Is That Professor a Plagiarist?

image from rutgers.edu

Plagiarism is alive and well among America’s tenured faculty. Non-tenured too, for that matter. I’ve worked as an editor for academic authors in a variety of disciplines for 15 years, and from my perspective, the situation is getting worse. Not because the profs are all turning crooked, but because many of them are allowing laziness to trump rigor and because some, strangely, don’t seem to be schooled in what plagiarism is.

As a writing teacher, I have an ear for detecting “borrowed” words. Clues include a suspicious shift in voice, syntax that doesn’t fit the writer’s usual forms, and outright non sequiturs of the copy-and-paste variety. Indeed, it’s the copying and pasting in the age of the internet that helps to explain why plagiarism is cropping up more than ever. I still can’t help but be surprised, though, at how prevalent it is among people who are supposed to be the bastions of academic integrity and protocol: university professors.

To be fair, my encounters with plagiarism of the most nefarious sort have been rare. Only once have I worked with an academic who knowingly tried to pass someone else’s entire argument off as his own. And that situation was handled by folks above my pay grade at the time. What’s become rampant of late are, rather, smaller-scale shrug-the-shoulders sloppiness and just flat out ignorance about what counts as using someone else’s ideas, language, or both without proper acknowledgment. Here’s what I’ve seen, and how I’ve handled it.

Careless Omissions

These come in two varieties, both of which some people prefer to call “misuse of sources” rather than plagiarism. I don’t.

One involves chunks of text hastily regurgitated with the intention of adding attribution later. The problem is when later never comes. In some cases, the original is nearly identical in language, but some key data point has also been misreported so that the lack of acknowledgment is made worse by an inaccuracy (see my previous post “Has Anyone Checked the Numbers?”). Authors who make these kinds of errors sometimes apologize; others admit to the respected editor, “I knew you’d clean up after me.” In the latter scenario, I remind the author that if I can’t find the offense, I also can’t rectify it — so remember to give me enough of a tip so that I’m looking for a needle in a hairball, not a haystack.

The other kind of omission amounts to incomplete source attribution. I’m talking about quotations correctly ascribed to the person who uttered the words but without acknowledgment of where they appeared. For instance, I have encountered statements such as “As my colleague Jane Expert said, . . .” without any source mentioned, only to find that Ms. Expert made this comment in, say, a New York Times interview. I remind the author that crediting the speaker is not enough, as it leaves unclear how the quotation was obtained. I’ve even heard other editors say things like, “Oh, I assumed it came from an interview that the author had done with Ms. Expert.” Assume that, and you may be publishing a correction later.

Clueless Commissions

Much more disturbing than finding an academic to be careless about reporting his source material is facing the reality that he doesn’t understand the basics about attribution. One author who had lifted material from a somewhat older text actually said to me, “But that’s in the public domain now.” Um, Professor, just because a text is public doesn’t allow you to claim it as your own. (I’m paraphrasing myself, of course. The actual quotation was much more diplomatic.)

Far more common are instances in which the author thinks that if he changes a phrase or two, plagiarism has been avoided. “Is that what you teach your students?” I wonder to myself. Again, my actual approach is more practical. I simply propose an alternative that either includes appropriate attribution or avoids the need for the passage altogether. That works almost every time.

The Editor as Teacher

Diplomacy is, indeed, at the heart of all the efforts to help an author avoid embarrassment (or even a lawsuit) for having plagiarized, whether due to sloppiness or ignorance. What you say obviously depends on your relationship with the author. If you have an ongoing and strong professional bond, a mini-lesson on best practices in academic writing can actually be a welcome offering; if you don’t have that kind of trusting tie, suggesting intelligent alternative language usually does the trick. Occasionally, you’ll work with someone who bristles at the very thought that she plagiarized (even if you didn’t say that outright). Again, a deferential “Here’s what you could write instead to make your excellent point” often dilutes the defensiveness.

