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The lute lies rusted in its green case odor of pines is synthetic; sweeteners artificial; even salt!  our tongues crave something dif...

Monday, January 31, 2011

If You Want To, You Can

Pretty much, if you want to do literary criticism and publish articles in that field, you can. You don't need a license; everyone is "self-appointed." People who don't want to - make excuses about why they can't. Time? Money? People who have non-academic jobs often pursue expensive and time-consuming hobbies, so it seems strange to say that an academic who is supposed to be doing 40% research does not have time to do much of any. The lifestyle of the professor at an R1 is pretty easy if you don't do research. You can make it hard for yourself, by undertaking many other non-research projects that are immensely time-consuming.

The biggest hurdle might be not having access to a good academic library.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Edited Collection

If you can throw together an edited collection, that's a good way of getting well-known, as long as it doesn't take away from your monographs and reviewed articles. If you were an unknown theorist and could become the editor of a book about some new hot theoretical trend in the 80s or 90s, you could get a reputation without having actually produced much theory of your own.

The problem with edited collections, I've heard, is having to work with a variety of authors with different attitudes toward prose-style and deadlines. The advantage is that you can have a book in your name without having to write the thing yourself. It's more cost-effective than editing a journal, where you do more work over a longer period of time, but don't have a book in your name no matter how long you've been the editor.

Editing more than one collection before you have a monograph is a mistake, according to the conventional view (with which I agree). The collection might be even more valuable to the field than your monograph is, but you need to show how you cultivate your own garden.

Edited collections are like any other book in that they can be excellent or not so excellent, but the difference is that they are likely to be less consistent in quality than monographs, especially if they are proceedings of an event (a conference or symposium) that haven't been individually refereed.

A tenure committee might count an edited collection as the equivalent of about 3 articles. 1/ 1/2 for the introduction, 1 1/2 for the editing. If the collection is super visible or influential, however, then that adds to its value. An edited collection on a single author or narrow subject is not likely to be influential. A book that appears to be a reference book might be visible, but does not quite seem as original. This judgment would depend on whether it was seen as a guide for undergraduates (unprestigious) or a book that introduces a new way of envisioning an entire field (prestigious).

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Monograph as Standard

Conventional wisdom says you need the book for tenure at a research 1 university; that's the gold standard in certain humanities fields. (Two books for promotion to full professor.) Conventional wisdom also questions this standard, since publishers are cutting back on the number of monographs they put out.

If we move to a system de-emphasizing books, we will have to move toward an even greater reliance on peer-reviewed articles. This system is also problematic, because competition for the best journals might become even more intense. In the Humanities journals are not ranked as clearly, with clear consensus about #1, #2, #3. In some fields there are clear expectation that you need to publish a certain number of articles in the top 2 or 3 journals to get tenure. If we remove the monograph requirement, will we move to a model like this? Then any imperfections in the peer-review system would be exaggerated, because all it would take is for one of the three to be poorly managed to throw a wrench in the works.

My colleagues coming up for tenure have still been able to publish books. I've still been able to publish books. We could argue about just how difficult it is to publish a book before we would have to abandon the 1-book rule, but we are not necessarily there right now.

A book is not just an article x 5 or x 6. It is qualitatively different, requiring a larger conception of things and a more sustained effort. Some say articles can be just as influential, but then a book containing several previously published articles is even better, right? Books receive reviews; articles do not.

The argument that people who only write brilliant articles, and never books, write more brilliantly than those who write both, finds support in the work of a very few brilliant scholars, like the late John Kronik. It is hard to set that up as a model, though, because that is the exceptional case and not the norm. The most influential humanities scholars write books and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. If we say you can get tenure without a book, we are saying you aren't going to be all that influential.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Prosaic Diction

To express a really distinctive, fresh idea, you need a really precise sense of what words mean. If you reach for a word and pull the wrong one off the shelf, your idea is likely to sound like everyone else's. Don't say pliant when you mean labile, in other words. When you fall back too often on pretentious but ill-used vocabulary, your reader will tune out, stop paying close attention.

Individuality, then, is not using words in new and unique ways, but using them in the way everyone else should, but doesn't. I knew a guy who wrote that, if a certain poet had not meant his poems to be read in order, he would have chosen a way "more innocuous" than Roman numerals to arrange them. But Roman numerals never hurt anyone. What this person meant to write is "less conspicuous."

