Why is academic writing turgid?

Charles contrasts First Sentences from Ford and Fretheim the differences are really striking!

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

Ford Maddox Ford in the novel The Good Soldier

The Pentateuch (that is, a book in five parts) has been a designation for the first five book of the Old Testament (and Hebrew Bible) since the second century CE at least.

Terrence Fretheim in an academic work The Pentateuch. Charles notes, and I agree, that Fretheim is a stimulating thinker. So, he poses the question of why academic writing is so often dull and lifeless. I have not much wisdom to offer there. Read his post.

He offers his own suggestion for improving Fretheim’s sentence:

In contrast to the abstract and immovable god of the philosophers, the Pentateuch portrays a god that is, in the best sense, all too human.

Which I think is good but too long, I suspect the original paragraph in a sentence led him astray ;) How about editing it to:

God is all too human in the Pentateuch.

The prophet Jeremiah. Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (from Wikimedia)

So, with this terrible example (from an academic hero) in front of me I am looking closer at my own first sentences from now on. I’m currently working on an article for the book on Lament and Complaint. I’m ashamed that the current first sentence reads like this:

The claim by Shakespeare’s Juliette “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is often quoted to assert that naming is arbitrary.


The “Confessions of Jeremiah” present the emotionally turbulent and violent world of a prophet caught between God and family.

Of course, I’d need then to make clear by “prophet” I do not mean a historical figure, but a literary construct, yadda yadda yadda, but that might make a better start?

4 comments on “Why is academic writing turgid?

  1. Judy Redman

    Thanks for this reminder, Tim. Opening sentences are like abstracts (a shared pet peeve of ours). They need to pique the interest of the potential reader and invite her/him to delve further into the text. I think your second suggestion is a much better start, if that’s going to be one of the main ideas in your article. I think part of the problem is that in academic writing we’ve been taught to use the passive to avoid using “I”, whereas one of the cardinal rules of interesting writing is to avoid the passive as much as possible.

    BTW, if I were going to use the content of your current one, I’d be inclined to say: Naming is arbitrary. As Shakepeare’s Juliet asserts “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Or: Is naming simply arbitrary? Is shakepeare’s Juliet right when she says …. NB check the spelling of her name – I want to write it without the ‘te’ at the end.

  2. Tim Bulkeley

    Actually as I look at the current one I think it reflects what I thought the article would be about, not what it actually IS :(

    On spelling Shakespeare’s heroine I suspect that may be my Francophone side coming to the fore. I like to think I’d have checked it before submitting ;) especially as I am one of the editors!

  3. Tim Bulkeley

    PS on abstracts, I agree and would sharpen it:
    – an abstract. for a conference should aim to attract people by making the topic sound interesting and highlighting anything new – at a conference one can always make up for any exageration by engaging presentation
    one for written work should give someone a good idea of what sort of person and interests would find it worthwhile to take the effort to read – in print the annoyance of a false positive after an abstract is likely to be worse

  4. Andrea Candy

    Snappy first sentences were drummed into us at journalism school. The best one I ever wrote for a critical review of a theologian’s book was: “If theologians can be compared to tightrope walkers, then Donald Bloesch would have to be The Great Blondin.”