Isn’t There a Better Way to Say That? Scholarly Writing and the Need for Clarity

Over the weekend I read an article on Paul’s missionary endeavors.  The article was good but the writing was occasionally constipated.  I’m not wanting to embarrass or criticize anyone, but I think that some of the following examples illustrate the lack of verbal clarity that plagues a lot of scholarly writing.  Long words and complex sentences do not guarantee good writing, and often create the opposite.  Aren’t there better ways of saying some of these things?  My attempts at revision are in italics.

“The activity that for Paul was proper to his missionary vocation would on first glance seem a matter hardly requiring further inquiry.”  On the surface, it seems like Paul’s missionary methods are obvious.

“That in Rom 15:19 Paul speaks of having within certain limits “fulfilled the gospel” immediately highlights how characteristic it is for the apostle to refer to “the gospel” as that with which his own vocation is centrally involved.”  Paul’s mission was so saturated with the gospel that when he completed one of his major missionary goals, he said, “I have fulfilled the gospel” (Romans 15:19).

“But just these initiatory figures of speech point beyond conversion to an additional dimension of that which for Paul was proper to his mission.”  But these figures of speech themselves show that Paul cared about more than just conversions.

“That Paul in his mission was devoted to the emergence of church communities does not however fully encompass the relevant data on the activity that Paul took to be appropriate to his missionary vocation.”  The fact that Paul was committed to church-planting doesn’t mean that he neglected everything else.

“This important body of evidence is, however, not to be sorted out in terms of a preference by Paul for edificatory over against evangelistic activity, simply reversing the usual placement of accents.”  But this doesn’t mean that Paul preferred training the church over preaching the gospel.

Again, this article was good and helpful overall.  And to be fair, these are extreme examples; the article as a whole was not written with this kind of convoluted syntax.  I also realize that it’s always easier to understand a sentence in its context, and I haven’t given you the contexts.  But I had the context, and I still had to re-read a number of sentences just to connect the numerous phrases and wade through the unnecessary words.  The article could’ve been much clearer.

I mention this not as a criticism of any particular scholar but as a student’s critique of the painfully opaque writing that can stifle the otherwise-helpful work of the academic community.  I’m not against the use of precise words (even if they’re big) or long sentences (even if they’re complex).  I just think that people who are attempting to explain biblical and theological details ought to labor and sweat for clarity.  Unfortunately, we’ve learned to equate intelligence with complicated writing; the more elaborate your words, the more intelligent you must be.  This creates a lot of peer pressure to sound smart even at the expense of clarity.  Fill an article with complex sentences, throwaway clauses, and elongated words (like elongated) and you will normally be considered a more intelligent communicator than the person who is accurate, straightforward, concise, and clear.  I think it’s possible to write in a way that’s specific, intricate, striking, to-the-point, and clear (e.g., John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Tom Schreiner, and from what I’ve heard, Stephen Hawking).  But I wouldn’t imagine that it’s easy.

It pains me to think of how flowery and ridiculous much of my earlier writing was.  It also hurts to know that in five years I will re-read some of my writing from this year and will see similar weaknesses.  I’m certainly not exempt from critique and correction.  But I am a servant and steward of the truth, so I have to make an effort.

One of my homiletics professors taught me that accuracy and clarity are the most important elements of preaching.  They’re like air and water.  Without air you die immediately.  Without water you die eventually.  But either way, you die.  I think the same is true of writing.  So here’s to students and scholars who are willing to battle for accuracy and clarity (and passion) as they wield the weapon of the written word in the service of truth.

2 thoughts on “Isn’t There a Better Way to Say That? Scholarly Writing and the Need for Clarity

  1. I totally agree. As a scientist we are trained to write as clearly and as simply as possible, and then, I pick up an non-science article and complicated sentence structure etc. makes me laugh. Writers who can write clearly and simply so the reader can focus on the content are the best kind. Writers that use rare adjectives and complicated sentence structure are trying to be something they are not- good writers. I see it almost as a tip-off that they are covering up a lack of skill. Good writers aren’t born, their trained (a quote of some author I don’t remember).

  2. Hi, Gunner,
    Just found your site and read your” 1st” page. I thought I was reading the thoughts of someone much older as I read on about what you had been thinking about sacrifice and service to The Master. It blessed my heart! And your revision of that article sure was easier to read!
    I am new to “computing”. I am a 60 year old grammy. My husband pastors a small congregation in SC. I began becoming a Reformed Baptist after reading THE POTTER’S FREEDOM several years ago. I am enjoying finding Reformed Baptist sites and blogs. May GOD bless you and your family. Oh, my great nephew and wife have an adopted son from Guatemala. My cousin’s son & wife have an adopted daughter from Russia or somewhere near there.
    Angeline (Mrs. Angie)


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