And, of course, there are cultural differences in what constitutes plagiarism. Don’t be afraid to take an information-sharing stance as you politely explain how an American audience might perceive a particular use of another author’s material as inappropriate. With academics from abroad who may be unfamiliar with U.S. standards, focus on the perceptions of prospective readers rather than the rectitude of your position. After all, the definition of plagiarism is, like that of any intellectual practice, culturally bound.

The Editor as Policeman?

As it becomes easier for authors to commit acts of plagiarism, it’s also getting easier to identify — and to prevent — instances of it. Even without a nifty plagiarism-spotting application, a keen ear and simple online searching will turn up much more than you might expect. Will you find it all? Certainly not. Should you even attempt to look down every alley to find evidence of crime? No way. Editors are not police officers, for good reason. You certainly don’t have the time to walk that beat, given how many other important duties are on your roster. Besides, editing with a crime-fighting mind-set comes through in your communication with the author.

As with any editing task, your radar must be on at all times, but you mustn’t spend all your time listening to it hum. That kind of self-consciousness gets in the way, as good editors well know. Mindfulness is an asset; compulsiveness is a liability. Vigilance about plagiarism is one line item on the balance sheet. Give it its increasingly important due, but don’t let it overwhelm the bottom line.

When the Author Has Nothing Worthwhile to Say

Having worked as an editor for a long time, I’ve plumbed pretty much all the depths of the author-editor relationship. Most of that mine, fortunately, is filled with gems, especially when you get to collaborate with people at the top of their disciplines. And when the raw material isn’t great, experience teaches you how to make it so. But, like everyone, I have an Achilles heel — one situation in which I simply don’t know how to find diamonds in the dirt. It’s when I face the self-deluded author whose content really and truly isn’t worth a damn.

Now I’m not talking about bad writing. I’ve plumbed that depth many times, and those situations are eminently rectifiable. Making good writing out of bad writing — and even good writers out of bad writers — is at the heart of what I do in my various roles as editor and teacher. I’m instead referring to the folks who, whatever their skills as writers, are selling snake oil without even realizing it.

For some authors, this foray into uselessness is a one-time journey: They’re digging in an empty hole on a mostly gem-filled landscape. If you have a good relationship with an author like that, you might even be able to state the truth plainly, thereby allowing him or her to save face in the end (you’ll be thanked for it, too). If you don’t know the one-time fool well, you might just have to enable the behavior, do your best with what’s in front of you, and console yourself with the knowledge that this author will get back to the worthwhile stuff soon. But maybe I’m just chicken that way.

For other authors, a whole career has been built upon the useless. At this point, I can spot chronic sterility a mile away, yet I still don’t know what to do about it. When possible, I’ve refused assignments by making up an excuse (“I’m booked” does just fine). However, such refusals aren’t always feasible, for a variety of reasons, and then I have to just grin and bear it — and release the grin the minute I turn my face away. But the whole time I work on material like this, I can feel my innards disintegrating. I can’t help but think about how everyone’s time is being wasted — mine, the publisher’s, the public’s, and actually the author’s, too, blind to it as he may be.

Many people I know in publishing say, “Who are you to judge what’s useless? You’re just the editor, not the expert.” Besides, what counts as substance is, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder. Call it my perception, call it reality, call it what you will. But working with an author whose entire career appears (to me) to be built upon promulgating poppycock is the one indignity I’ve never learned to suffer well. Perhaps I should just take a deep breath and let it go. But wasted time and wasted space, even on the limitless internet, is criminal to me, and I can’t help but feel like an accomplice.

Luckily, I don’t have to do this Ruth Madoff routine too often. But I still hate it, and I don’t how to escape it. If you do, please lend me a hand here. I’m numb from the digging.

How to Wield Your Lance Freely

I have too much reverence for the arts of editing and writing to subordinate them to the sterile science of pleasing clients. As a freelancer, I retain a tall wall between how I speak about money and deadlines with the people who hire me and how I approach and discuss the work they give me. The former I always do with a smile; the latter I do on the merits, letting the smiles (and the frowns) emerge organically. That’s the approach I valued when I was a full-time employee working with outside freelancers, so now I return the favor.

