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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Too Advanced? Too Basic?

A lot of my advice might seem too advanced for someone who just needs to be told not to use the passive voice as a default, not to be excessively wordy or unclear, like the incompetent reviewer of Tao Lin discussed yesterday. For a writer like that, I would even be tempted to recommend a handbook that is mostly misleading or wrong, like the infamous Strunk & White.

Or maybe at times my tips and tricks are too basic, like "Develop a schedule for your writing." Really stupid things that everyone should have figured out by now.

Actually, though, I don't draw a hard distinction between the basic and the advanced. It's all writing. It's all scholarship. It's all task management. Making refined, subtle distinctions is not fundamentally different than mastering the basics. Some things scholars have not mastered are really matters for Freshman composition.

16 comments:

Clarissa said...

"Develop a schedule for your writing" was one of the best suggestions I have ever received. It might seem basic or self-evident but it truly isn't. The mystique of inspiration and creativity prevents many people from seeing writing as a job like any other. As a result, the advice you give about organizing one's writing is priceless.

Andrew Shields said...

"Stupid" is a wonderfully ironic title, of course, but it also has a point: "I will even discuss things that ought to go without saying, because they often go better with saying."

profacero said...

Everything is always a matter for freshman composition, really, because really, all the key skills are at least touched on there. Matters of organization, subordination, transition, etc., they just don't go away.

profacero said...

P.S. 1. Curious to know what is so bad about Strunk and White.

profacero said...

P.S. 2. Not too basic but the reason I question all advice on task management and so on is that it so often doesn't get at the sociology of the thing.

I mean: you can organize your work, and you can go to therapy for neurosis, but I think a lot of work issues are not psychological or technical / organizational but sociological.

I am reading a book right now about this as relates to women but I think it extends to men, too. There was my father forcing his books out, ambivalent for reasons he is still not clear about but which are societally driven, and this ex from grad school, with a different set of issues around the politics, including the gender politics of the whole thing.

This is where I think the "shut up and work" we all learned fails -- it seems to me it shuts down the ability to think these sorts of things through (outside of writing hours, of course).

Jonathan said...

See the relevant posts on Language Log.

And http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

Jonathan said...

Yes, but then the question is not one of "scholarly writing and how to get it done" but whether one really wants to get it done in the first place, whether it worthy those psychic costs, right? Because shut and work really does work if you have an unproblematical goal of wanting to get it done. If the goal itself is problematic then even fulfilling it does not solve anything. You have to give yourself permission to want what you really want.

profacero said...

*Fascinating* re Strunk and White. Read it in elementary school. Am under influence therefore.

profacero said...

Re the other, it's what my blog is about in toto. I won't go on too much here on it or about the book I'm reading, since I'm doing that there.

I suppose what I am concerned about is being too good at getting things done. My father did it saying push ahead, don't think, get something on paper and out, be middle of road, obey editors, say "perhaps" and "may be" a lot, publish in HR, take no risks. He retired with high honors but says does not really feel he had a career.

Perhaps that, too, falls under the category of giving yourself permission to do what you really want to. It is possible that the hows of that last are what really fascinate me.

profacero said...

I figured out the writing schedule thing in 6th grade and couldn't have done secondary school, college, or graduate school without it. Yet, when I got depressed in my 30s the writing schedule and the workout schedule were the first things to go. Years later they're the last to come back although one of course knows what is needed to make progress.

profacero said...

The piece of advice I got in graduate school that was really good, though, and that I didn't know was about studying for exams. Always before I had been completely ready for finals, but there was no way to set a limit on how much I could theoretically know about the books on my MA reading list. A professor said, "make a schedule and stick to it, if you only have 3 days for author X, then 3 days' worth of studying is what you'll do and maybe it will be enough for this exam."

Jonathan said...

In other words, because you knew this and had figured it out long before, you also knew how not to do it. You were de-motivating yourself very efficiently.

Something similar happened to me in the late 90s. I was accused of only caring about my research so I slowed down a bit on purpose.

profacero said...

This really does apply to everything. One of my big issues is about preparing class; my father, the professor, was and is always going on about how you shouldn't, you should just walk in and talk, because time spent preparing class should be spent writing. In practice that is very stressful to do and the exam prep advice is good for this and much else: give yourself a set amount of time. It is funny how one can know this almost instinctively for some areas of life, yet need reminders about it for others.

profacero said...

Demotivating efficiently, I suppose so although -- I would say I was the passive party. That is of course the long story I try to figure out on my blog. The idea that one did it oneself is useful insofar as it implies one can also undo it oneself;
in practice, though, I found myself having difficulty undoing it until they got an anti-harassment policy in place at work and started following it.

profacero said...

...but as regards basic or not, I always find that the most key advice is the basic advice; problems with one's book mss. are essentially the same problems freshman writers have ... how to organize, subordinate, figure out what is primary, what belongs elsewhere, etc. ...

profacero said...

And -- re working in general -- one of my students now works with a bunch of new PhDs from Ivies and says they are having serious trouble. Apparently they didn't have to write seminar papers as serious / polished as those we did, didn't teach every term, and didn't teach at all while writing their dissertations. So, those dissertations are the most polished things they ever had to write, and the only polished thing, and they've never had to write in a situation where they're fitting it in with the rest of life.