Another scholar I knew would write the same kind of sentence to describe any poet, like "So-and-so uses poetic imagery to explore basic life issues." This is a parody, but I could give you real examples almost as bad. If you took away the name of the poet, you would have to say that the sentence is true of virtually any poet who every wrote.

Prose should be tactful, sensitive, responsive, astute, precise. Expression comes from precision.

Is Peer Review Oppressive? (II)

The more subtle argument is that scholars might tailor their work to make it more acceptable to the hypothetical peer reviewer, censoring themselves, or else choose less risky, less polemical stances and research programs. They might be afraid to take on established scholars in their fields. Peer review is oppressive, then, because it subjects younger scholars to a system in which they must conform to established opinion.

My first response is that this is not a problem with peer review per se, but with any kind of system for judging scholarship, as long as it's other, more senior scholars who are doing the evaluating.

Secondly, I think that young academics want to be conformist, more or less. They want to join a community of scholars. To do so they must exercise a certain tact, paying homage to the existing consensus, insofar as it is worthy of respect (even if possibly mistaken). The argument I pose above assumes that everyone wants to be a polemicist rather than to get ahead by jumping on the bandwagon. Is there anything wrong with scholarship being gregarious?

Now since I myself am a polemicist, sometimes going against received opinion, I have to say that some of my controversial work was accepted by very good journals. Hispanic Review wanted my two most argumentative articles, and not the five or six other ones I have sent them. So if scholars are afraid of being polemical, maybe they are mistaken about what the consequences will be.

Also, it seems to me that if you want to be polemical, you have to accept the consequences. You cannot argue against everyone else and then turn around and wonder why your view is not immediately welcomed. Ultimately, originality will be more valued than agreement. If someone writes a book to refute my views, as someone did, then I have to say that at least it's my ideas that are in dispute, not someone else's. It's hard to get upset about that.

The academy sometimes rewards originality and risk-taking, and sometimes rewards mere competence and conformity to received opinion. All of us are somewhat ambivalent about how much originality we really want, so that the same person who claims that peer review can stifle creativity might turn around and stifle someone's creativity in a peer review. Oppression, though, is the wrong concept to apply here. It's more a question of ambivalence, I think.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Is Peer Review Oppressive?

I hear people complain about peer review. Here is my perspective.

First, the complaints:

*It stifles creativity and innovation, because really innovative work might get rejected if it breaks with the consensus of the field. It promotes "group-think."

*Some peer reviewers are slow, nasty, or not very good readers.

*It is too competitive. Not everyone can get into the top journals.

Now, my experience. In the cases of journals that use peer reviews and give the reports to the authors, I have had only one reviewer in my entire career who was unfair in an arbitrary way. I disagreed with some opinions of reviewers, but that's just life. Not everyone is going to agree with me all the time; how boring would that be! I never felt I was penalized for being too innovative or original. I do consider myself to be original, and have had no problems publishing tons of articles.

Journals that reject articles without giving any substantive comments might be using peer review, but they are using it wrong. Hispanic Review used to just send your article back to you in 10 days, with no comment. I've been accepted and rejected by them throughout the years.

I've had articles accepted as is with no changes requested. This is also not a good use of peer review, because no matter how good an article might be, there is always something that can be improved. In some cases, these were invited submissions. If your work is half-way decent, you will get invitations, and most of those articles are accepted and count almost the same as refereed articles, if the journal is one that is normally refereed. That's another way of getting around the oppression, but at the cost of not having peer reviewers save you from yourself.

In my experience on the other side of the ledger, I am very fast, I try to give my best impartial judgment and avoid all ethical conflicts of interest. The hardest articles to review are those closest to one's own work, where you have a particular stake in one side of a debate. I have been told by particular authors and editors that my comments are useful in revision. I recommend a fair number of "revise and resubmits" and have seen quite a few articles successfully into print.

If an article really makes me see a canonical author in a new light, I am tremendously grateful.

Rejected articles are all unhappy in the same way, to cite Tolstoy in reverse. Excellent articles make you see something distinctive in the material they treat. They tell you why Machado is different from Jiménez. Bad articles are generically bad; they go through the motions of presenting information, but they don't have a strong thesis and a convincing argument. Prose is often an issue.

As a reader of excellent scholarly journals, peer review also works for me, in that well-edited journals are actually better than internet sites masquerading as journals that publish just about everything they get. I may not love or be interested in every article, but I can usually see why they were accepted.

