Richard Dawkins – Master of Academic Writing

The efficiency with which Richard Dawkins writes makes reading his work an absolute joy. Any student wishing to improve their writing style should seek him out post-haste. His latest offering, Books Do Furnish a Life, is a collection of forewords, afterwords and transcripts that includes the standard Dawkins fare of evolution and atheism. But let’s forget his content for just a minute, and bask in the beauty of this sentence:

Ignorance is usually a passive state, seldom deliberately sought or intrinsically blameworthy.

Dawkins, R. (2021). The Timeless and the Topical in Books Do Furnish a Life, p.48.

I challenge you to improve upon this sentence by making it more precise or clearer to understand. You can’t, for not a morpheme has been wasted; not a filler word in sight. In just twelve words, Dawkins provides us with a point (the passivity of ignorance), a clarification (it is rarely sought) and a logical expansion (given that few seek its acquisition, ignorance is not the fault of the beholder). I have written lengthy paragraphs with less information, and I am sure you have too.

While his writing style is exemplary, you would be a fool to heed my earlier advice to “forget his content”. Unsurprisingly, when one of the world’s most brilliant scientists has a knack for clarity, he creates some memorable images. Did you know there are five sextillion atoms in a single drop of water? What’s more, many of the atoms in your body were created during the Big Bang. You probably (like me) didn’t, and chances are you would have forgotten these tidbits within the hour, but DAWKINS COMES TO THE RESCUE! Read this, and I dare you to try and forget the sheer scale of atoms on our planet or the way our bodies continuously absorb and expel them:

The cup of coffee that I am about to drink contains atoms that passed through Oliver Cromwell’s bladder; and through yours, and the Pope’s.

Dawkins, R. (2021). The Uncommon Sense of Science in Books Do Furnish a Life, p.38.

This would have been truer had Dawkins been drinking Foster’s, but otherwise his point is well made. It is this ability to strip down complicated issues and make them accessible to laypeople like me that makes Dawkins stand out as my favourite academic writer. I cannot tell you how many paragraphs of academic writing I have been forced to reread multiple times due to the obscurity and verbosity of the language. Often I am left with the impression that the writer is simply trying to sound clever, using overly technical jargon when none is required. Mr Dawkins shares these suspicions, and I strongly urge you to read Postmodernism Disrobed in which he rips such writers to shreds. Here is the first of many brilliant paragraphs:

Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content.

Dawkins, R. (1998). Postmodernism Disrobed in Nature, 394(6689), p.141.

Note how this paragraph reads as if written by an actual human. In addition to reading an intriguing article, I become familiar with the author, his beliefs and sense of humour. I almost feel as if I’ve made a new friend, and as a result, I am now personally invested in what he has to say. After reading an entire book by Dawkins, you will feel as if you know him too. This is a phenomenal talent for a writer of non-fiction to have.

Clarity of writing is a subject Books Do Furnish a Life touches upon, but with 61 short chapters (well, 60 and an introduction), topics range from the benefits of Oxford tutorials (in Tutorial-Driven Teaching) to evolutionary psychology (in Language, Learning and Debugging the Brain) and tackling religious fundamentalism (in Witness of Internal Delusion). I will not do you or Dawkins the disservice of regurgitating his most salient points in my far clumsier style. Instead, I will say this to anyone studying at, or planning to study at, university: read Books Do Furnish a Life, and if you can achieve just 10% of the efficiency, clarity and humanity of Dawkins, you will, stylistically at least, be head-and-shoulders above your peers.

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