Monthly Archives: December 2011

Happy Holidays!

I am not sure that anybody should be expected to maintain an academic blog in December. In fact, a month without such blogs would probably be better than a month full of mea culpa posts like the one I am about to write: I’m sorry I’ve been so busy, blah, blah, blah. Nobody needs to hear someone else elaborate on the many ways a person can keep themselves busy and make themselves crazy at the end of term. So I am going to leave it at this: this blog will return in January with actual content relevant to your lives as academic writers.

I had thought of including a laundry list of all the interesting things that have been written on academic writing over the twenty-eight days since my last post. But it’s too late, even for that. So I am just going to end with a link to a lovely post from Stan Carey writing at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The post is a plea for the gentle handling of mistakes, our own mistakes and those made by others. Carey blames our tendency towards judgment on the law of the hammer: If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Many of the people who look at your writing habitually do so with a hammer at the ready. How can you be expected to write well—to use writing to express as clearly and vividly as possible your fascinating and hard-won insights—when you are afraid that someone will bop you on the head with a hammer? Your writing is far more than the sum of your mistakes. The success of your writing comes from something other than the avoidance of error.

When I talk about my work, people often feel a need to tell me how terrible it is that writers make mistakes, imagining that I will share their outrage. If this were a different sort of blog, I could list all the things in the world that I perceive as an outrage. The swapping of ‘your’ for ‘you’re’ wouldn’t even make the list. In fact, what could be more natural than that mistake? The two words do, after all, sound exactly the same! The eradication of error—and, of course, I see that as a worthy goal—is never going to happen and ‘not catching things’ isn’t at all the same as ‘not looking for them’. The capacity of the human mind to become distracted and miss mistakes that will be dreadfully obvious later is not something that I can explain. All I can do is admit to my own share of  horror stories and argue that editorial lapses, even  egregious ones, don’t warrant moral outrage.

So work against errors in your writing, large and small, but also do as Carey suggests and be kind to yourself. Better writing will come not from the fear of error but from the appreciation of the power of great prose.