So peer review works for me on all three sides of the process. (The fourth side I don't know about first-hand, because I am not the editor of a journal, but my spouse is, and she makes it work for her by choosing reviewers who do a good job. Most authors do not complain.) I could have had an article wrongly rejected, and I could have wrongly rejected an article, but I don't think that has happened in more than 5% of cases. I don't think I've every mistakenly accepted an article. I've never said to myself, "I shouldn't have accepted that one."

I don't know who these original scholars are who have been oppressed by peer review. Aren't the top scholars in my field influential because of their originality? I guess there could be scholarly geniuses languishing in obscurity who are even more original and just haven't been able to get their ideas out there.

No. I don't think so.


In my experience, scholars who work hard enough, even without being particularly brilliant or original, are able to get published. It might not be PMLA, but it will be a legit publication.


The notion that peer review stifles originality is curious, in that we don't really want complete originality, but work that pushes an existing debate in a new direction. The system rewards meaningful advances based on previous knowledge. I think, in fact, that the system is right to do so. But what do I know? I'm just a part of this system myself.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Writing: Levels of Understanding

The first level would consist of the avoidance of mechanical errors. Writing as the avoidance of mistakes in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. This low understanding of writing puts faith in simplistic rules, like avoiding the passive voice or not using wordy phrases like "the fact that." The first level is often devoted the shibboleths and zombie rules like split infinitives and sentence-adverbial "hopefully." Advice oriented toward this level of thinking is often misleading or mistaken. It is reactive and peevish. Since many bad writers overuse the passive, let's ban the passive voice! Since good writing tends to be concise, let's eliminate any unnecessary words! The Elements of Style is a good representative of this kind of thinking.

The second level would entail a more accurate understanding of language, distinguishing carefully between usage, register, and grammar. It would recognize that every good writer uses the passive when it is the best option. This level is oriented toward developing a serviceable style, clear and unobtrusive, rather than simply the avoidance of error. Joseph Williams or Claire Cooke are good writers to follow on this level.

A third level looks behind the surface of style and sees writing as the expression of views about the relation of writer to audience, language to reality. Now style is at the service of other values. Turner and Thomas address this in their book Clear and Simple as the Truth. This is a good book even for those who don't like the classic style that these two authors advocate, because it clarifies some basic issues.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Passive Voice

Click here.
Money paragraph:
I hope I have made it clear that almost everything said about passives in standard books of writing advice (and most of what linguistics books say as well) is mistaken. Often wildly mistaken.

The passive is not an undesirable feature limited to bad writing, it's a useful construction often needed for clear expression, and every good writer uses it.
The passive does not always involve a use of the copula.
The passive does not always involve masking the identity of the agent — it can be used to put the spotlight on the agent.
The NP that is the subject in a passive is not always the one that would have been the direct object if the clause had been designed as an active one: it can be an NP that would have been the complement of a preposition — some passive clauses involve stranded prepositions.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Preface Without Signposting?

To me a preface has to be virtually all signposting. That is it's main function. I'm not sure how to reconcile that with my desire to write only in a classic mode that de-emphasizes signposting. The preface is the roadmap to the book.

If I figure out how to do it you will be the first to know.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Bloated Prose

This article is an example of bloated prose. Instead of saying "Poor black and latino kids can have success in higher education, even in difficult fields like science and engineering. Here's how to do it," we get this:
American higher education has an extraordinary record of accomplishment in preparing students for leadership, in serving as a wellspring of research and creative endeavor, and in providing sustained public service. Despite this success, we are facing an unprecedented set of challenges. To maintain America's global pre-eminence, we must substantially expand the number of students we educate, increase the proportion of students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and address the pervasive and longstanding underrepresentation of minorities who earn college degrees, including in those STEM fields.

Clichés like "unprecedented set of challenges" don't really mean much. I believe there is actually a precedent for these challenges for example. This is unfortunate because the article actually makes good, concrete points once you wade through the verbiage and find them. The authors of this article probably lose a lot of readers with "wellspring of research and creative endeavor" and "unprecedented challenges." When I hear pompous phrases like that I immediately think some university administrator is thinking up new ways to waste my time. To revise this article I'd boil is down to the plain style first by isolating certain claims, like:

--American universities are good at producing doctors, lawyers, and business executives, but not so hot at educating blacks and latinos.

--More American highs-school students need to be going to college and majoring in hard sciences and technologies once they get there.

