As Smith So Brilliantly Notes

I was just marking a student paper last night where I suggested that she avoid the use of complimentary modifiers like, “As Author X so incisively claims…” or “Author Y makes the particularly brilliant suggestion that…”. I realized that I was really talking about scholarly writing as a whole, rather than a kind of repeated stylistic issue in student writing. A lot of us write like that, particularly when we’re writing about scholarly peers that we’d like to compliment or about theoretical and intellectual progenitors with whom we’d like to be associated.

So it’s not as if this kind of writing is without purpose: it builds professional networks, signals to readers about intellectual orientations, advances careers. Still, the obsequiousness of it is somehow grating on me lately. Plus this sort of thing just seems kind of florid. If you’re quoting someone in the body of the text, obviously you think the quote is interesting, well-written, telling, or better than you could put it yourself. Or you just want to cover your ass because the other guy said it first and you want to show that you know that.

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19 Responses to As Smith So Brilliantly Notes

  1. JonathanGray says:

    What goes along with that is one of my other pet peeves: sentences that declare “A brilliant example of this is …” What it comes down to for me is (a) that as a reader, I’d like to be the evaluator of what’s brilliant or not; and (b) if you start labelling some examples or points as brilliant, this sets up an evaluative hierarchy whereby all other examples or points in your paper are just so-so :-)

  2. Narya says:

    Best example I’ve seen recently (I’m a freelance copyeditor/proofreader, among other things): An author of a chapter in a book described a study as incisive (or something like that)–and he was also the author of the “incisive” study. Chutzpah, I’d say.

  3. jd says:

    I’ve actually noticed this in the writing of some of my better freshmen. It shows they are picking up on what Gerald Graff calls the “templates” of academic conversation. The problem is that they haven’t yet learned the graceful or logical use of those templates. Nor have many academic writers, alas.

    I was having trouble recently pulling a book review together & the deadline was nearing. I wound up going through the book & typing out eight or ten of the selections I had marked when reading it, then opened a new document in my word processor & typed them in, beginning with the phrase, “Smith writes, . . .” This process somehow cleared my head of adverbial nonsense. I then began pulling those quotes into the review & responding to them. The lesson I learned: You shouldn’t try to sneak your response into an adverb. Your response has to be a response, not an attitude.

  4. Jmayhew says:

    Some quotes are there for brilliance, others because they usefully say something basic that is not worth rephrasing, or incisively give voice to a common view that you want to attribute to the field as a whole. Sometimes you want a boring quote to strategically set off the brilliance of your own writing. Sometimes the adverb or comment about incisiveness serves to masterfully acknowledge an intellectual debt of some significance. In short, not all quotes in my writing will have adverbs arbitrarily attached–but some might if it is appropriate.

  5. Joey Headset says:

    I tend to err in the other direction.

    “As [author] so idiotically put it…”

    “[author] drives this point home quite revoltingly when he states…”

    “Talking out his ass, as usual, [author] blasts the following rectal miasma…”

  6. Doug says:

    I had a history professor in grad school who was suspicious of any adverb in academic writing. I don’t go quite as far as he does, but his insistence makes me think twice about adverbs. Good composition (in English) draws its strength from powerful verbs; adverbs are often a sign that the writer has not found the best verb.

  7. Gavin Weaire says:

    “I don’t want to have to make the argument for this point. So let’s assume that Robinson has done it for me so brilliantly that no-one could possibly disagree. For maximum rhetorical effect, I’ll quote Robinson directly, which will suggest that not only is his argument convincing, but his specific choice of words in which to express it is so perfect that all one can do be awed at his intellectual majesty. Better yet, since quoting Robinson out of context will inevitably leave many things obscure, I’ll force any reader who hasn’t read Robinson to choose between accepting the point without really grasping it and reading Robinson’s notoriously opaque prose for himself or herself. (Note to self: find the passage in Robinson where he says this in the single most obscurantist way. Damn it! Why couldn’t he be German?)”

  8. cjlee says:

    What’s wrong with being a fan? Although this style can be overdone, it seems the alternative would enhance another, more problematic academic style: being dull.

  9. Doug says:

    I think that I see this tic more often among authors whom I would categorize as conservative or right-wing. Do other folks here notice any correlation? Admittedly, I read less academic writing and more of things that are aimed at an educated layman, and that may make a difference.

    The example that currently springs to mind is Gary Willis’ Venice: Lion City. There’s so much obsequiousness that I can barely stand to read the book. Why is the author so servile?

  10. Gavin Weaire says:

    I think that popularizing works are prone to this because of their minimal-at-best footnote apparatus. This forces important references into the text, where their presence has to be justified for the reader in the breathless style often typical of such works.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    CJLee, I think there are ways to make compelling use of quotations and references that don’t require telling the reader how great the quoted author is. There’s nothing wrong with being a fan of another writer, though. Like I said, sometimes I want to compliment a friend or a scholar whose work I like. It just gets a bit much when it become an institutionalized reflex.

  12. I had a history professor in grad school who was suspicious of any adverb in academic writing.

    Mine was the same, but in my case it was more than justified.

    On the other point, I think I see it more to highlight theoretical contributions, to make it clear that a citation is more than just information. But maybe it’s gotten more common and I just haven’t noticed it.

  13. Doug says:

    Gavin, I’d say that good popular works are not prone to this tic. If there’s a need for citation, there are other approaches. Just recently I read The River of Doubt, which is a terrific book with considerable original research. The cites are end notes, so interested reader can see the author’s sources (often author interviews, original documents or contemporary sources), but readers who are not can skip the whole business. I think that A People’s Tragedy (Orlando Figes on the Russian Revolution) had a similar approach, as did Taylor Branch’s trilogy on America in the King years. Those are examples that come immediately to mind.

    Mind you, I’m a big fan of the well-tempered footnote. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is full of lovely examples. And the funny footnote is an underappreciated genre. But I realize that not everyone shares my taste.

    (Jonathan, mine was Roger Chickering at Georgetown. But I’m pretty sure he was still at Oregon when you were there, and at any rate he’s a Germanist, so it’s not likely you would have crossed paths. It always warms the old cockles, though, to hear about people taking composition seriously.)

  14. Gavin Weaire says:

    Doug: Oh, I’m not saying that the *good* ones do it. The good ones are also restrained about the OTT prose.

  15. Fats Durston says:

    One of my students amped out the phrasing even further, praising an “insanely brilliant” early modern author. His was the same paper that coined the indelible “as the Renaissance raged on”….

  16. CJColucci says:

    But how the hell is some undergraduate even remotely qualified to determine whether the material they’re quoting or the authors they’re referring to are “brilliant” or “incisive” or whatever?

  17. Doug says:

    Maybe they’re better on the “insane” part?

  18. Anything the professor assigns is always brilliant; anything the student found themselves is just information, unless they read it on their own for fun first.

    (Doug: Mine was Al Craig, at Harvard; the only history I took at Georgetown was with Fr. Witek. Craig crossed out every adverb in a paragraph of my first paper and it didn’t change the meaning at all…. it took him longer to break me of the parenthesis habit, and he never really made any headway on my tendency to produce compound-complex-confused sentences.)

  19. fraced says:

    Isn’t it the student trying to say ‘As I so incisively noticed, Smith’s analysis is better than anything I could come up with’?

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