with math when in a summer library adventure I stumbled upon William Dunham’s books on the history of mathematics. Dunham didn’t only write about mathematics, neither did he write only mathematics. He told the story of mathematics as an organic whole of history, heroics, mistakes, connections, new beginnings, and of course perfectly technical proofs. In high school, while most of my homework got done during TV commercials, I worked for hours on writing assignments. I agonized over sentences, faced an early onset of writer’s block, and terrorized family members by turning them into involuntary critics. By the end of graduate school, I had decided that writing up solved problems was an energy-sapping chore. But now I am coming full circle, realizing that academic writing can and should be artistic. I am realizing that an integral part of my role as an academic is to write in a way that weaves knowledge into a carefully crafted, expressive, exciting narrative. What is my strategy? Be clear but not excessively technical; be precise but not tedious; add history, motivation, examples, asides; stress interconnections. An academic article should tell a story that fits seamlessly into that greatest of human literary projects: the tale of the universe.