You see, I find good work and salesmanship to be fundamentally at odds. They don’t compete with each other on every single freelance job, of course, but allowing them to preoccupy me simultaneously runs the risk of such competition, and I won’t tolerate that possibility for even a minute. In short, I don’t feel very free (or effective) as a freelancer when I don’t have the room to wield my skills without the impediment of financial calculations. Here are the principles I follow to ensure that doing business doesn’t blunt my efforts at maintaining quality:

1. Treat the work as if it’s your own. That doesn’t mean applying your own tastes and preferences to the material — such an approach would be rude and useless. But within the basic parameters you’ve been given, don’t hold back from showing a client what it would take to make the work as good as it can possibly be, even if that means an overhaul. As a freelancer, I obviously don’t make the final decision about where things will go, but I never refrain from demonstrating where they could go. You may end up challenging an ego or two in the process, but so be it. If those egos are secure enough, they’ll thank you for it in the end; if they’re not, you’re better off looking elsewhere for work anyway.

2. Don’t confuse collegiality with politeness. Mutual respect between capable colleagues involves fully appreciating what each person brings to the table in an honest exchange, not tiptoeing around perceived sensitivities. Many freelancers, however, walk on eggshells, wearing a professional shoe on one foot and a salesman’s loafer on the other. That just makes you seem like the hired help rather than a capable complement to the internal staff. In the end, most clients would rather work with — and rehire — an equal than a lackey.

3. Make “process” part of your purview. Just because you’ve been hired to focus on content, don’t turn a blind eye to process. If you’re wondering why a client is following a seemingly impractical protocol, don’t hesitate to ask about it — and to offer a more efficient alternative. You obviously should make sure you understand the larger context before you suggest process changes, and you should never take a cowboy attitude. But any client worth her salt knows that a deficient process can diminish the quality of the product. Again, the clients worth keeping will respect high-quality feedback, even on process, if it’s offered collegially.

4. Be passionately dispassionate. Whether it comes to the process or the substance, recognize that truly respecting the art of what you do requires you not to have an artist’s temperament. Emotional overinvestment in what a client ultimately does with your work only undercuts your ability to influence the final result. If, instead, the client senses you are like a judge who is simply assessing the merits of the case, your analytical — and even your creative — judgments are more likely to prevail. In effect, you can make the work your own and still make the work larger than you.

The freedom of freelancing doesn’t just mean working for yourself. There’s also freedom to be found within each assignment you accept as you execute it with integrity. How do you manage to remain free as you freelance? My approach is only one of many.

Has Anyone Checked the Numbers?

In publishing circles today, there’s a premium on numbers. Editors, writers, and journalists often seek to crystallize or legitimize a story with an eye-popping statistic that will become the sound bite or “takeaway” of the piece. Yet most of these professionals have an aversion to examining the underlying data developed by expert authors or sources. Sometimes proudly asserting “I’m a word person,” they soil their hands with numbers just enough to make the story work but refuse to learn what the data really mean. In many cases, they don’t even bother to check the accuracy. No, I don’t have a statistic on this phenomenon to make you gasp. My evidence is anecdotal, but for those in publishing willing to be honest with themselves, I think it will ring true.

Sins of Omission

Consider a hypothetical example similar to many I’ve encountered. An expert author, knowing that it’s difficult to use argument and expertise alone to persuade readers nowadays, conducts “research” to prove his point. Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, he interviews 25 people and asserts that 94% gave thus-and-such surprising answer to an important question. An observant editor asks the author whether he really means 92% (23 out of 25) or 96% (24 out of 25), given that 94% is not possible, and offers to look over the data for him. The author casually replies, “Let’s just go with 96%.” The editor never reviews the original data to check whether 96% — or any of the author’s other figures — are accurate.

