Quora answer: Why does the writing style of most PhDs on Quora appear to be long-winded and poorly structured?

Feb 26 2012

As a long winded writer with poor structure to my answers I thought this was the perfect question for me to answer.

Now I don’t claim to speak for other long winded Ph.D.s or those others who have poorly structured answers, or both like me.

First of all I don’t just write long winded poorly structured prose on Quora, but everything I write is like that. And for me it is a matter of poor early education. The only reason I got to go to college was that if you graduated from high school in my state the university had to take you. So my Mom sent me off to what she thought would be my only semester of college, figuring she would be remodeling her kitchen the next semester. She was somewhat shocked when I came back with all Bs and As and on the honor roll for the school. And so it went for the rest of my career in University. And then she was really disappointed when I got into the London School of Economics, because that spelled more years when her kitchen would need remodeling, but she could not do it because she was supporting me through school.

So how does someone who is poorly educated in ones youth so one really never learns how to write properly, get through school without really learning how to write concisely and with proper structure, and why does someone like that tend to write long and rambling treatises that tend to look like those of other philosophers.

As far as I can see, the root of the problem is that in Graduate school and even to some extent in University they really only care about your ideas not your writing style. If you have lots of interesting ideas but cannot really express them very well, then you get by. But even if you write really well, if you don’t really have any ideas that are novel, then you tend to do poorly. Ours is not an education system that focuses on style, like the Chinese for instance who demanded good calligraphy, good poetic style, good writing, and memorization of the classics above all else. Ours is a system that values ideas, especially novel or deep ones over all else. And how well you express those novel or deep ideas is not really very important. That was important in Grade School, and High School, the part of my education that was not very good despite living in suburbia. When I look back I realize I just had a lot of very bad teachers who really did not care to teach me how to write properly, and so that was a great loss for me. What would have really helped is if they had forced me to learn French, German, Greek, Chinese, etc as well but the American educational system is really not that good, compared to say Europe, and I just managed to have the bad luck to get a string of not very good teachers in my youth, and I really regretted that later when I realized that I liked to write.

However, there is more to it than that, I believe. Since the Educational System in University and Graduate School are centered on ideas, and the production of novel ideas or deeper ones are valued more than anything else, particularly in Britain, other factors come into play. For instance, it is really difficult to produce those novel or deeper ideas, and their expression normally is difficult at first, and so when you are in the process of discovering ideas then ones writing becomes very obscure. That is because many times one does not know oneself what one is really trying to say. One tends to be repetitive in ones writing as one attempts to try to say it in a way that one can understand it oneself. And a lot of time the ideas themselves are complicated, because one is building on the basis of theories that are already very complicated. And a lot of time is spent writing exploring and seeking elusive ideas or concepts that are difficult to grasp and even more difficult to express. And by the way since one is reading difficult texts, one tends to write like the texts that one is reading, like Being and Time, Being and Nothingness, Critique of Pure Reason, Phenomenology of Mind, Phenomenology of Perception, Logical Investigations, The Essence of Manifestation, etc. These are the core philosophy books that are the basis  of our tradition, and unfortunately no one said to Heidegger to keep it short, simple and to the point. So long obscure writing breeds more long obscure writing. But why are these other books so long and difficult. Well one reason is that they are grappling with ideas that are extremely difficult, and philosophy just keeps getting more and more complicated. To read Badiou’s Being and Event for example you have to study Set Theory and Cantor, and Cohen. You cannot get along just by knowing some Philosophy, but you have to study Set Theory carefully because Badiou prides himself on the fact that he knows the Set Theory as well as the Set Theorists himself.

For instance, Zizek set out to make Lacan comprehensible by reducing him to Hegel. Lacan is one of the most obscure writers there is anywhere. So Zizek’s presentation although comprehensible is still very difficult because he is making Lacan comprehensible by appealing to Hegel who is also one of the most obscure of the Philosophers. In other words our tradition is founded on some very difficult texts that are obscure and unreadable for most people. And anyone who tries to deal with these texts are going to tend to write like them, and is going to tend to be complicated just as they are. But if you are interested in novel ideas or deep concepts then that is something one learns to put up with, because you do not get the gold unless you are willing to mine it. Very seldom is it just laying out on the ground like in the Gold Rush. Mostly it is in veins deep underground, where one has to seek it in obscurity and incomprehensibility, and where our knowledge is vague, ambiguous, and amorphous.

