Scholarly writing and how to get it done. / And a workshop for my own ideas, scholarly and poetic
I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet. The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
When Things Aren't Going So Well
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
You won't notice a difference here, because I write these posts several weeks in advance. This post, for example, was written on June 16 but is scheduled for publication on June 29. As long as I'm 14 days ahead when I start I won't have to write even blog posts during the vacation.
Monday, June 28, 2010
If you use better pens and inks, then you will find the need to use better paper as well, because fountain pen ink doesn't tend to do well with the cheap stuff. I just got a nice Clairefontaine notebook when I was in New York. I like Rhodia pads for the paper, but don't like their vertical orientation very much. Some go for Moleskin, but I don't find it great for fountain pens because it doesn't want to absorb any ink.
Much like fountain pens, even if they cost 75 bucks, get to be cheaper than bics that are rapidly thrown out or lost, good paper will tend to last longer: you will use it more economically in the long run, find more specialized and creative uses for them. I use cheap pads too, mind you. In fact, if is not a Rhodia pad or Clairefontaine, it should be as cheap as possible. With so much information exchanged electronically, we will have "papers" published on line that will have never been "papers" in the literal (or metonymic) sense at any stage of their production. At some point paper itself will only have a raison d'être as a craft or luxury item. The fountain pen may well outlast the bic.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
The To-Do List With a Single Item (cont.)
Grade Student papers / submit grades May 12
Reviewed article for [Academic Journal] May 21
Reviewed article for [Academic journal] June 10
Professor X's (at XXU) tenure letter June 12
Review of "Poesia y química" June 13
Finish conference talk June 14
You'll notice that I did all these things, but the "to do list with a single item" had something else on it, something that I did not do / have not done yet. I kept putting other, smaller tasks before the single item on my list. So maybe my idea of the list with a single item was not so brilliant after all. It works fine, as long as you don't want to actually do main thing you set out to do.
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Once you get 80% of it done you will basically have won. The article or chapter will no longer be able to put up serious resistance.
Friday, June 25, 2010
A Year of Reading
My topic will be Latin American poetry. I will read almost nothing but that for a year.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Writing in Ink with Feldman
As a rule I write in ink. It sharpens one's concentration. Erasure gives you the illusion you're going to make a more meaningful solution. If Beethoven wrote in ink he would have had an easier time of it.
(Give my Regards to Eighth Street, 207)
I work with a pen and that's a very interesting phenomenon because when I work with a pen everything is crossed out. Some pages there is nothing crossed out and it's usually those pages when there is something of a continuity.
I have always found it more beneficial to experiment with fountain pens than with musical ideas.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
A really good idea about how to organize time or how to fit tasks into slots of time is better than a really good idea about the substance of the work itself.
Monday, June 21, 2010
One thing I often notice about the texts I edit is their dependence on an external set of references to establish their form. This suggests an analogy, namely, two different tent designs. The first is the familiar military-style pole tent.
Notice all the guy ropes that are required to give the tent its shape, and how the skin hangs loosely off the poles, offering very little surface tension. Texts like this can be recognized by rather abrupt passages between the elements (poles) of perfectly good outlines (e.g., introduction, method, theory, results, discussion, conclusion) and a sense that the citations (ropes) are the main source of the truth and meaning of the sentences they support. It is also often clear that the only people who can really make sense of the empirical content are those who have the experiences that ground the paper. That is, the paper is held up precisely by being pegged down. It will stand up only in the exact spot that it's been built.
By contrast, a modern, self-standing dome tent uses few poles and sometimes no guy ropes at all to establish its structure.
It retains its shape even if you pick it off the ground and shake it. (A good way to "sweep" it out.) You can set it up, and if the ground underneath it turns out to be too lumpy you just move it somewhere else.
That's not possible with the old-style pole tent. Not only would you have to take it down altogether and set it up from the beginning, it takes a good deal more work to get it all done. It also takes more people, some of whom have to hold poles while others attach the ropes.
Imagine the difficulty of setting a tent up and pulling it down as what a reader has to do in order to "use" your text, to "inhabit" it, as it were (always temporarily of course). The trick is to stitch your material together as a coherent whole (the skin) so that once the logic of the argument is introduced (the poles) a nice rigid shape results. It means having an eye for internal rigour of your text, not just its external tenability.