Another author asserts that in a survey she conducted, half of respondents said they never do something that you’d expect they do every day — a “Wow!” for the reader. Unwilling to “open a can of worms” or “get bogged down in details” (phrases I hear often in these scenarios), the in-house editors don’t ask the author whether there’s any contradictory evidence in what the other 50% of respondents said. The findings from one half of the survey takers are presented as if they tell the whole story.

To be sure, you shouldn’t weigh down an article written for a non-expert audience with extraneous contextual data. It’s obviously appropriate to make judgment calls about how much information the reader actually needs. But if no one at the publisher does the basic background work of checking the legitimacy of the numbers, how can the quality of what the reader is getting be assured? A colleague once said to me, “We’re simply not qualified to interpret the data,” straightforward as the data in question were. Such excuses for omission are, in my experience, rarely viewed as a problem in publishing. But I’ve found them to be insidious and rampant.

Sins of Ignorance

Much more widely discussed are the sins of data ignorance, of which there are many varieties. Take, as one example, a news article that reports that a particular lifestyle behavior increases the risk for a disease by, say, 75% — a staggering figure at face value. A check of the actual research reveals that the number of people who get the disease is so small that a 75% increase amounts to just a few more cases. Readers mistakenly assume that huge numbers of people who engage in the behavior are at risk for the disease. It’s possible that this was a sin of omission (the journalist didn’t bother to check the original data), but if you talk to the people who report on these types of stories, you’ll more often find that they just didn’t know how to interpret the statistics in the research. Either way, the reader is ill served.

Then there’s the ignorance of how the data were developed. If, for instance, 65% of workers at a particular site were deemed to be “inadequately trained,” what precisely were the criteria for adequacy? And how was the evidence that a worker did or did not fulfill those criteria collected? That’s the type of information that readers really must have to understand the context, yet frequently even the editors never ask to see it, thereby guaranteeing that the readers won’t get access to it either.

The Devil in the Unverified Details

Publishers of many stripes have become intoxicated with the reporting of numbers, in part because consumers have shown that they have a taste for that elixir. The compelling, sometimes shocking statistic dances seductively in the headline, the subtitle, or the callout — and the reader succumbs to its charms. A number, potent and seemingly unassailable, is worth a thousand words. As long as readers and producers of content alike are addicted to the allure of statistics but simultaneously allergic to the task of understanding what’s behind them, the premium on a well-placed, poorly vetted percentage will remain very high indeed.

When Editors Are Used by Their Editorial Tools

Even the fussiest, text-driven editor has to admit that the boom in interactive, infographic, and other visually engaging content has greatly enhanced the value of what publishers of all stripes are now able to offer readers. “How can we show what we say?” is a question that publishing professionals now routinely ask themselves as they develop material. That’s a good thing, for the most part.

But with the allure of what’s possible comes the illusion of what’s necessary. Many editors, intoxicated by the power of new tools and techniques, have begun to assume that visually arresting presentation adds value by default. Got information to share? Create an infographic. An interactive feature worked here; let’s use it over there. The availability of the medium starts, in effect, to drive — rather than to serve — the content.

Witness “Infographic of the Day,” a feature on Fast Company’s website that I was amused, but also disturbed, to come upon last year. The title says it all: We’re creating an infographic every 24 hours, come hell or high water. Quite a few of my editorial colleagues got all jazzed by this initiative, like they were rooting for the local sports team’s new rookie.

One of these daily infographics that made folks swoon was called “McDonald’s Heat Wave,” a U.S. map in which points of light were used to visualize the distance to the nearest McDonald’s from any given location in the lower 48 states. The result was an eye-catching image of, for lack of a better term, “Big Mac density” in the U.S. It looked cool and kind of made you go, “Wow, dude, you really can’t get away from Mickey D’s east of the Mississippi or on the west coast.” But then I quickly realized that if I put this sparkly thing next to a simple population-density map, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between McDonald’s density and pop density. And if there were a difference, where was the comparison population infographic to prove it? In short, if something new could be learned from the map, the map makers hadn’t bothered to teach it. But, hey, it was an infographic — a picture worth a thousand … no, a million — maybe a billion … served. I mean, words. Are you swooning yet?

