This impenetrable opening paragraph violates every writing principle simultaneously

I see bad writing all the time. But it takes a prodigious talent to violate every writing principle in a single paragraph at the start of a serious nonfiction book.

A book has one chance to grab you by the throat on Page One. If Page One is boring, you can assume the whole book will be. Based on this, The Fifth Wave: The Evolution of American Higher Education promises to be impenetrable.

The authors of this book are Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, and William B. Dabars, an ASU professor and administrator. Their topic is a crucial one. The American university system is sclerotic, classist, poorly suited to its twin goals of educating the students and preparing them for work, and hideously overpriced. If you want to fix it, I want to know how.

But my life is too short to excavate meaning out of a book written like this.

How many writing errors can you spot?

Here is the first paragraph of the book. (Thanks to Phil Simon for bringing this to my attention.)

Building on the arguments of our previous foray into this topic, this book envisions the emergence of the Fifth Wave in American higher education—a league of colleges and universities, spearheaded initially by a subset of large-scale public research universities, unified in their re­solve to accelerate positive social outcomes through the seamless integration of world-class knowledge production with cutting-edge technological innovation and institutional cultures dedicated to the advancement of accessibility to the broadest possible demographic representative of the socioeconomic and intellectual diversity of our nation. The Fifth Wave primarily augments and complements the set of American research universities, which, for reasons that will readily become apparent, we term the Fourth Wave, but will also comprise networks of heterogeneous colleges and universities whose frameworks are underpinned by discov­ery and knowledge production, and institutional actors from business and industry, government agencies and laborator­ies, and organizations in civil society.

Here are some of my main writing principles — and how this paragraph violates them:

  • Write short. The biggest problem readers have with writing is that it is too long. In this paragraph, as Phil pointed out, sentence one is 85 words. Sentence two is 61. Some books have tough passages, thickets you need to fight your way through. Usually, those are not in the first two sentences. (Try and keep your first sentence to 20 words and you might have a chance. The best are less than 10 words.)
  • Get to the point. Don’t start a book by talking about the previous book. That’s like starting a class being told you were late turning in the first assignment.
  • To express complex ideas, use short sentences and connect them. Instead, we have clause overload. Nobody diagrams sentences any more, but imagine the tangled diagram that would emerge from that first sentence. It includes an opening gerund (“building on. . . “), an appositive (the part after the dash), several passive verb phrases that modified the appositive (“spearheaded,” “unified,” . . . is there an “and” missing here?), more nested prepositions (“through the seamless integration of world-class knowledge production with cutting-edge . . . ), and another passive verb phrase modifying part of the object of the final preposition (“dedicated to the advancement”), the object of which is further modified by a prepositional phrase (“to the broadest possible demographic”) and an adjectival phrase with yet another preposition (“representative of the socioeconomic”). This deserves a sign at the front that says “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.”
  • Avoid meaningless weasel words and cliches. Here we have “seamless integration”, “world-class knowledge production,” and “cutting-edge technological innovation.” All of them are familiar and meaningless. Any writer who uses “seamless,” “world-class,” and “cutting-edge” in the same sentence should be waterboarded mercilessly with alphabet soup.
  • Cut back on the jargon. You can introduce jargon if it is crucial to your meaning — and if you explain it. Otherwise, you’re just shrinking your audience to a small set of inbred academics. In this passage, we have “knowledge production” (is that research perhaps?), “socioeconomic and intellectual diversity,” (you mean working class and minority students, right?), and “institutional actors,” (business and government leaders, I presume). Just say what you mean.
  • Avoid excessive signposting. In a first chapter, you can refer to what’s coming. In a first paragraph, though, you should be making an argument, not explaining that you will be making an argument — as in “for reasons that will readily become apparent.” (And it’s worth noting, that based on this writing, I’m not convinced anything in this book will be “apparent.”)
  • Break up paragraphs. Use bullets, graphics, quotes, and other tools to avoid the march of long and intimidating paragraphs.

Here’s how a good editor would fix this

I’m going to assume there are actual ideas in this book. I have no evidence, but let’s give these guys the benefit of the doubt. They do run a big university after all.

How would you actually write this?

Here’s one way.

American universities have reinvented themselves four times. It’s time to do it again.

We propose a league of educational institutions, led by a few visionary public research universities. They will adopt a set of core principles: the pursuit of positive social outcomes, continued excellence in research, and adoption of videoconferencing and other technological classroom and networking tools. And they must have as their overarching goal the desire to empower and expand opportunities for students of all races and classes. This is only possible when educational institutions of all kinds work together with leaders from industry, government, and other institutions.

You might actually want to read what followed that.

Stop the spread of this kind of writing

I was shocked and disappointed to see this book had been endorsed by Malcolm Gladwell, Eric Schmidt, Steven Pinker, John Seely Brown, and Steve Case. All are great writers and thinkers. None of them would ever write crap like this.

If you respect your own reputation, never endorse a book like this.

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  1. Bravo. That paragraph certainly is a finalist for the Bafflegab Hall of Fame! Thanks for sharing. Always love the before and after: the differences are so clear.

  2. Decades ago, on a hand-lettered index card taped to a convenience store cooler case in front of the 3.2%ABV beer, I saw the phrase “QUANTITY YOU CAN TASTE.” The unedited paragraph above brought it back to mind.

  3. We’ve shared your surgical critique with all our grad students who are struggling with university speak. Sure wish clarity trumped magniloquence in scoring academic points.

  4. Wow, just wow! The authors inexplicably decided to throw a slow pitch right across the letters. Your response was so good that I passed it on to friends who appreciate both good and bad writing. They all had the same reaction that I had.

    You’re right in thinking U.S. higher education institutions have lots of problems and challenges. Solving them is important for the country as a whole as well as for students in particular. But your readers should know that the lead author, Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, is genuinely important (though hardly perfect) in leading and transforming institutions of higher education. Maybe it’s worth reading past that appalling first paragraph.

  5. You don’t identify the editor; he/she is either guilty of professional malpractice or can be found unconscious on his/her desk.

  6. The Fifth Wave is also the name of a science fiction series by Rick Yancey. In the series, Yancey details the horrors invading aliens perpetrate on Earth to rid the planet of humans. Perhaps Yancey got it wrong? Perhaps aliens will wipe us out, not with plagues and tsunamis, but with non-fiction that makes our heads explode.