--We've found concrete methods that work to get minorities into these majors and make them successful. This is what works...

Then I'd re-write these points using "classic prose."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lazy Man's Load

Suppose you had to carry a certain number of cans of paint up from the basement. What we used to call a "lazy man's load" consists in trying to carry all of the burden at once rather than taking two trips up and down the stairs. The result might be objects broken, hazardous liquids spilled, or bodies injured. Taking more trips with a more comfortable load each time is much preferable.

Paradoxically, a lazy man's load is larger than recommended, not smaller.

The lazy way is not easier; it may be quicker, but it is more perilous. Laziness is not an avoidance of work, but rather a misguided sense of ease or efficiency, like trying to use a high gear to propel a bicycle up a hill, on the theory that your legs don't have to go around as many times.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Processing Words

I write on the computer, mostly. Before that, I wrote directly on typewriters. In those days, before about 1985, we would literally cut and paste text, using scissors and glue. Now we can move large or small amounts of words around very quickly. Revision is so easy, on this mechanical level (changing the words in a text and producing a clean copy), that writing should be getting better and better. There is no excuse for not writing much better using word-processor, which allows for much quicker revisions.

Yet writing does not improve. The mechanical ease of revision does little to help the writer who doesn't know how to write in the first place.


Turner and Thomas de-emphasize revision. Their reason, as I interpret it, is to avoid the fallacy that perfect style arises from tinkering with inadequate sentences until they are good enough. Why not write good prose in the first place? Then revision would be editing, tweaking, fine-tuning.

In my case, the answer to this question is "because I am lazy": I somehow think I have to take notes in a very bad style and then laboriously convert them into finished prose. After all, revision is so easy on the word-processor that there seems little point in putting half-way decent sentences down on the screen during the initial stages of a project. This is laziness that creates more work, because I am always having to slog through messy documents.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Should Classic Prose Be the Default?

I have decided to adopt "classic prose" as defined by Mark Turner and his collaborator Thomas as my default mode for scholarly writing. I was moving in that direction already, and their book has helped me to clarify and articulate some of my preferences. I will inevitably deviate from the classic norm involuntarily from time to time, since it represents an extremely high standard. When I deviate from the norm deliberately, I will have a specific reason for doing so. The classic position will be the ethos that informs my writing.

While Turner and Thomas distinguish classic prose from the "plain style," it turns out that my manfesto in favor of plainness is quite similar to their defiinition of "classic."

What separates me right now from classic prose: my writing is not seamless enough; it contains too much signposting and hedging. It often sacrifices elegance for the sake of other scholarly values.

I cannot adopt the classic prose completely because of my interest in making arguments and marshaling evidence, in being accurate according to scholarly standards, even at the expense of an authoritative voice.

The classic pose could also reinforce some possible weaknesses in my writing: my tendency toward aphoristic high-handedness, for example. Classicism is based on some suppositions that I do not share; it is a useful set of fictions about the relationship of language to truth and writer to reader. What I think is that these fictions might make possible a certain sort of writing for me.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Writing Classic Prose

I just bought this book, Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, by Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas (Princeton, 1994), on the basis of this review by the late Denis Dutton. It is not a writing manual, but a description of a single prose style characterized by a particular relation between writer, subject-matter, and reader. The book does not say that this is the only valid style, but it is itself written in an approximation of classic style, with a "museum" of examples following.

Some differences between "classic style" as defined by T and T and conventional academic prose:

Academic prose contains much more argumentation, hedges, and self-conscious sign-posting. Classic prose simply asserts facts and judgments and is organized seamlessly. It appears unhurried and effortless, even when it might have cost a lot of effort on the part of the writer. The classic pose assumes a certain equality between writer and reader: both are competent, and the reader could reach the same conclusions when presented with the same evidence.

Clear and Simple does not concern itself with the surface accidents of good prose, grammar, usage, punctuation. It assumes that the "elements of style" are not such issues, but fundamental concepts concerning the relation between language and thought and between writer and reader. Change any of these suppositions, and the style too will change.

This is a brilliant and subtle book. Because it attempts to mimic the style it describes, it avoids arguing for the virtues of the style against any others, preferring to assert by example. It is lucid about the differences between "classic style" and other stylistic choices, the "plain style," the "romantic style," etc..

I highly recommend this book, not because I think everyone should emulate the classic style, but because the writers think so lucidly about style as a set of assumptions about knowledge and communication. You could use the book to learn to write classic style as your own chosen mode, or to refine whatever style you choose as your own.