My idea on Quora is to not just answer questions, but to use questions, sometimes silly questions as a jumping off point for exploring new territory that I would not ordinarily think about. I am interested in learning something in the writing. And that is the amazing thing about writing is that it can teach you things you would never have known if you did not write about it. And I figure that even though I am long winded and my exploratory answers are not well structured, that what I write here is nothing compared to the books I have read and studied in order to be able to say something about them. And some people like complicated things, just for the heck of it. They see thinking deeply and trying to have new ideas a challenge, and perhaps they would like to see someone else struggling to do that, so that they can get an idea how it is done. It is done of course through synthesis. And synthesizes of many different thinkers and trains of thought are difficult to produce, and even more difficult to explain. Besides that it takes a lot more time to be concise and to boil things down to their essentials and I just don’t have that much time. Since I am doing all this writing without seeking any reward for it, I have to do what is effective for myself. I do not have a customer so to speak because the number of people interested in the things I am interested in are so few, that we can probably count them on one hand. However, if just one person learns something from what I am writing then it seems to me it is worth the effort. And a few people have signified that they appreciated something that I had written. At least I get thanks sent to me occasionally. Sometimes I even get upvoted. But even if no one upvoted me or thanked me I would probably do this anyway. The reason is that I have very wide interests, and the questions on Quora allow me to explore a wide swath of my interests, and to make that public on by Blog, Twitter, G+ etc, where I am looking for the few that might find what i am interested in interesting themselves. It allows me to explore more than I would explore left to my own devices. I would not write papers about all these things. It would be a lot of work to write papers, like the ones I put on the Web. And it would be even more work to get them ready for publication by going through multiple revisions for each paper like I do when I present them at conferences. Here I can make a sketch, find out if there is anything interesting in the question by trying to answer it and then move on to something else that tickles my fancy. As Zizek says there are all these ticklish subjects around that need stroking. [Joke]

So my question is to everyone, why would you want well structured and short, succinct and too the point answers anyway? It seems to me that what is of value is the novelty and depth of the ideas, and if they cannot be expressed simply, concisely and to the point without degrading the ideas then one just has to put up with the difficulties of expression, especially in a civilization such as ours where everything is complicated, computer programs for instance. Of course, I agree if you can have a novel idea or a deep concept that is simply expressed, easily comprehensible and succinct that is preferable, but I have not found very many of those in my studies. Seems like all the worthwhile things are difficult to unearth and are usually expressed in long winded and ill structured texts for the most part like Being and Event for example which has interludes that wander all over the place. It is not just about Set Theory but everything else under the sun as Badiou tries to make it believable that he is dealing with all of Ontology. Now another thing that has to be taken into account which is that 99% or even more of what is published is not worth reading. That is because it really does not contain any ground breaking ideas, and it is all very well written and very well structured. So there is plenty of boring things out there to read that are just as one might want in terms of simplicity, conciseness, and structural integrity. It is a lot easier to do that it appears if you really do not have much to say. But as soon as you start to try to express something that no one has understood before then everything becomes obscure, ill-structured, messy, difficult, and just plain hard. And if you want to get those ideas out of the material then you have to slog through it, analyze it, undestand it, write about it, diagram it, talk about it with others, and generally be obsessed with it until you get what is being said.

So this is a long winded ill-structured reply to a question about why Ph.D.s do that kind of thing. I think they do it because they are fascinated about the subjects they find relevant and significant. They have put considerable effort into understanding those things, and have learned to express themselves in the same difficult manner as the authors that they have read. And even some like me slip though the cracks and become scholars without knowing the basics. But for the most part we are creatures of the educational system, and the tradition, and we are merely mirroring it back to you in ourselves. It is difficult, it is obscure, it is opaque, and in many ways we become that way ourselves in the process of trying our best to understand it for ourselves.


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