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I'm just about to finish my master's in law with only my dissertation left to handle. I'm being extremely cautious with the language that I'm using when writing as I've previously been told that my writing style is not academic enough for a UK institution. Although I agree with this criticism (and I've been working to improve my use of colloquial expressions) I do think that law papers tend to be dull and much too monotonous because of this constant pressure to make them sound as neutral as possible (while also capable of expressing your distinct opinions). This dullness must also be annoying for the person grading the paper, especially after reading multiple boring and similar dissertations.

I've previously experimented with structure when writing one of my course essays in order to build suspense before unraveling the finding of my research. Judging by the comments (and the grade that I got) the person grading it was really pleased with the final result. This gave me the confidence to be more imaginative when working on my dissertation, but at the same time I do not want to get too carried away.

It is not that I find calling a person enfant terrible to be particularly original, I just think it might lead to the person reading it to crack a smile. Apart from making it a more distinguishable paper it will also be beneficial for my argument, as I will have to spend less time debunking this particular person's theories by drawing the attention to the fact that although they are very popular and frequently quoted, they are widely considered to be too extreme by his peers.

What is your opinion? Where would you draw the line when trying to make a paper more interesting? (note that this question is not about finding creative ways to hide a weak argument)

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    Is the person in question alive/recently alive? Is it possible that they could be a friend or acquaintance of someone reading the dissertation? – MJeffryes Aug 18 '15 at 12:58
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    Would this question be better fit on Writer SE per their help center? – scaaahu Aug 18 '15 at 13:01
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    As a side comment, I'd be wary of "building suspense" in academic writing. It might work OK in a course assignment, but it's dangerous in a published paper. The difficulty is that for each careful reader, you'll have dozens of casual readers who primarily skim the introduction (no matter how engaging your writing is). The casual readers are an important part of your audience, and it's critical to make sure your work is widely known and understood, even among people who aren't going to study it in detail right now. This means explaining things as clearly and directly as possible. – Anonymous Mathematician Aug 18 '15 at 16:17
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    An ad hominem (Latin for "to the man" or "to the person"), short for argumentum ad hominem, means responding to arguments by attacking a person's character, rather than to the content of their arguments - Even if you decide to include the "joke", you will not "have to spend less time debunking this particular person's theories", actually you'll probably have to spend more time on it to prove you actually looked at his arguments, and not just where the arguments came from. – DoubleDouble Aug 18 '15 at 18:43
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    I flagged this as offtopic, because a question that asks "What is you opinion about doing....?" Isn't even able to recive any non opinionbased answer without losing the relation to OP. and this is strictly stated as being off-topic! – Zaibis Aug 19 '15 at 12:30
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If I understand correctly, you are supposed to be evaluating the work and/or ideas of some other academic or writer. You are wondering whether it will be funny and/or more efficient to, in lieu of a more careful explanation of the limitations of that person's work, dismiss them by calling them a (standard, even cliched) name.

This is not a good use of humor in an academic paper. I find it juvenile. And many academics would find this to be a terrible personal swipe.

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    Your answer reminds me of this passage: "Overly philosophical, witty, obscure or otherwise “clever” comments should generally be avoided; they may not seem so clever to you ten years from now, and can sometimes irritate the very readers you want to communicate your result to." -- Terence Tao – Rebecca J. Stones Aug 18 '15 at 16:02
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    @RebeccaJ.Stones we really need an app that reads our retorts/comments back to us in Morgan Freeman's voice. xkcd.com/481 – Mindwin Aug 20 '15 at 16:08
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Short Answer: Absolutely not!

Don't be a sarcastic writer for the first 20 years in academia, unless you want to leave academia and become a comedian! Many students, myself included when I did master/PhD, do like to reflect our egos and narcissistic behaviour on a paper/journal to be 'controversial' and 'cutting edge' in a field they are writing about. Obviously, there are some funny and insightful papers/journals around but if you look closer, you see a pioneer in a field wrote about something after 20+ years of research.

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Papers that are dull are not dull due to a lack of jokes. The difference between a dull paper and an exciting paper is that the exciting paper conveys useful information as clearly as possible.

