Abbas Raza is the editor of 3 Quarks Daily, one of my favorite places on the Internet. Recently, we talked about how he chooses what to publish.
I'm sure you get a large volume of submissions to 3QD. When you consider whether to publish something, how do you think about it? What do you ask yourself?
Just to make things very clear, let me first say what we do at 3 Quarks Daily: six days a week, we choose what we think are the ten most intellectually interesting articles we can find online in any subject, including science, arts, literature, politics, philosophy, humor, and current affairs, and we publish a short excerpt from those articles with a link to the full piece. But on Mondays, we publish a weekly magazine of original, previously unpublished essays, also on the same variety of subjects.
Now, to answer your question, we get submissions for both, and the way we decide whether to publish something is the same for both: by answering the question, "Did I find that interesting and enjoy reading it?" What makes something interesting or not is not easy to say, but it is easy to tell if something is interesting. It is a bit like Kurt Vonnegut's answer to the question of how to tell a good from a bad painting: "Just look at a million paintings." If you look at a lot of essays and articles, you develop an ability to tell the good from the bad, even if you can't always say exactly what it was in a given article that made you like it. Having said that, there are some obvious things one looks for: Is the author saying something new? Is she saying it clearly? Does she write with verve and style? Does she seem to know a lot about the subject she is writing about? Is she saying something ridiculously and obviously wrong? Etcetera.
Sometimes one reads about something which is interesting in itself but written in a dull or difficult way, and sometimes the opposite: a stylistically beautifully written article which never manages to say anything much. The former can be fixed but the latter cannot, of course. I would say as a rough formulation that the content of an article provides the interest but it is the writer's prose style which can make it either a pleasure or a chore to read.
Lastly, let me mention something that we don't do when choosing an article for publication: we never try to imagine if our audience will like it. We only ask ourselves, "Do I like it?"
That makes sense: you can rely on your own responses. Guessing whether an audience will like something is much trickier.
I like your distinction between content and style, too. Plenty of people would argue that this isn’t a real distinction – that form and content can’t be separated – but that seems wrong to me. At least in nonfiction, an author usually advances a set of ideas or claims, and those ideas can be evaluated. In fact, it’s precisely our ability to test claims that enables us to understand why people like Newton, Einstein, and Crick and Watson were so revolutionary. At a more everyday level, it’s this ability to assess ideas that allows us to distinguish good thinking from bad thinking.
For this reason, I focus most heavily on ideas when I teach essay writing. Does a student have a clear sense of what he’s trying to say? And does what he’s saying make sense? If not, we slow down and dig in.
This takes real effort. By their teens, many of my students have figured out that they can earn good grades in school by writing in a formal style – even if the underlying ideas are weak or ill-considered. In other words, they’ve figured out how to BS.
I don’t blame them, exactly – there’s a lot of gamesmanship in school – but I also know that my students are capable of so much more. I want them understand that exploration and introspection can be thrilling on their own, and far more rewarding than just banging out a paper for the sake of it. (It’s also important for them to understand that they’re probably not going to get away with BS forever. And even if they do, who wants to live like that?)
I agree with everything you say here, Matt, so there isn't much more I can add.
You mention Newton, Einstein, Watson, and Crick in the context of the distinction I drew between content and style, which made me think of this: Newton and Leibniz simultaneously and independently invented the set of mathematical ideas we now know as calculus. But even in as formal a system as mathematics, style matters, and the notation that Leibniz developed to express these ideas was superior to the notation that Newton invented in that it made it easier to understand what is being expressed and work with those expressions. And so to this day we use Leibniz's notation when we do calculus, not Newton's. Two things can be expressed in various ways, but some ways are much more useful, in other words. To give another mathematical example, the number 35 can also be written as XXXV in Roman numerals, but written this way, it is not easy to add or multiply numbers, or do any other simple arithmetic operations, so we no longer write them like that. But perhaps I have now belabored this point too much.
As for students deliberately writing impenetrable and obscure prose to impress their teachers, this is a real problem and a terrible habit which should be harshly beaten out of students at every opportunity! Not literally, of course, but it should be discouraged as much as possible. Jargon of all types should be avoided and clarity prized. They should also be encouraged to be as concise as possible and to always revise their prose by cutting out all unnecessary verbiage. The practice of assigning papers of a minimum length (write a 15-page paper on such and such...) is a bad idea precisely because it encourages going on at length even if the student has something very clever and useful to say in a couple of pages, as if somehow length equals quality. And that reminds me of a droll anecdote about Blaise Pascal who wrote something like this at the end of a long letter to a friend: "I would have written a shorter letter but I didn't have the time."