I wonder if this book has had any repercussions in the world of composition and rhetoric.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Suspended Sentences

I realized on Sunday night that I needed to write a version of the current article as a paper for the faculty seminar that I am giving toward the end of the month, so I sat down on Monday morning and wrote quite a bit in complete sentence form. What this made me realize is that I had been unnecessarily slow in the past few weeks, writing too many rough notes and not enough sentences. By writing the seminar paper in five days, from Monday to Friday (January 10-14), I will be get a clean, smooth draft that I can then expand to fuller length.

If I were really disciplined I would always write in complete, well-formed sentences.

Every play the complete sentence game?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

More Anti-Plagiarism Wisdom

Joseph M. Williams makes a good point about paraphrase. You should change the structure of the sentence in order to paraphrase others' ideas, not just change some of the language. Here are his examples, from page 232 of the sixth edition of his book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace:
Original: "The drama is the most social of literary forms, since it stands in so direct a relationship to its audience."
Plagiarizing paraphrase: The theater is a very social genre because it relates so directly to its viewers.
Fair-use paraphrase: Levin claims that we experience the theater as the most social form of literature because we see it unfold before us.

"Your own words" means your own sentence structure too, not just the substitution of synonyms. If paraphrase is going to be that close, then why not just quote verbatim? Paraphrase has to add something; your own voice or perspective, an added explanation, a greater degree of concision or clarity. It is not meant to be a simple replacement of words. The point is not just to avoid plagiarism, but to integrate perspectives, compare your ideas with those of others.


Aside from Williams's book, I also recommend Claire Cook's Line by Line, a guide to writing that helped me a good deal at one point in my career. I do not recommend Strunk & White, a book that is at best vague and unhelpful, at worst misleading and inaccurate. Go to Language Log if you want the full critique of S&W.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Writing a Good Introduction: Well Begun is Half Done

(Joseph Williams uses this proverb in his book Style.)

When I make a judgment on an article for a peer-reviewed journal, if the first paragraph is excellent, clear, and well-written, then I know immediately that the article will probably be an acceptance or a revise-and-resubmit. Why? Because the introduction is the hardest part to write. If the scholar is able to pull that off, then I can predict she will be able to write an entire article, or be competent to correct problems I see in the remainder of the article.

Conversely, if the introduction contains freshman-level errors of composition, does not give me a clear idea of what the paper is going to be about; if the thesis is weak; then I suspect the article will be a rejection. Why? Because the introduction is the part of the paper that the writer should have written with the greatest care.

In either case, the quality of the introduction has about 95% predictive value.

Writing a good introduction means that you've gone half-way toward convincing the reader that you are a competent scholar. It should also give you the confidence to proceed, having the same rhetorical effect on yourself.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

More Smoothness

What I meant in the previous post is not that every sentence and paragraph in a draft you show someone else will be perfect, but that every sentence and paragraph would be the type of sentence or paragraph that you would present in a final draft.

If you are asking someone else for advice on something you've written, you don't want them to have to squint and imagine what the ideas would be if dressed up to go out on the town. The ideas should already be dressed up, presented in quasi-formal attire.

The reason is: the reader will be distracted by those stylistic nuances and attention will go in that direction rather than to the ideas. Even if you want the reader to correct your style, you want to get this style as good as it can get on its own, because otherwise the reader will be telling you what you already know rather than isolating the problems that remain out of your reach.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Smooth Draft

Try writing a smooth draft instead of a rough one. Never, ever refer to one of your drafts as "rough." The language we use does make a difference to us, highly suggestible humanists. I can see having a draft that is incomplete. You might want to share that with someone, but never a rough draft.


Some writers start at the beginning of the paper and write sequentially, paragraph by paragraph, until the end. They don't start the next sentence until they are happy with everything in the paper preceding it. I have never been able to work that way. In the first place, ideas occur to me at unpredictable intervals for later sections and I need to write those ideas down so I don't forget them. It might be a week or two until I get "there" in the paper and by that time I will have forgotten. Secondly, I need to skip back and forth between sections to make sure they are consistent with one another. Thirdly, I know I will go back and change sentences anyway, so there doesn't seem any point in getting them perfect before I move on.

Rarely, I am able to write several paragraphs of coherent prose back-to-back. I enjoy that when it happens, but I couldn't depend on that.