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    +1 -- a very good point -- but a couple of things: Minor one first -- this is a dissertation not a paper, perhaps giving a bit more leeway (epigrams are common in PhD theses, vanishingly rare in the rest of the scientific litearture). Major point -- it is possible and indeed common to make a paper dull despite having useful/interesting material and writing clearly. It's also necessary to write in fluent appropriate English. However -- siding with the point you make -- it's not hard to write a paper which attempts to slect style over clarity and ends up delivering neither. – Chris H Aug 18 '15 at 18:53
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I've previously experimented with structure when writing one of my course essays in order to build suspense before unraveling the finding of my research.

This sounds like good writing.

It is not that I find calling a person enfant terrible to be particularly original, I just think it might lead to the person reading it to crack a smile.

This sounds like bad writing.

They're very different examples. The latter is distracting and something someone resorts to when they don't have any good arguments anymore. You know, name-calling.

I'd encourage you to not lump all your writing into "neutral but dull" and "creative." Some of your "creative" stuff is very academic, and some is not. You need to learn to discern within your creative ideas.

  • I'm not convinced that "building suspense" is good writing in an academic context. Academic writing is supposed to work on a number of levels and one of those levels is that it should be possible to quickly tell what the subject and main findings of a paper are. If I have to read the whole paper to find out if it's interesting or even relevant to me, guess what? I'll go read something else. Academic papers aren't mystery novels. – David Richerby Aug 21 '15 at 9:39
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You've got 2 "no"s and a cautious "yes" as I write this. Here's a "maybe", because it might help you decide.

In general, if you're going to use a term that's not to be taken completely at face value, you need to consider all possible interpretations -- you want to be sure you won't offend or confuse your reader. In this case you could start from wikipedia. Coming from a very different background to you I suggest that this sort of phrase would be more suited to introduction and motivation chapters, and would be out of place in more technical parts of the dissertation.

In this case I'm inclined to side with the "no"s unless you can effectively cite the claim -- is this a reasonable description of a paradigm-changing historical figure. The downside of this is of course that it's not original.

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    This was more or less my thought as well - if you're going to use the phrase, better that you can attribute its use to another party. – Dan Henderson Aug 18 '15 at 22:24
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    More than that, your personal opinion is of no value in academic writing, whereas relating the opinions of others in an objective fashion is perfectly okay. In an academic work, you should be able to defend every statement; "I think so" (or "I think it's funny") has no place there. – tripleee Aug 20 '15 at 10:02
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You would like to continue incorporating some features of the creative writing genre into your technical writing, because you find it inherently satisfying, and a healthy direction to try to nudge technical writing toward. You have had some positive results with this approach.

As I understand it, there is a colorful term you are tempted to include in your thesis, along with some analytical text.

My advice is to go ahead and include it in your draft, since including it will help you feel engaged with this big project. It will be a fun challenge for you to try to make it work within your text, without sounding blatantly offensive. But don't get too attached to it -- keep in mind that it may not make the final cut.

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    "Put off the decision till later" isn't really an answer, and wasting time integrating it regardless seems like a poor course of action. OP can have their giggle without purposefully designating extra time to being unproductive. – Matthew Read Aug 18 '15 at 19:10
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    @MatthewRead - I'm not sure it would be unproductive for the OP to spend some time trying to solve this particular puzzle. Anything that keeps you engaged while slogging through a big project is a plus! – aparente001 Aug 20 '15 at 2:47
  • @aparente001 Anything that keeps you engaged with the big project while slogging through the big project is a plus. But challenging oneself to incorporate language that will probably be cut from the final version isn't engagement with the project: it's engagement with some entertaining thing on the side that, ultimately, isn't much more productive than taking a break to play video games or whatever. – David Richerby Aug 21 '15 at 9:42
  • @DavidRicherby - Well, everyone has their own way of staying engaged and productive. If you take a meandering path through the forest, not only do you get to the other side, but you also may find some surprising inspiration along the way. --- With modern word processors, he can move sentences and blocks of text around as needed. We're only talking about two words here, not a major dead end, such as spending three pages on an irrelevant statistical analysis of some side aspect. – aparente001 Aug 21 '15 at 12:32

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