On Pithiness

In the margins of a blue book exam on social theory and ethics, one of four qualifying exams I completed way back in 1998 for my masters in theological studies, my professor remarked favorably on my pithiness. I must admit, I had to look that word up. It was the first time I recall encountering it. When I found the definition, probably located in my trusty, beat-up Webster’s dictionary that I had used a lot in college, I was pleased.


Terse and concise? Yep, that’s how I write.

Up to that point, I had seen my economy of words and my ability to densely pack my prose with the key ideas as a liability; it often made it incredibly difficult to meet the minimum page requirements for final papers in my graduate classes. Other grad students bemoaned the maximum page requirement by complaining, “how am I supposed to fit my endless number of brilliant ideas into a mere 25 pages?!” But I feared the dreaded page minimum as I wondered, “how will I possibly manage to fill up 15 pages?!” (note: my doctoral dissertation was only about 165 pages).

My papers were successful and given positive feedback from professors, but I kept feeling as if I was failing as a grad student and an academic in training. How could everyone else write so much and me so little?

As I read these lines, my cynicism begins to surface: Perhaps my pithiness was a sign of failing as an academic? Brief and concise  (and clear) writing is often misread in the academy as a lack of intellectual rigor, where a longer paper = deeper thinking. Is there room to be a different sort of academic or intellectual?

So, when I read my professor’s positive description of my work as pithy, I was relieved. Being concise and brief was not necessarily a bad thing! This might seem like an obvious point, but if you’ve read much academic writing you know that brevity is unusual. 

Logical. Efficient. Precise.

As an academic-in-training, my writing style was very logical and highly analytical, perhaps boringly so. I remember a favorite professor at my college (Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN) frequently praised my analytical ability.


[Sara — Excellent work. I repeat, you take to this sort of analysis with such apparent ease that the work seems natural for you. Your writing is simple, succinct, properly unornamented and to the point.]

I also recall him remarking on one occasion, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but when I read your writing, I don’t feel like I’m reading a paper written by a woman.” Am I remembering that right? And what does it exactly mean? I’m not quite sure. What I do remember was that, in spite of his blind spots, he was a great teacher who introduced me to a lot of wonderful scholarship on religion, Cornel West and how to be a public intellectual. 

When I wrote a paper, I spent a lot of time figuring out the logic of my argument. I didn’t just write; I mapped out ideas and created endless index cards with my three (always three!) main points. I ruthlessly cut out extraneous information that did not fit with my thesis and goals for my paper. Logical. Efficient. Precise. Pithy.

My love of pith (and the magic number 3), which was cultivated as an undergrad in philosophy and religion courses, was furthered fostered in the many masters’ classes that I took with Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher. Borrowing from one of his professors at Harvard University, he required that we write our papers (2 twenty pagers + 1 twenty-five page final) using a three (!) part structure: 1. appreciation, 2. critique and 3. construction.


Of course, with my love of clear, logical writing and things-in-threes, I eagerly embraced his method. I continued to apply it to my writing for years, and when I started teaching, I used it for developing my courses. The logical progression from understanding to critiquing to applying seemed to work well as a model for learning over the course of a semester.

But, even as I continued to be pithy, I was being introduced to theories that challenged and questioned the value of clear and concise writing. In the first class that I took with GK Baker-Fletcher in the fall of 1996, Critical Theory and Deconstruction, I read Jacques Derrida for the first time. A semester later, in my Contemporary Feminist Theory course, I read Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler.

I became intrigued with writing styles that challenged readers and playfully unsettled ideas and theories. I wrote papers on disrupting readers, challenging common sense and safeguarding critical thinking. I argued that difficult writers were not merely aiming to piss off their readers. Instead, they were attempting to involve readers in the process of reading and interpreting. And, because their work was focused on making visible and disrupting the limits of language, they were attempting to demonstrate those limits through their own writing practices.

mybookDerridaI have to admit, though, I’m fairly convinced that pissing off the reader was an added benefit for the author. Just take a glance at Derrida’s smug look on the cover of this book that I read in the fall of 1996. He seems to be saying, “Ha! Ha! You will never understand what I write!” When discussing difficult writing styles in my queering theory, I would frequently reference this image. I don’t read Derrida’s pose/gaze as entirely or exclusively arrogant. It’s also seems playful in its excessive performance of the all-knowing professor/intellectual. 

There seemed to be a contradiction between my own pithy style and the confusing and disruptive style of Irigaray, who quoted key Western thinkers like Freud or Descartes and playfully inserted her own critical interjections directly into the quotations, and Butler, who peppered her prose with tons of questions and wrote epic, page-long paragraphs, loaded with complexity and implicit references to countless philosophers/thinkers. Even as I loved writing about these thinkers (especially Butler and Irigaray), I didn’t love writing like them. My style remained pithy and clear.

In my next installment (which is part of my intellectual history project over at Undisciplined), I will reflect on/process the shift in my writing from pithy to chewy. I think this shift is partly the result of the increasing influence of Butler and her difficult writing style. 

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