Friday, January 7, 2011


Following up on the previous post, here is a good way of beginning a project.

Day one: only brainstorm. Write as much as you can in a given period of time (an hour?)

Day two: Begin by reading what you have written. Rewrite some of the sentences or phrases you have written as though they were sentences you would actually put in a finished version of a the paper. When you have done that, then brainstorm some more. Take about an hour and a half the second day.

Day three: Begin by tweaking some of those "finished" sentences. Revise them for style. Connect some of them up into a fragment of a paragraph. Then convert some of the brainstorming of days one and two into serviceable prose. By now you should have an actual paragraph. End by brainstorming again.

Day four: Repeat. At the end of day four, if you are like me, you will have a document of about 1000-2000 words. Some of it will be finished prose, some merely coherent prose, and some informal brainstorming.

Continue until the article is complete. During the last few days everything will be at stage two (serviceable prose) and your entire effort will be devoted to making it finished prose (stage three). When the entire manuscript is in stage 3 (every sentence tweaked, all references complete) then it is a penultimate draft that you might want to show someone else. It's penultimate because it is the best you can do by yourself, without outside critique. (I never show a "rough draft" to anyone else, because that would be asking someone else to do my work for me: improve sentences I could easily improve myself. I never write rough drafts, only smooth ones. That doesn't mean I write perfect drafts, but that I get them as good as I can before showing them to anyone else. If I want earlier feedback I explain my ideas to others, but in very careful language. I might spend more time phrasing a question in email than I would writing a paragraph of the article itself.)

(The only caveat here is that a document will sometimes get too messy, with too many unconnected brainstorming ideas and not enough finished prose; in this case I start a new "cleaned up" version in another document, retaining only finished sentences. I don't throw away the brainstorming, but I remove it from the document to increase efficiency, usually around day 10.)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Structure of the Writing Session

I like to begin writing by working on things that are already written, fixing sentences. Then I move on to writing new but complete sentences out of rougher notes. Finally, at the end of the writing session I brainstorm, writing down things that occur to me, new ideas, without worrying too much about where they might fit.

My logic is that the "warm-up" period is not very strenuous; I can tweak sentences that I wrote before without too much exertion. Writing new sentences is a bit harder. Once I'm warmed up I can do that. Toward the end of the session I don't have much to lose. I've already written enough for the day, so I don't have to worry about anything else.

This three part structure might vary. For example, a paper I have been working longer on will need fewer new ideas and more tweaking of sentences already written.

(Notice that this is a reverse order. You would think the logical order would be brainstorm, write, revise. What this means is that the same material I brainstorm today will be written later and then revised yet another day.)

Typically, I write between 1 and 3 hours. Hardly ever less than 1 or more than 3. 1 and a half is good; 2 and a quarter also.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

21 or 45 hours

I've never been able to work night and day on project. I recommend a gap of 21 or 45 hours between writing sessions, between 12 noon one day and 9 the next morning, or between noon and nine a.m. two days from now. Writing, then, should be continual but not continuous, for those who observe the differentiation between those two adjectives. You need to write frequently, but with fresh eyes on your project at the beginning of every writing session.

I have to stop myself from writing even though I know I could produce more on a particular day, because I know from experience that I will be better on a fresh day. I try not to do much on the project between writing sessions, except to think about planning in the general sense (how many more days do I need?) or check a few books I need out of the library. Sometimes, a brilliant simplification will occur to me when I'm not writing or even thinking about my project.

A brilliant simplification means a way of eliminating unnecessary elements that are getting in your way. Sometimes being away from a project a week will help, because when you return to it you will ask, "Why am i even talking about this irrelevant and tangential issue?"


Joseph Williams, in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, points out that you shouldn't have too many extra words or clauses before introducing the subject of the sentence. I had never really thought about this, but coincidentally I was reading prose by someone who frequently "front-loaded" sentences in just this way, to frustrating effect. The reader of English prose wants to get to the subject fast. "Nevertheless, wiith the support of the church, and despite the opposition of landowners who felt their interests threatened, agrarian refrom..." In this, my made-up example, you don't know what the church is supporting, what the topic of the sentence actually is, but you have to keep several elements in mind before you even know what the sentence is talking about.