You see the phenomenon on TV, too. CNN developed a truly excellent, interactive, wall-size U.S. map, deftly manhandled by John King during the 2008 election season. But then the so-called “magic wall” started being employed, in an enlarged form, for every two-bit display of information that the network could force into it. We viewers lapped it up once, maybe we’ll keep licking our chops every time the thing gets used. The tasteless CNN news editors now seem to pay little mind to whether the tool actually helps to illuminate the substance of a given story. The magic plaything entertains the kiddies, so go ahead and crack the lid of that toy chest again. And again. And again.

So does this unrelenting blitz of the at once brilliant and banal mean we should pout and whimper as we pine for the editorial substance of yesteryear? Of course not. Besides, yesteryear had its own overused dazzlers, even if they weren’t quite as glitzy. Today’s have the power to do much more, though, and in the hands of folks with sound editorial judgment they really can turn good content into great content. But it’s incumbent upon editors and publishers — and everyone in the chain who works for them — not to allow themselves to follow “hell or high water” dictums about when and how the new tricks of the trade should be used. If tools drive your material, haven’t you, in effect, become the tool?

When Editors Are Accomplices

As an editor, what do you do when the author you’re working with has nothing worthwhile to say? Not simply when the writing is poor, but when there’s actually no there, there.

In my editorial roles, I’ve been lucky enough to work with many great thinkers and researchers whose contributions genuinely make a difference. I learn a lot as they help the world to learn even more. But a substantial minority of the material I see is, I have to be frank, dead wood, at least after you scrape off the varnish. Varnish that I often apply.

First let me make a distinction between an author’s ability as a writer and the quality of what he or she has to say. Many people whose names appear in bylines don’t write well (often because they’re in fields where writing is not the core activity), yet they offer enormous value through the written word. That’s where editors and ghost writers act as edifiers — an effort that ultimately satisfies everyone involved, including readers. But sometimes underneath the writing, whether poor or impressive, an editor finds a void in substance that simply cannot be filled with words. Much labor is expended covering up the gaping hole, accompanied by much editor-enabled denial. Editor as sycophant is a role I’ve learned to play all too well, and one that I still haven’t figured out how to consistently avoid.

Here’s where I should supply a few juicy examples — where I ought to name names. Thing is, I’m not in a protected-enough professional position to expose myself to the wrath (or the stoniness) of injured egos. Underlying the art of sycophancy is, sadly, a sickness that becomes perilous if unleashed. But I’ve learned that art well enough, I think, to please you with examples that offer some titillation even without the proper names. They fall into three main categories.

Profile 1: Traffickers in the Obvious

These are the authors who sell, and sometimes make an entire living at selling, answers to obvious questions that they’ve purportedly “investigated” or “researched.” It’s the biggest category of empty content out there, and it takes a variety of forms. Sometimes authors get mileage out of mining areas of “inquiry” that readers love to revisit no matter how well-trodden the territory: the mysteries of genius and success, gender and generational differences, career advancement, self-improvement, and the list goes on. Other times, the addictive topics are not of the evergreen variety, but rather pegged to current trends (e.g., in technology) or to issues raised by recent news events. Occasionally, something genuinely substantive and useful is offered, but usually underneath it all is the same old bottom line repackaged and relabeled, even if the authors themselves don’t recognize it. The “research,” frequently conducted under name-brand auspices to legitimize the so-called data, is served up in clever and pithy language. If an editor is sharp (and lucky) enough to come up with a slick headline, it spreads like wildfire. Click. Sizzle. Burn.

