Monthly Archives: November 2013

Inspiring Prose

In a recent workshop, a student objected to my approach to academic writing on the grounds that I was neglecting the role of great writers as a source of inspiration. I admit that I was initially unsure how to respond to this critique. While I absolutely find good writing to be inspirational, I’m not sure how widespread that sentiment is among academic writers. In other words, it’s one of those ideas about the writing process that I generally leave out for fear of seeming flaky. I’ve talked on the blog before about my enthusiasm for writing and the way I try to temper my own inclinations with a more sober approach in order to reach a wider range of writers, many of whom don’t feel overwhelmed by a love of writing. But this question made me wonder if I was doing some students a disservice by underselling this source of inspiration.

After all, in academic writing, we can all stand to find more sources of inspiration. Most of the time, we are either just plain uninspired or, on a good day, inspired by new ideas about our content. Often this inspiration comes from a great lecture, a meeting with a committee member, a conversation with a peer, or an unexpected article. It can also come from those amazing moments (usually in the shower or on the subway or at a yoga class when our mind is otherwise engaged) when we suddenly see things differently:

‘A is actually more like Z than like B.’

‘What if I put B before C and then divided D into a series of examples?’

‘I’ve been using X as the way into this issue, but I may wish to use Y as the way in, leaving more time for Z’.

These moments of inspiration—if we don’t forget them before managing to write them down—are invaluable.

But what about the inspiration that simply comes from experiencing great prose? Such writing can inspire us, just by being an example of how good writing can be. If you are attuned to good writing, you will see it in all sorts of places: unexpected little gems that make you stop and think about the expert or felicitous construction rather than the ideas. Pausing to be aware of those moments is a good idea. Why not catch academic writing being good? All the negativity about academic writing starts to make it seem as though it’s a thoroughly flawed enterprise, rather than an intrinsically challenging activity. I’m not saying that academic writing doesn’t often end up as flat and lifeless as its critics suggest. But that absence of vitality is neither inevitable nor universal. Observing the good bits shows us that we can’t let ourselves off the hook; stultifying prose is never a necessity. It can, however, be a natural outcome of inexperienced writers tackling topics that resist coherence. Observing good writing reminds us that we need to keep striving towards the reachable goal of lively and engaging prose.

Observing good writing can also inspire us more directly to start to write. In this case, we are not necessarily writing because we need say something in particular, but rather because of the pure creative pleasure of putting words together. My favourite source for such inspiration is the philosopher David Hume. Although my philosophy days are long behind me—maybe this blog needs its own version of an ‘I quit’ post—I have never lost my love of the subject of my dissertation. Take this famous sentence, for instance:

Disputes are multiplied, as if every thing was uncertain; and these disputes are managed with the greatest warmth, as if every thing was certain. (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Introduction)

In addition to its evident—and apparently timeless—wisdom, the sentence itself is lovely: the repetition of disputes and of as if every thing; the use of uncertain and certain as a contrasting pair; the similar sound of multiplied and managed; and the semicolon to act as a hinge between the two halves of the comparison.

But the specifics of this beautiful sentence aren’t really the point. (And your source of inspiring prose may well be something other than an 18th century Scot.) The point is that beautiful writing can give us itchy fingers, make us want to create that sort of elegant, proportional text for ourselves, even when we’re not exactly sure what we want to say. Since writing is often the one thing that can help us figure out what we want to say, writing for its own sake can be very beneficial. Anything that inspires us to write has to be a good thing, this month or any month.

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Writing and Not Writing

As AcWriMo got underway, lots of people in the Twitter feed (#AcWriMo) were wondering what counts as writing for the purposes of this month of academic writing. This question registered for me when I started my first Pomodoro (using my PhDometer!) and quickly realized that the revise and resubmit project I’ve set for myself this month is going to require a lot of not writing. What will I be doing while not writing? Reading the reviewers’ comments closely; thinking about the editor’s summation of those comments; returning to the original article; making decisions about the relevant literature; and so forth. To turn this article into a new and improved version of itself will take relatively little writing, if writing is defined narrowly. But it all counts in my mind since my goal is to get this article back to my co-author in good shape, not to meet some abstract goal of writing a certain amount.

As I read people’s questions about what might count as writing, I began to see a range of possibilities:

Pure writing: When we put our heads down and just write. This sort of exploratory writing involves turning off your internal critic and allowing yourself to figure out what you need to say. This style of writing is well suited to the sort of productivity goals that many have set for themselves this month. As I’ve said many times in this space, I think this sort of uncensored writing is invaluable. However, it’s also potentially fraught with difficulties, so it’s important to be reflective about the process

Provisional editing: When we look back at the writing we’ve just done to ensure that it will make sense to us later.

Revision: When we return to our writing, ideally with a bit of distance, to make it better. Perhaps we’ll start  with a structural editing strategy, such as the reverse outline. At this point, most of us need to be flexible about what is needed: more time to think; a different organizing scheme; a new framing question; a fresh take on the literature. The work we do here may not look much like writing, but it’s definitely moving the text forward. This is the space where I picture myself hanging out this month.

Not writing: When we do things that aren’t writing during times designated for writing. I see three main categories of ‘not writing’. First, we have simple avoidance: in my case, for instance, an assiduous attention to office organization schemes. Is it really efficient to have my paper clips in a different drawer than my binder clips? And come to think of it, why are my paper clips themselves not sorted by size? Or better yet colour? And off I go. Those things are absolutely hazardous to my productivity, but I never lose sight of the fact that I’m in full avoidance. We all know what our particular avoidance strategies look like. Second, and here is where things get more complicated, we have understandable avoidance: doing the things that have to get done, such as marking, emails, and meetings. We absolutely have to do these things, but we can try to organize our schedules so that they cannot encroach on our writing time. One of the great things about AcWriMo is the inspiration it provides to carve out writing time and to protect that time. The final way that we avoid writing may be the worst because it involves doing things that look very much like writing. Engaging in writing-adjacent activities can readily eat up our writing time. Maybe for you it’s too much reading or maybe it’s too much editing or maybe it’s too much second guessing before allowing the words to hit the page. Or writing something—a blog post, perhaps—other than what you were meant to be writing. Whatever the replacement activity is, it will use up your writing time and even undermine the concept of writing time. We all need to understand and resist our own habitual avoidance techniques in order to preclude the disappointment that comes from not writing.

Overall, I think it’s helpful to approach AcWriMo with two questions: What writing do you need to get done this month? And what do you want to change about your writing process this month? So, any activity can count as writing if it contributes to your overall goal. And it won’t count if it’s the sort of not-writing activity that has tripped you up in the past. AcWriMo is not a gimmick—it’s an opportunity to make writing work better in your life in the long term. All decisions about ‘what counts’ as writing should be made in that spirit.