Style Is Not a Luxury Option: Reflections on the Prose of the Profs

Jerry Z. Muller | Mar 1, 2006

I once served on a book prize committee. The experience was heartening in many respects: the range of subject matter in the dozens of books we examined was remarkable; the quality of research was often impressive; the analytic insights acute.

Yet all too often, there was a yawning gap between the quality of research and analysis on one hand, and the quality of the writing on the other. The exhilaration occasioned by the research and analysis was deflated by the leaden prose of so many of the authors. Some of these were first books, where the pedestrian style could be chalked up to a lack of experience. But there were cases of books by mature scholars writing at the height of their intellectual powers—books embodying years of research and replete with insight and even philosophical profundity—that will be opened by many readers but finished by few. The historians in question seemed to forget that they were also authors: that their responsibilities included not just research and analysis, but making their prose enticing rather than simply a chore to be borne stoically.

The problem lay not in an overreliance on jargon, or in the sort of deliberate obscurity cultivated in some branches of the humanities. The prose I read was neither awkward nor grammatically flawed. The authors simply had not tried to write well. Too many sentences were too long. Some were swelled by the aggregation of several ideas into a single sentence. Others showed that some authors had repeatedly given in to the temptation to include too many clauses that added a layer of conceptual nuance while making it difficult to retain the conceptual thrust of the sentence. That staple of every manual of style, the injunction to “Use the active voice” had been massively transgressed. The text had been insufficiently pruned, leaving a level of detail tending to exhaust the patience and interest of all but the most committed reader.

The most direct victims of these literary lapses are the authors themselves. For the predictable consequence of plodding, pedestrian, and profuse prose is that the books will go unread or underread. That means that the labors of research, analysis, and explication will be largely in vain. Surely that is not what any of these authors intended, but it is the anticipatable outcome of their sins of stylistic omission. At times I wanted to remonstrate with the authors: “You're very intelligent and genuinely insightful, the quantity and quality of your research is astonishing, your industriousness admirable. Why, in God's name, after so many years of labor did you not take the time to make your prose more palatable!”

My hope is that if historians are made aware of the costs of pedestrian writing, they will devote more attention to the problem. In my experience, the issue is rarely discussed openly, but once the topic is broached, it elicits a stream of consternation. How many of us refrain from assigning certain excellent books, even to graduate students, because they are so badly written? How many books have we ourselves failed to finish reading because for all of our interest in their subject matter, we found the prose too exhausting to slog through? One historian used to speak of “$20 bill books”: these were books in which one could tape a $20 bill in the middle of the library's copy, then come back in five years and retrieve the bill, confident that no one would read far enough to reach it. How many such books are sitting on the shelves of our libraries? Who wants to be the author of such a book?

While I cannot fully account for the phenomenon, let me offer a few surmises. Clearly, many historians have never been taught that they have a responsibility to their readers to try to write well. They consider it a luxury at best, a diversion from real professional responsibilities at worst. My guess is that they fail to notice, or reflect upon, the fact that so many of the historians who acquire the highest admiration of their peers—as reflected, for example, in election to the presidency of the AHA—do so in part because they do write well. (James Sheehan's German History 1770–1866 is a masterwork in its integration of broad generalization and concrete example, all conveyed in lively prose.) Another factor seems to be that books are published without having been edited by anyone. Many of even the most distinguished university presses simply do not edit in any meaningful sense: an acquisitions editor acquires the manuscript, and a copy editor corrects actual errors of grammar and punctuation, but no one works on improving the sentences or on pruning the manuscript. (Commercial presses that seek to reach a larger audience usually do more work of this sort.) Moreover it is my impression that fewer books are actually read for style by anyone before they are sent to the publisher. One reason for sending one's manuscript to colleagues and friends is to elicit help of this sort, but historians seem more and more reluctant to make such requests. In my experience, it is also useful to seek comments and criticism from readers who are not professionally immersed in the subject matter, including family members and colleagues with other areas of expertise. They are more likely to spot the terms that require definition, the leaps of conceptual logic, and the knots of unclear formulation.

It might also help if reviewers in professional journals devoted at least some of their remarks to the stylistic quality of the book under review. That would help create a more visible structure of incentives for historians to devote themselves to making the quality of their prose match the quality of their research. We all stand to benefit.

—Jerry Z. Muller is professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought (Knopf, 2002).

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