Profile 2: Massagers of the Evidence

Whether or not a topic has broad appeal, a surprising number of authors are willing — even eager — to mischaracterize their data in order to make a more compelling point. To their credit, some resist attempts by editors to jazz up their work (although one must take care to distinguish between lazy or expedient attempts to oversimplify content and necessary, practical efforts to make something readable and engaging). Fairly often, though, authors want their “findings” to say one thing when the raw results, if analyzed carefully, show something else or don’t even match up with the question that’s supposedly being investigated. Unless the actual data are published, the reader has no access to the underlying evidence, and so the author and editor effectively become complicit in a deception that the public cannot uncover. To be sure, few nonacademic readers have the stomach for combing over lots of data, so publishing them in full would be ridiculous. But editors are the folks with the obligation to do the intensive review so that readers don’t have to. More often than not, if that review reveals major gaps, editors and authors simply tidy (cover) them up. And, disturbingly often, the review doesn’t happen at all.

Profile 3: Toters of Irrelevance

This is the least surprising of the three groups: authors who pump out material for its own sake (often to rack up publication credits) with little regard for either the short- or the long-term value. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of worthwhile content that, despite its lack of immediate application, provides the foundation for important future work. However, both print and online publications, especially journals, are loaded with stuff whose sole purpose is to advance the careers of those in the bylines. Almost by definition, the water this content carries does not quench any real thirst for knowledge, and certainly not for pleasure. Editors know this, and they simply go along for the stroll to and from the muddy river. You’re already familiar with what’s in this boring bucket, so I won’t make it any bigger than it needs to be. It must be counted, though. Check.

So where does this leave me as an editor? Fortunately, with enough work by authors who don’t fit any of these profiles to allow me to feel fulfilled. That’s still a majority of the time, thank goodness. I do get dispirited, though, when I have no choice but to play along in a publishing game whose rules and outcomes I sometimes don’t respect. I’ll continue to spend some of my time at the edge of the void, determined never to lose my footing.

They Write for a Living, but Can They Write?

For more than 15 years, I’ve worked with authors from a wide array of backgrounds and disciplines, many at the top of their fields. I do ghost writing, developmental editing, copyediting, and other work that doesn’t fit neatly in those categories. Most authors just want me to “make it better,” but a fair number seek to improve themselves, which gives me the opportunity to use skills from my other career — teaching.

I find that, in general, the people most amenable to learning from an editor are those who don’t consider writing to be at the core of what they do: the renowned doctor, the finance whiz, the clever engineer, the concert pianist. Because writing is not their domain, if they are one of the subset who care enough to improve, they are highly receptive, even wide-eyed. They recognize the value of effective expository writing and want to unlock its mysteries, just as I am intrigued by the mysteries of their disciplines. The mutual interest is not mysterious at all.

The authors who, in contrast, make me scratch my head are those for whom writing is an essential component of success in their field yet who are breathtakingly poor at it. I’m not talking about creative writers, but rather the folks whose professions, by definition, require mastery of exposition and the persuasive argument (or so you’d think): the humanities professor, the policy advocate, the sociologist, the public relations specialist, the lawyer, the journalist, and so on. Verbal expression is their bread and butter, their way of ascending to prominence, their professional lifeblood. Of course, many people in these professions write exceedingly well, even brilliantly. But there seem to be much larger numbers who write with such lack of logic, clarity, and voice that at times it leaves you aghast — and almost always confused. Yet, in most cases, they’re not interested in improving.

Incidentally, by good writing I don’t mean good grammar. Important as that is, interest in its minutiae frankly qualifies me as a freak. (And, of course, we all make grammar mistakes that need to be corrected.) But grammar is by no means my primary interest, nor is it the central issue in the writing deficiency I’m describing. Think instead of basic paragraphing skills, fundamental logic, a sense of audience, consistency of point of view, the ability to detect ambiguity, an ear for language.