There will always be a need for some external support, of course. And to allow a comfortable night's sleep the tent will have to rest squarely on the ground. A few well-placed pegs and guy ropes will not only keep the tent from blowing off in a high wind (discourse can be a stormy business, as you know), it will keep the fly off the cabin and reduce the chances of the rain getting in. But, at the end of the day, if you can pick up your text and shake the dirt out of it, you've done something right.
If you are particularly good in one aspect--organization, prose style, whatever--then you can take that off the table. For example, I can confidently say I have never had an article rejected because of the way in which it is written.
By having a higher internalized standard for your own work I mean simply being more rigorous with yourself than the average peer reviewer would be. Learn to be a good judge of your own work.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
This exercise might be useful in two ways. First of all, you will be able to see that your present conditions are not perfect, but they might be changeable in small and large ways. Go ahead and change a few things that might be already in your power. Next, realize that excellent work takes place in less than ideal conditions. Some people like the way music or ambient noise tugs at concentration; they might enjoy shutting out a chilly room from their mind. So "ideal" might not even be ideal.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Could I Write Faster?
What I want to do at this point is write exactly how much I want to at all times, neither rushing myself nor erecting obstacles for myself. Certain things have to be written slowly (remember that slow for me might be fast for you!). I have to slow myself down as much as I have to speed myself up.
At some point I want to spend a year just reading, writing nothing except this blog. I think I have earned it at this point. Probably it will be after book #5 is turned in to the publisher. The problem is going to be the internalized pressure to produce and how to turn that off. We are judged on calendar-year publications. I can not worry about that by simply realizing that these judgments result in minuscule differences in raises. This year, for example, we had a raise of zero so not having published two books would not have diminished my raise at all. If I read for a year I could do it in an academic year and thus stagger the effects.
Friday, June 18, 2010
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Here's an idea I came up with while explaining to one of my authors what was wrong with an early draft of a paper. I call it the Ramp for the Reader. A paper is trying to raise the knowledge level of the reader. We're trying to get our reader to understand something better than they did before they read what we wrote.
The problem with my author's paper was, in part, that it assumed too little about what the reader already knew, and, worse, that it gave the reader nowhere to put the new information after reading. I drew this picture:
Reading the paper looked like it would be a constant accumulation of information intended to get someone who knows nothing about the subject to know everything about it. It would be like rolling a ball up a hill. But what was even worse was that once once up there you would have keep standing there to keep it from rolling back down to the bottom ... and into the abyss.
As an alternative, I proposed the following image:
Here we have a platform or rest station, both at the top and at the bottom. (We could add a few along the way as well, of course.) If the reader gets tired, the ball rolls down to a level of already accomplished knowledge. If the reader succeeds, there is a nice place for it to rest at the top.
The trick is to identify the ball and the ramps. The ball is your main point, the ramp is your writing. The ramps are existing bodies of knowledge, already available in the literature. The reader has to get that ball up the ramp. So make sure the ball isn't too heavy, and the ramp isn't too steep.
It is the reader's job to get to that first ramp, where the ball is waiting. That was another problem with the draft we were talking about. It started as though the reader was already pushing the ball up the ramp. But a paper always has to start by identifying the ball and the first platform. It has to tell the reader what the writer assumes about where the reader is, right now, as the reading begins.
The Road to 6,000 Words
March 15: 1.600 words.
March 16: 2.000
March 17: 2.300
May 12: 2.900
May 17: 3.100
May 24: 3.800
May 25: 4.400
May 26: 4.900
May 27: 5.200
May 29: 5.600
May 30: 6.100
I wasn't finished on May 30, because the article still required extensive rewriting and the conversion of rough notes into prose, but the article had taken shape more or less in about 11 days, in two separate months.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Productiveness of the Lazy Day
My document, however, did not seem to care about how lazy I was. It still increased its length by 400 words, which is all it was asking. It may not have been my best work, but it will average out.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
I have an advantage in being a specialist in poetry, in that the language of poetry is always visible.
I read an essay recently arguing that the best typography is invisible. Maybe so, but it cannot be invisible for the typographer.
