Don’t Want to Be a Boring Writer? Avoid College

Gary North has an article on his site, Specific Answers, titled “To Be a Successful Writer, Avoid Academic Writing.”  Do you hear that, professors?

Notre Dame


He opens by citing a version of that grand old aphorism, “They say that old dogs don’t learn new tricks.”  And then admits his strength in years and declares “I am an old dog, and I have just learned a new trick.”  That new trick?  Abandoning impersonal writing styles required by the education guild.  High schools and colleges set non-fiction writing standards on students to use either the “We” or “One” as efforts to remain objective.  To accomplish this style, the guild asks us, one, “to use a passive rather than an active verb; two, to use an impersonal phrase such as it is believed; and three, to make words such as the essay, this section etc the subject of the sentence.”  In addition, we are asked to not use the vertical pronoun “I.”  Use it he says.  I say use it to establish accountability with your thoughts.  Own your own position.  Don’t be neutral . . . on topics like law, freedom, abortion.  Your task is to persuade–to convince someone else to your position by showing them what topics mean and why they’re important.

The following is ghastly advice.

Instead of:In my essay I will discuss the role of the ombudsman. (=active verb)

You could write:

In this essay the role of the ombudsman will be discussed. (=passive verb)

Instead of:

I have divided the chapter into three sections.


The chapter is divided into three sections.

In a section titled “Keep Your Language Neutral,” North explains:

During your studies, it is likely that you will have the opportunity to write about topics that inspire or infuriate you. Regardless of your passion for a topic, academic audiences prefer clear, precise, and neutral descriptions to emotional or moralistic language. For example:

Education is the single most important factor in career success.

This is a statement that an overwhelming majority of people would agree with, but saying that education is the single most important factor tells readers more about your response to education than about education’s real role in having a successful career. When academic readers see this, it leads them to believe that you cannot help imposing your attitudes on a subject. A more neutral and persuasive way of writing would be:

[The plodding academic committee that wrote this forgot to include any example. Too bad. I would have had fun with it.]

Education is one important factor in career success. Don’t be extreme. Academic readers are often suspicious of superlative claims. These are statements that begin with “the most” or “the least” or end with “–est,” and are applied to all situations. You can make it less extreme by narrowing the situations in which the statement is true.

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