To be sure, this widespread deficiency in writing is in part attributable to the culture of turgid prose that academia breeds — a phenomenon discussed eloquently by psychology professor Gail A. Hornstein in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year. But academic culture doesn’t explain everything, given that plenty of people in writing-dependent careers outside academia also seem to be afflicted with mediocre skills (I mentioned some above). The bottom line is that we have a large class of professionals, in both academic and non-academic arenas, who have succeeded in fields that depend heavily on writing yet who do not write effectively. What business do you have claiming the title Professor of Communications, for example, if you’re not a good writer?

Let me pause here to say that every writer needs a good editor. We can’t expect the esteemed professor or the great reporter or even the writing teacher to produce golden prose right out of the box. The very best writers need a set of fresh eyes and ears, and the rest of us require much more than that. If your goal is to publish something that’s supposed to legitimize you professionally or that you expect people to use for important purposes, you simply must meet a high standard in the end. Otherwise, please don’t bother. There’s enough noise out there without yours.

Now, as I presumptuously clear my throat to explain what’s behind the glaring underperformance of an “overclass” of writers, I have to admit the obvious — that this is not my domain but that of a sociologist (one who can write, I hope). But as a middling, unaccountable blogger, I’ll take a stab at it. The sociologists, if they ever see this, can call me a fake.

Ahem . . . A temptingly easy explanation for widespread writing deficiency among high achievers in the world of words is grade inflation run amuck: A and B students who should be C students, moving from school to career and bringing unchallenged mediocrity along with them. That simple explanation, to my ear, sounds like the stuff of a reactionary’s bitch session — elitist, whiny, a dead end. Undoubtedly, the underlying causes are instead multiple. But there’s one cause that I view as at least part of the mix, and much more persuasive as an explanation than pandemic grade inflation.

You see, rigor — no matter what the domain, including writing — is hard. And social pressure is pretty much the only thing that will force most people to do the work. Without academic and other institutions — and their leaders — building a culture in which that pressure becomes part of the air that everyone breathes, most people will improve their writing enough to get by, but not much more. “Besides,” they’ll argue, “the content is what matters.” Well, Professor of Communications, the words are your content.

So how do the bulk of our esteemed professors and other respected wordsters get by with mediocrity? And what’s to prevent my neighbor who hauls dry ice for a living, and can’t write well either, from doing what’s required to become a professor? Is it just a matter of degree: bad writer vs. really bad writer? Of course not.

In most cases, the person who went on to become the professor couldn’t have imagined himself hauling dry ice for a living, so he learned how to operate in the world that allows you, eventually, to become a professor. That world demands certain types of rigor, but it usually doesn’t demand great writing. It does, however, require communicating in a way that signals to other academics that you’re a legitimate member of their tribe. That type of social system takes root much more easily than a merit-based culture of good writers, but it’s just as effective at indicating who’s in and who’s out.

As for my neighbor who hauls dry ice, he’s out — but he’s a party to his own exclusion. He may not really want to haul dry ice, but enough people in his social arena are willing to accept him in that role that he’ll take it. Who wants to be a stuffy old professor anyway?

Whatever the reasons for the writing mediocrity we’ve come to accept from people who write for a living, the obvious question is “What’s the solution?” Again, the answers are multiple. One element, as I already suggested, is academic and other leaders’ willingness to demand good writing in the professional spheres where it matters. But it also takes resources. Most academic journals, for example, push articles through the publication process with a couple of peer reviews for content and a meager copyedit, with little or no developmental editing for structure, logic, voice, and the other essentials. And many news outlets (print, online, and broadcast) now produce content so quickly that it’s often more impressionistic than edifying.

Again, each of these topics is worth much longer treatment. And many other people have wrung their hands about the diminishing appetite of consumers to pay for high-quality content. It’s frankly hard to imagine a reversal in that trend anytime soon. So, naive as it may be, I look to the power of social pressure for a substantial part of the solution — but, in this case, pressure that’s aimed at achieving rigor rather than avoiding it.