Monday, June 14, 2010
Now my writing ranges from a scrawl to something nearly calligraphic, depending on how much attention I'm putting into it. I use mostly fountain pens with some roller balls. Almost never a ball point. I could do all my writing on the computer but I feel the need to write long-hand at least a little bit every day. The flow of liquid fountain paper ink onto the paper is very pleasing, the texture of the paper in relation to the nib and the ink gives you immediate feedback, visual and tactile. You know when something is not right.
This is not a metaphor for writing, it is writing itself as a literal thing: literal, meaning pertaining to the letter itself, not in the figurative sense of "non-figurative." Yet we call writing, also, the composition of words meant for the page, even if the writing is done by dictation or by digital means. Morton Feldman once wrote that finding the right fountain pen was one of his main compositional problems. I believe him. Somehow if I had good penmanship and a good desk to work at, all my writing problems would be solved.
Sunday, June 13, 2010
Saturday, June 12, 2010
The Cluttered Page
Friday, June 11, 2010
If I Can Do It Does It Mean You Can?
I can write a 6,000-word article in 12-24 days of writing (assuming 250-500 words a day) for 2 to 3 hours. Figure in another 3-6 days of revision. So 15-27 days. These days willl usually fall into 1-3 separate months, not necessarily consecutive. Four months or more brings about a dissipation of energy.
So suppose you were twice as slow as I was. We're still talking 30-60 days. Those might have to fit in 2-5 months. You can still write the equivalent of 2 articles a year, which is quite respectable. Imagine coming up for full professor after 8 years and having 16 articles or the equivalent in books / book chapters.
If you don't feel smart or fast, you can be always be more regular and disciplined. Even if you are smart and a fast worker, the consistency of effort will be what determined what actually gets done.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Four Uses of Theory
(2) Theory as methodology. The critic is using a theory quite systematically as a framework to analyze a text.
(3) Theory as implicit system. In this case there is a theoretical framework, but it isn't really at the forefront discursively. There aren't a lot of citations of theorists by name. The entire analysis is informed by certain theoretical ideas.
(4) Theory as Anecdote.. "That reminds me of what Foucault said about..." Scattershot references to theorists.
(5) Original theory. Here the author is not explicating other theories, as in (1), but elaborating one of her own.
What I think is ideal for a dissertation is some combination of (2) and (3). There doesn't have to be a lot of metatheory (1), or summary of well-known ideas. A dissertaton on theory would consist of (1) with maybe a bit of (2). I think it's dangerous to confuse (2) with (4). I hate theory as anecdote.
In my own work, the main use of theory is a combination of (3) and (5). I like to just set forth my ideas without subordinating them to a methodology. My ultimate aim is to contribute to theory in a modest way (5). Of course, you can't do (5) without (1), and (1) already entails (5).
So the next time someone says that a particular critic is theoretically strong, you can ask them what they mean.
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
On my other blog, Bemsha Swing, I'll get hammered sometimes by commenters on some statement that I haven't properly qualified. It seems absurd, ridiculous, what I'm saying.
A corollary is that you can make the most uncontroversial claim using extreme rhetoric, and people will respond to your tone, without realizing that what you're saying is completely anodyne--or use a very bland tone to smuggle across a controversial point.
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Semicolon and Other Punctuation Notes
I reviewed an article the other day for a nameless journal. The article was written in Spanish and the author had the most annoying habit of separating the subject and the verb of a sentence with a comma. Writers of Spanish do this sometimes when the subject is a longer one, but it is not correct usage.
You usually don't need a comma after thus or and at the beginning of a sentence.
Monday, June 7, 2010
Breaking the Rules
Take the rule against beginning a sentence with the word and. Good writers use and and but at the beginning of sentences all the time. I was just reading Gary Wills in the New York Review of Books and he did this several times. Wills is an excellent stylist. The idea that we should first teach writing students not to do this, and then later let them in on the secret that many good writers do this all the time, makes absolutely no sense. It isn't a "rule" in the first place, stupid.
