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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Writing Philosophy

My colleague had a piece I had written for a writing workshop several years ago, long before I started Stupid Motivational Tricks. She just gave it to. It will be interesting to see whether I still agree with what I wrote.

Writing philosophy

How can we define acceptable writing in an academic environment? There are certain basic norms or conventions to be learned, but merely following basic guidelines is not sufficient. You also need to develop your own sense of style or "writing philosophy." I have articulated my own below, but this is only an example. Other faculty members will have other approaches.

Good writing, for me, packs a rhetorical punch. It has to have a rhythm in the unfolding of sentences and the development of ideas, carrying the reader forward toward an inexorable conclusion. I want what I write to be concise and rich in information. I value clarity, but not at the expense of complexity. My prose should correlate strongly with my stance as a literary critic: dull, lifeless writing can actually undermine my arguments.

I strive for "vertical integration," that is to say, the well-articulated connection between a conceptual scheme, or theoretical framework, and specific details or examples. Some people are more comfortable with concrete details; others are more abstract thinkers. The integration of these two styles is extremely difficult: few people are equally at home with abstract and concrete thinking, and fewer still have learned to integrate these styles.

Whenever possible, I avoid empty words like theme, important, diverse, and interesting, or critical clich├ęs like "this book makes a significant contribution to the field." (You might want to make your own list of words to be banished from your writing.). I dislike trite puns and the typographical clutter caused by parentheses within words: "the ca(n)on of (con)temporary literature." I make a distinction between technical terms and "jargon." Call a metonymy a metonymy, if that's what it is, but don't use jargon in order to strike a posture or to call attention to your own cleverness.

That being said, there is no single standard for good writing: develop you own preferences by reflecting on the qualities you most admire or dislike in the writing of others. You should have a few favorite writer-scholars. Listen carefully to what others say about how you write in order to ascertain whether you are meeting your own goals.


Tanya Golash-Boza said...

Thanks for this. It gives me something to strive for as well as serves as a reminder that academic writing does not have to be terrible. I think I have moved away from academic writing because I was so sick of boring prose. Perhaps there is still hope. I am working on the final revisions to an article, and will try to make the writing more elegant before I hit "submit."

Jonathan said...

Thanks. I wrote this in 2002 and I still agree with most of it.