On Butler, Badness, and Intentionality

In a 1999 piece for the New York Times, philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler made a case for “bad” academic writing. She was defending herself against the criticism that her work upheld the worst of academic writing: dense, inscrutable, and exclusionary from the very publics it claims to care about. To the contrary, Butler argues, bad writing can be radical. It challenges the “common sense” that lurks beneath our disciplinary conventions. It gets to the root of the ways that language naturalizes our assumptions about reality. As Matthias Brinkman summarizes Butler’s argument, bad writing “shocks” us out of our comfortable ideas.

Butler might be a good example of bad writing done well. She situates herself in a tradition of theorists whose dense prose has challenged assumptions about knowledge and about communication norms. In spite of her inscrutability, she is widely read, cited, and taught in classrooms.

For Butler, bad writing can be strategic: it can “provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world.”

For most academics, bad writing is simply conventional. It's not a choice: sometimes, it's all you know.

If you're like most academics, you weren't taught to write by someone trained in effective, persuasive, evidence-based communication strategies. You had to muddle your way through comments from supervisors and perhaps picked up unconscious habits from reading other academic writing. You may think that writers in your discipline write a certain way—but is that just how the average writer in your discipline communicates? What if you could edit your own work with confidence in the efficacy of your chosen approach?

What if you got to decide what good writing looks like?

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