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.

7 responses to “Inspiring Prose

  1. This post made me think of a writing manual my grandfather published in Alaska Quarterly (Spring/Summer 2010) called “How to Write a Good Sentence: A Manual for Writers Who Know How to Write a Correct Sentence,” which I think you would enjoy. It’s reviewed here, in the third- and second-last paragraphs:

  2. Also, I very much draw inspiration from good academic writing (and writing about writing!) 🙂

  3. I felt like you may have committed the same non-inspirational act in this blog post when you made the following statement: ” But that absence of vitality is neither inevitable nor universal.” It took me a while to get through the double negatives, which kind of made the point of how elusive/challenging academic writing can be. Was that intentional?

    • Thanks for your comment, Tabrez! It was certainly not intentional, but it definitely does help make the point that clarity can be hard to achieve. Even more importantly, conversations like this about confusing sentences remind us that clarity isn’t an objective quality that we can readily identify in our own prose; clarity instead refers to the way a text is received by the reader. That sentence seems fine to me, but my perspective is always going to be hampered by my knowledge of what I was trying to say. Had I said “But that lifelessness is neither inevitable nor universal,” my readers’ experience might have been smoother. In other words, while I may not be concerned that I used more than one instance of negation in a sentence (that’s pretty common), I am always interested in a claim that it took a reader ‘a while to get through’ an aspect of my writing.

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