Williams's book is a sensible one. I don't like everything about it, but I feel I can learn from any book of this kind, no matter how basic.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


During a recent writing session my attention was mostly focused on the writing itself. I wasn't monitoring how I felt, listening to either negative or positive voices in my head "You are stupid" "You are brilliant." The writing felt good, but I wasn't concentrating on my ego either positively or negatively. I was happy but in an unself-conscious way.

Positive focus on the ego or negative focus are both distractions. I can stop and admire myself for a sentence I just wrote without too much interruption, but that isn't the main point. Negative thoughts are worse, when they are about the self and not about the writing, because they interrupt more obnoxiously.

Notice the profound difference between "This sentence still doesn't say what I want it to say" and "I am inadequate; I will never finish this article." Both are "negative" thoughts, right? But the first is specific and productive (you can fix the sentence) and also detached from the ego. You wouldn't break into tears when you realized that a sentence didn't say exactly what you wanted it to. The latter is generalized (cannot be addressed in any way) and wholly unproductive.

So the SMT I derive from this is that your writing is not you. Its imperfections are not imperfections of your self, and its virtues are not virtues of you either. It is an exterior object on which you are working. The more you focus on it and not yourself, the better. If the ego distracts, either positively or negatively, put it back in its place. Feel pride in what you do, or as much anxiety as you want, but separate that from the real work of writing.

Monday, January 3, 2011


It takes a lot of hard work to get to the point where you can write without too much extra effort. You might have a stake in keeping writing difficult for yourself, but you can allow yourself to give up the fetish of exertion for its own sake. It doesn't have to feel like work all the time. Think of it as being put into the game when you want to play, or being given a solo in the band.


Imagine a sentence that you just can't get right. You've written it and re-written it and it still doesn't sound like it should. Is the solution more work, or less? What you probably need to do is re-write the sentence in a simpler form, making it sound like a sentence that was easy to write.


A student "worked hard" on a paper that, nevertheless, still has a grammatical mistake in every sentence. As a reader, I don't really care about effort. If the house is still cold, it doesn't matter how much fuel was burnt to heat it. In fact, if the house is cold despite a huge expenditure of energy, then I have two problems: a cold house and a high gas bill.


Obviously, there will still be times when exertion, or effort, are necessary. Difficulty, in fact, is part of the fun of what we do.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Inadequate, Tired, Stupid

According to Munger, the academic writer working hard enough should feel inadequate, tired, and stupid while writing. Let's break this down a bit.
(1) Inadequate. You shouldn't be writing from a place of incompetence. You have worked on your scholarly base and you are defending well-defined claims. Humility is all well and good, but without some faith in what you are affirming you won't be able to speak with authority.

(2) Tired. You will work better, write better, if you are well-rested. There is no point in fetishizing exhaustion. If after 2 hours you are tired, stop writing.

(3) Stupid. You might feel stupid because of something you are failing to understand. It's fine to feel frustrated by an intellectual challenge, but you have to know that you are smart enough to rise to it.

So no, none of these feelings is a sign that you are working productively. Inadequate, tired, and stupid is a good recipe for writer's block.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


This article by Michael Munger gave me pause. Most of it is helpful, but his statement that
[w]hen you are actually writing, and working as hard as you should be if you want to succeed, you will feel inadequate, stupid, and tired. If you don't feel like that, then you aren't working hard enough.

seems very, very wrong to me. First of all, the stupid fetishization of "hard work." Writing has to feel bad to produce good results, according to this kind of thinking. Often, I feel more than fine when I am writing, full of energy rather than tired, adequate rather than inadequate, and even reasonably smart. I'm not denying that negative thoughts will often accompany writing, but these thoughts are not signs of virtue or hard work. They have no value in themselves.

Cultivate a confident, energetic but relaxed alertness while writing. Exercise your intelligence. Don't be afraid of feeling it. If you tell yourself writing has to be painful, chances are you will be right! Even if you end up writing well, your writing will feel crabby to your reader, just like a drummer with tense muscles is not likely to be playing "in the pocket." I've had highly productive writing sessions that felt almost effortless, where I've felt brilliant.

Do not confuse this idea of "feeling it" with waiting to feel good enough to write, or expecting to feel good invariably while writing. Tedium, frustration, and fatigue will make appearances sooner or later. Where I differ with Munger is that I don't believe they are signs that you are doing things right. I think of negative thoughts and emotions, rather, as signals telling you to make adjustments to your attitude, your work habits. In that sense, and that sense alone, they are valuable.


Happy New Year. This post was published on 1/1/11 at 1:11 a.m.