Sunday, June 6, 2010
The Base Style
A review of an article that only the editor and the author will see does not have to be as refined as a tenure letter perused by many committees. The tenure letter can still use boiler- plate phrasing like "serious contribution to the field" as long as it is clear, forceful, and concise. The blog post can be more casual and might even include jocular tmesis like "a whole nother thing." I personally would not use "thusly" ever, even in the most casual blogging or emailing. When I see this word in a dissertation, I go crazy. "Thusly" is not an acceptable word in academic writing.
The base style is your best, ordinary writing with nothing fancy added; a style easily improved upon with minimal revision, but still adequate for basic communication.
Saturday, June 5, 2010
I love Sarah and Billie too, but they don't have that quality of neutrality or purity.
Now think of your "instrument," your writing voice. It can be distinctively yours without being at the extreme fringe. There's plenty of room for personality even in a seemingly neutral style. You don't have the exaggerate your differences from other writers in order to be original.
Mannerisms that are shared mannerisms, those that every singer uses, are even worse, because they sound at once mannered and non-individualistic. Like the old joke: "How many jazz singers does it take to sing 'Summertime'?" --"All of them." One example might be the parenthesis in the title, like "(Un)queering the Renaissance...." or "(De)Constructing (Dis)ease." Very clever, but clever exactly in the same way everyone else is. I'm very allergic to that; you might have your own preferences and (dis)agree with me, but either way it's something to think about.
Friday, June 4, 2010
o w cld jst lv t ll th vwls cmpltl! Tht gts lttl hrdr, dsn't t?
Thursday, June 3, 2010
who passed through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night
You couldn't eliminate a single word from "who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York." It even has a passive voice! Eventually, though, Ginsberg's stories become similar to each other, overlapping in thematics so that the reader gets the (false) impression of verbosity. The same happens, however, with the Collected Stories of John Cheever or The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.
I love really concise writing, because of its memorability and forcefulness. I resent, as a reader, having to plod through many pages to get a tiny bit of new information. With verbosity also comes a lack of clarity, since the information becomes harder to locate and analyze. Nevertheless, I don't advocate a nitpicking elimination of every word that could, conceivably, be eliminated. That is, at best, a heuristic experiment: see how many words in a paragraph you can take away without effecting the meaning. Can you say the same thing in 75% of the words? 50%? 25%?
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Oh, dear. Again and again and again, American professors with absolutely no background in English grammar insist that their 21st-century college students should study this unpleasantly dogmatic little work, written by men born in the 19th century. But the dictats given in The Elements of Style range from the redundant to the insane. Anyone who read the book again and again and again, and took its edicts literally, would do disastrous damage to their writing.
Most of those who dip into it come out with some signs of a nervous cluelessness about grammar: they get edgy around adverbs and prepositions and instances of the verb be, without exactly knowing why they feel like that, or what they should do about it.
Nothing here is overstated or hyperbolic in the factual sense: Pullum believes all this quite literally. What is overstated is in the provacativeness of the tone: unpleasantly dogmatic, insane, disastrous damage, nervous cluelessness. The justification here is that Strunk & White's book is so revered yet so nefarious that only that kind of tone will suffice. I find this technique just as effective as the case of understatement I analyzed in May. You can have a nice effect on your readers either way, by objecting to something outrageous in very measured tones, or by objecting to something seemingly unobjectionable with outrage. Both techniques make the reader aware of the writer's perspective and attitude.
Pullum, by the way, is a wonderfully comic writer, deploying hyperbole, sarcasm, feigned (or real) outrage, and other similar effects with unforgettable aplomb.
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
(1) Economic. How much would it cost to replace the book? How much did I pay for it originally? Some were gifts, some would be expensive to replicate in that I would have to order them from Spain.
(2) Sentimental. The book is not only a gift, but bears the signature of the author, or a water-color drawing. Or it's a book I've had many years and one that has formed a part of my identity.
(3) Use value. A book I need right now or in the immediate future to do my research.
Obviously these categories overlap but don't coincide completely. The scholarly library is a main part of one's usable scholarly base: it is amassed over years, at considerable expense, cumulatively speaking. A few hundred dollars here, fifty there, ten or twenty there, over a virtual lifetime. There were books ruined that I've had since high school. And one forms sentimental attachments. I felt sick to my stomach when I saw a copy of some particularly prized volumes covered with ash and soaked in water.