While I’m trying to get us all to write as clearly as we can, some texts are just difficult to read. Those texts are still worthwhile; they may even be more important.
The difficulty may come out of not having enough experience with the genre or the content. It might be that the author is making a very tight distinction, one that’s hard to pick up. It might be that the content is deeply philosophical, or that the ideas are so surprising that the reader keeps trying to get the words to mean something more familiar.
But the difficulties do not mean that the text should be ignored. Yes, I want writers to be as clear as they can. I want them to be as easy to read as possible. But not all things are easy. And sometimes simplicity involves cutting too much out. Lots of material is complex. You know this in engineering, and you probably also have a pretty good idea that other areas—economics, ethics, cultures, psychology, even just describing a moment in the world the way that it happened—are complex, too.
Sometimes when you say “fine” in response to “how are you?” you mean it. But usually there’s a lot more that could be said. Keeping it simple is not always accurate!
I recommend this article by Tegan Bennet Daylight in The Guardian (12/25/17): “’The difficulty is the point’: teaching spoon-fed students how to really read.” Daylight is a college teacher in Australia, but the description of her experiences seems relevant to the ways that many students approach reading: if it’s not easy, completely “relatable,” then it’s not going to get read.
I’d love for you to go read this whole article, but I’ll still share my favorite paragraph with you. After citing a single first sentence of a novel, she writes,
If you are reading this essay, you’re a reader. You probably know this sentence, and if you don’t, you are comfortable with interpreting it. You can hear a character beginning to form: its romantic, optimistic, nostalgic voice; a voice yearning for simplicity; probably, in its deliberate imitation of a child’s singsong, the voice of a woman, a mother. You know it might take a few pages to learn just who this woman is. You’re skilled in this sort of patience.
That’s completely true. Familiarity with the process of reading a novel means that a person has the patience and anticipation to wonder what might be coming next. This works for novels, and it also works for science writing.
For example, I had always enjoyed reading as a kid, but when I moved to another country I did not have much access to books in English. There weren’t any English-language children’s books, so I started reading classics (Robert Louis Stephenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, etc.). They were hard. It was frustrating at first. I’d start a book and give up. Gradually, out of desperation, I pushed through a few. And I came to realize that it just took a few chapters to get used to the types of sentences characteristic of each author. I got “skilled in this sort of patience.”
And the same is true for academic writing in science and engineering. If a reader just starts at the beginning, they are likely to be overwhelmed by the jargon in the abstract. But knowing where to find help—which sections might be more elementary, where terms might be defined, etc—gives someone a leg up. And then patience, confidence that this CAN be figured out (but not read linearly, until much later) will lead to success.
Finally, read. Read books. Read the New York Times. Read the New York Review of Books. (And let me know what your reading, so I can read it, too! What DO working engineers read, that they talk about together?) Daylight concludes that she wants her students to “to discover that if they learn to handle language they’ll no longer be helpless, drowning in sugary gratification.” And she wants “them to see that reading breeds thinking, and thinking breeds resistance.” That’s what I want for my students, too. Read and be provoked to think and act. I want you to express yourselves–after taking some time to read and to think what that really means.