The Academic Writing Thing, Redux

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There has been a wave of summer advice about “getting your dissertation done,” so let’s return, briefly, to the subject of academic writing.

Two parallel conversations are presently animating segments of my Facebook and Twitter feeds. In one, people are worried about connecting with a broader audience, about “going trade,” or about reaching for the audience that reads the New Yorker. In the other, there is a focus on completion, on career benchmarking, on forward progress. I hear this distinction – between, roughly, quality and quantity, or between artistry and credentialism – in my day-to-day, too.

Whether you write in four hour blocks or ten minute chunks, whether you work from a desk or a laptop, no one anywhere should ever just “make” prose. Prose isn’t concrete. Prose isn’t work product. And writing is not just an instrument.

And all good writing includes revision as a central part of the process. And all great writing features an attention to lyric, to imagery, to sound, to narrative, to scene. To write well, then, requires a love of writing – an appreciation for a perfect transition, for the right metaphor, for that moment when the passage audibly clicks in your head. It also requires discipline and commitment in the everyday and in the long-term, the sort of discipline that moves careers along and gets the paychecks flowing, that allows one to write regularly even if the writing isn’t the thing that brings home the green.

A cheap kitchen timer can help you with the latter, but not the former. You can use a “pom” to increase the word count, but not to refine or polish. For that, you need a whole different approach. You need to read people who write well, you need to think about – and have a sense of what counts as – fantastic prose.

If all we do is emphasize “getting it done,” we ignore everything about writing that isn’t instrumental. And if we only stress the glory of the elegant paragraph or the stirring conclusion, we elide all of the other stuff (food, shelter, family) that needs to be taken care of, too.

More to the point, if we don’t attend to both sides of this – quality and quantity – the whole enterprise fails. We already have a public that doesn’t regularly read serious fiction or nonfiction any longer, so doubling-down on the “more” – on the crass production of prose, or the mere completion of a dissertation – without underscoring the “better” is the wrong move. It leads us further down a dead end.

We need to imagine that we are writers and not academic writers. We need to believe that writing isn’t just a job, that is also a profession, an art form.  We need to make structures to train students to write well.  And that help them get it done.

Because the stakes here aren’t merely about getting students to the end of the road so they can get a job, or helping colleagues and friends finish something they started a long time ago; the stakes are also about ensuring that the technique and skill and craftsmanship that goes into serious prose isn’t forgotten, isn’t drowned out by people who think that writing is merely an endurance exercise, like running. Because it isn’t just that. Ever.

 

2 thoughts on “The Academic Writing Thing, Redux

  1. Okay, I think you’ve conflated two problems. The first is quantity versus quality. It’s of course dismayingly true that there is a lot of crappy academic writing out there. I will grant you that, (un) happily.

    The second is writing process. I don’t think you’ll find an academic writer anywhere that’s going to benefit from being told, “don’t write more, write better.” Because most academic writers are blocked and under-producing because they are perfectionists. Whether their prose, at the end of it, is any good or not is unrelated to the perfectionism, which prevents them from starting to write at all.

    The pom technique and the quantity argument are meant to help perfectionists push past the extremely high standards they set for themselves, IN ORDER TO BEGIN TO WRITE AT ALL. I use poms. I write in ten minute chunks. It’s 90% free-writing-nonsense, but it eventually turns into elegant prose (according to every peer review I’ve ever received). There’s nothing at all in the pom writing technique, daily writing, low stakes writing, frequent writing movements that say you’re not allowed to obsessively fine tune and revise your prose. But you need to write something first, which is where nearly every academic I have ever met has problems.

    As for the quality of the finished prose, yes: we need better writing training, in prose styling, and in audience awareness. But it is a totally separate question to the one of trying to get a lot of words down, every day, without stress or panic or self-loathing or procrastination.

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    1. Well, I think that all writers experience blocks and bouts of perfectionism. And the difference, for academics, is that when we discuss quality, we do so typically in terms of rigor and intellectual significance, and not in terms of the fundamental aspects of good prose. I think this is a mistake (obviously), because it leads us to focus on wonky, insider lingo – the tools of the trade – and not on simple, plain good writing. There is more going on – changes in the publishing market, and in consumer taste – too.

      And I don’t loathe the pom technique, or really any writing strategy that gets people moving. But we spend a lot of time talking about exactly what you are describing here – techniques, some of which I love, to get the word count up – and very little time talking about what it means to actually do all of the other stuff that matters just as much, if not more.

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