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Michael Billig (2013), Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Michael Billig (2013), Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 234pp
ISBN 9781107027053 (hardback), 9781107676985 (paperback)

Review by Fatima Hammad[1], University of Warwick Law School

Once upon a time, before I started university, I loved to read. I would read for pleasure, and devour a book from cover to cover in a couple of days. Genre and form did not matter; words were words, information was information, and I loved it all. At the time, I would never have imagined a scenario where it would take me hours to read and vaguely understand a six-page article. Now that I am in that situation, I can't imagine ever picking up a subject-specific book or article without the coercion inspired by the need for academic success. I blame this on the pompous, unnecessary complication of language and structure that academics adopt when writing, especially in the social sciences. Where one word would suffice, dozens are used to create the illusion of intellectual superiority and any meaning intended is lost in the sea of jargon, acronyms and abnormally long words ending in –ization.

In his book Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences, Professor Michael Billig criticises fellow academics and their tendency to bombard students, specifically postgraduate students, with technical jargon. All this does, he argues, is to disguise the content's lack of substance. The modern publishing industry is constantly putting pressure on scholars to prove their intellectual and academic abilities by publishing their work. In turn, highly specialised language is used to make the work seem 'fresh' and advanced. Billig calls this 'nounification' and 'de-verbing', the process whereby language is termed in the passive voice and words end in '–ization' and '–ification'. The result is that an existing concept is given a new name, and it suddenly belongs to the writer. These types of phrases are scattered throughout a paper, and are made to perform functions which the word on its own could never grammatically or logically perform. Billig, despite his criticism, is fair: he identifies the main motivation behind this as being the need to 'make a name' for oneself by inventing overly complex phrases that will in future be related back to the author. With the increasing commercialisation of the academic industry, it is not absurd to accept that the easiest way to come across as fresh and creative is to invent words. However, I agree with Billig that this makes education artificial. The academics' sole focus is on the superficial layer, the language, and the efforts of the students will be exhausted on decoding that superficial layer.

Written in an accessible and humorous way, Learn to Write Badly gives an insightful insider's view of academic literature, while at the same time purporting to avoid the criticisms it has levelled against other works. Although the book is mainly concerned with the field of experimental psychology, I find that his arguments apply to all types of academic literature. It is easy to fall into the habit of hiding behind excessive statistical data and complex sentences to mask flawed or simplistic methods of reasoning, and while many scholars and students are aware of this already, Billig's book bluntly defines the motivations behind this. The reader is forced to question whether good and original academic writing should be compromised by the individual's need to become a published author in the increasingly commercial academic sector.

The main point to be gained from this book is that, if you find a paper difficult to read, it should not affect your self-confidence. You are not alone in thinking that the words are tough because, according to Billig, the problem is rooted in the writing itself. And although I still find reading a chore, Billig's book has given me comfort to know that this is not an unnatural reaction to the style of works exposed to students at university level.

Review by Gerard Sharpling[2], Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick

Academic writing is often held up as a superior form of communication. However, in this intriguingly titled book, Michael Billig challenges this preconceived view by highlighting the wordiness and pretence of academic writing in the social sciences. As Billig argues, published work frequently lacks clarity because it is shaped by a commercial, institutional culture that emphasises the continued need to de-personalise and de-humanise discourse.

Billig begins by arguing that writers in today's universities are part of a more commercial institution, where research output and writing is more heavily scrutinised and managed. Accompanying this is the increasing sub-division of faculties into smaller disciplines, each with its own specialised code of communication.

The peer-review process is no immediate guarantee of quality either, since hard-pressed reviewers will be more likely to support the literary standards that lead to unclear expression.

From this institutional overview, Billig then explores the overall academic experience of writers as a process of 'learning to write badly'. Indeed, while the passage of students from undergraduate to postgraduate status seems to herald a greater sense of academic freedom, in reality this seems to be more a case of 'learning' words and phrases that will enable them to communicate within their small area of academia. Thus, students gradually come to be unconsciously 'socialized' into the academic community, in which the student has to accept the world 'as it is', rather than seek to change it.

Billig then considers the use of jargon, nouns and acronyms in academic language. Clearly, jargon enables writers to communicate more precisely. Very often, however, this use of language is little more than self-importance on the part of the writer. In an intriguing continuation of the above argument, Billig illustrates how social scientists take pleasure in 'turning people into things'. The author's analysis of Freud's language is a case in point: here, the actions that individuals take when repressing their desires come to be shrouded in an increasing plethora of nouns. This shifts the focus from 'human actions' to the 'motion of machines' (p. 103).

Interestingly, the author seizes upon terms such as 'mediatization' to show that abstract nouns are often 'promoted' in published writing. Such highly abstract terms are used to show that ineffective academic writing has the capacity to self-generate, and cause imprecise terms to be held up as the golden standard of academic discourse.

After this discussion, there is a useful focus on the passive voice in academic writing, and the avoidance of describing the person doing the action. As Billig explains, the predominance of the passive voice in science writing rests on a tacit complicity between the editor, writer and reader that 'processes just happen' (p. 132). A similar sort of complicity occurs when writers use abstract terminology in social sciences, but this is arguably less justifiable, since the phenomena that social scientists are describing are rooted in ordinary language and interaction, and the social scientist has the obligation to make this more understandable.

From these detailed linguistic analyses, Billig considers disciplines such as 'governmentality' and 'conversation analysis'. He cites a seminal text about 'governmentality' (p.144), that of Rose and Miller (1992), to show how authors use abstract concepts to promote the way in which a field should be considered. Billig argues that the concept of 'governmentality' is expressed in an unduly confident way by the authors, while such a term is not founded on empirical evidence.

The discipline of conversation analysis, too, appears to be based on this sense of misplaced confidence in abstract language. As we know, conversation is very concrete. However, the language that has evolved to describe and discuss it remains highly complex. This has a dehumanising effect on those engaged in the conversation.

In the final chapter, Billig returns to the field of social psychology to show how writing is generated within this discipline. Many of the features of social science discourse previously outlined in the book remain relevant here: for example, noun and noun phrases are prevalent in social psychology, while definitions of such terms, such as 'social categorization' are not self-evident. In social psychology, too, there is a reduced emphasis on people, while concepts and variables are strongly prioritised.

The book concludes with a series of more specific recommendations which will be of benefit to both students and professional writers alike.

Billig's argument throughout the book is both compelling and well exemplified. The view that academic writing is shaped by institutional requirements is not in itself new. However, the author's systematic discussion leads to the powerful realisation that freedom of thought is closely entwined with, and conditioned by, language. Billig's argument will be of particular interest to students themselves, who will be heartened to find that the linguistic infelicities pointed out by their tutors and supervisors may not, after all, be as negative or problematic as they had once thought.


[1] Fatima Hammad is a Law student at the University of Warwick.

[2] Dr Gerard Sharpling is Senior Teaching Fellow in the Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick.

To cite either of these reviews please use the following details: Hammad, F OR Sharpling, G. (2014), Michael Billing (2013), 'Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 7, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite these reviews or use them in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.