How do you apply that kind of pressure? Well, when you read something, allow yourself to be elevated or irritated enough by the quality of the writing to say something specific about it. People usually submit a letter or an online comment to an editor only when they’ve been either buoyed or offended by ideas or facts. That’s fine, of course, but have you ever written in to praise or complain about the writing — not in general terms, but in detail about why something did or did not work? Granted, those are not the types of letters and comments that get published, but most of the time if you submit them via the right avenue and express yourself coolly and intelligently, your remarks will make it to the responsible party.

It may not seem sexy to tell a writer, for example, that he presented the parts of his article in the wrong order — and to explain why — or to analyze the details of a particular passage that was unclear or left a misimpression. But if he’s worth anything, the writer will listen to that type of feedback. And if enough of that feedback comes in, the sheer volume (it doesn’t actually take that much) gives it influence. Editors at academic journals also tend to read intelligent comments about how their content was presented. It’s one of the few remaining levers that readers have. The publication’s staff often need a reminder that you really care about the writing and that you’re savvy enough to distinguish between what’s good and bad — and to be able to explain the difference.

People tend to perform when they know they’re being watched. I often get the sense that folks who build their careers on mediocre writing assume that no one is really watching, or at least not watching in the way that will prompt them to improve as communicators, not just as purveyors of content. Watch them like a hawk, I say.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, you’re undoubtedly watching me carefully, and you probably have something to say about this topic, whose surface I’ve barely scratched. I hope you’ll let your voice be heard in a comment right here.

The Quiet Tyranny of Online Tips

What I am about to say will smack of hypocrisy. But I’ll say it anyway, because I think it’s true.

The growing popularity of blogs that offer advice in the form of take-home tips is dangerous.

Disclosure: I enjoy a set of wise, well-crafted tips as much as the next person. They provide elegantly simple guideposts for coping with real challenges, both large and small. Their value can even be proved, as people derive measurable benefits from what they read. Indeed, I have written quite a few of these tips for my recent blog at HBR.org, and I like to think they are useful. People who consume them tell me that I’m not deluding myself. So what’s the harm?

It’s, in part, the addictive allure of ready-made things. They give us what we need when we need it. And the more they serve us well, the more we seek them out. Each one provides a tasty reward, with all the flavor and portability of a chicken nugget. But unlike fast food, ready-made advice does not come at any obvious price to the individual, such as weight gain.

The hidden danger, it seems to me, is not in what these tips are or what they do, but in what they can displace if we’re not careful. Given their immediate rewards and apparent lack of risk, their popularity increases and content producers step up to meet the demand for items that promise “how to,” “five steps,” or “the secret.” In the process, we start to get fewer pieces in which writers (even the good ones) actually wrestle with a problem rather than serving up a pat solution. Slowly but surely, fewer online offerings plant rich seeds in the minds of readers; instead, many of them hand over, to borrow John Gardner‘s nearly 50-year-old metaphor, “cut flowers.”

“Who has time for real essays?” you might ask. Well, for one thing, they need not be long. Actually, many of the long ones don’t really earn their length; they often grow an entire intellectual plant for the reader, in large part to show what a brilliant gardener the writer is. Precious few demand or invite any more from the beholder than cut flowers do, even if they deserve more awe. But does either stay with me, the reader, for the long term? One influences my opinion of the writer; the other influences my habits. Neither transforms my mind.

The habit-changing pieces are the seductive ones, of course. Even though I still have to put in follow-up work to alter the way I behave, I have my trusty manual in tow, and the ease with which I can pocket it pleases me instantly. I may simply click away, or I may post a comment about what I have just read. Then I’m on my merry way. Whatever my method of departure, my visit has been logged and my appetite assumed. Reader, writer, and online publisher feed the habit. More tips, please. Coming right up!

It’s all good. We’re all better for the experience, aren’t we? I, for one, will continue to read — and to write — these practical pieces. I’m addicted to my own chicken nuggets. In a Styrofoam take-away container. Next to my vase of cut flowers.

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