Wow. I had no idea that what I thought was a one-off screed would resonate with so many of you. Clearly, a lot of us have dealt with those who think can bust out a novel on the spot. One commenter made the excellent note that people can write, but not all of them can write well.
I thought about the comment again this past weekend. I was on a business trip. Our tasks require an intense amount of teamwork. When it’s not time for me to do my part of the task, which is based in writing and research, I want to pitch in and help out everyone else. I always feel guilty if I’m not pulling my weight.
I was doing the usual and pitching in, but one of my bosses took me aside and gave me advice that I’ve never heard before:
You don’t always have to pitch in. The [other members of the team] are doing what they’re doing because they’re good at it. You can rest so you can keep doing well. Don’t feel guilty–if they need help, they’ll ask for it.
So I took a break and got out of the way. I admit that i felt guilty, but my boss was right. When someone needed help lifting a recliner (long, long story), they asked me.
When it came time for me to do my thing, I was rested and ready. The people I was working with trusted me to do my job, and that was a beautiful feeling. I had the client’s goals, I had my materials, and I was set. That doesn’t mean that other members of the team didn’t give me feedback, but their feedback wasn’t based on the fact that they thought they could write as well as me. Instead, they were offering feedback from their own business perspectives. I freely admit that I don’t agree with all the feedback, but it’s way easier to handle constructive criticism when you know that the person giving the critique obviously thinks you’re capable.
Photo of Herman Mankiewicz, Orson Welles, and John Houseman during the writing of “Citizen Kane,” 1938. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
When people start questioning funding for higher education, they often take dead aim at the humanities, assuming that the humanities aren’t as useful as, say, marketing. What makes the humanities such an easy target?
I think much of it stems from arrogance, in that so many people think they can write. Stringing words together seems easy, and companies don’t always invest in skilled writers because they think they can do the writing themselves.
That’s not always the case. How many times have you seen a company brochure that goes on and on without any awareness of who the audience is? Or blatant grammatical errors? Or misapplied sales-speak? Or blatant logical fallacies? (Campaign brochures whose arguments rest on the slippery slope fallacy, I am talking to you!)
I’m not a master writer, but writing calls for a base level of competence, one that goes beyond the ability to spell words correctly. A writer needs to know spelling, grammar, history, logic and even psychology. Companies wouldn’t dare attempt to tackle computer programming themselves, but they’ll change the words of a writer with the utmost confidence that “anyone can do it.” The words of a writer aren’t sacred–far from it–but writers do not pull stuff out of their butt. In order to write well, a person must also be able to read critically to find evidence and assemble an argument. Writing may not be as difficult as being a doctor or a physicist, but it isn’t a place where you can cut corners or offer low wages.
Image of typing in water from 1926, Bundesarchiv from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.
I Write Like is a nifty little site that lets you paste in a chunk of text and find out which famous author might turn out similar work.
Who knows if the results are randomly generated or tied to a complexity rating? But I thought it would be fun to plug in the classic examples of Bad Writing to find out who these academics wrote like.
First, a famous chunk from Homi Bhabha:
“If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to ‘normalize’ formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”
Hmmm …. let’s try Judith Butler and find out if we can crack the code:
“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”
I predicted that I Write Like would return a 404 error, but I guess not. Then again, I put in some of my own writing and found out that I write like David Foster Wallace, which is flattering, but I certainly do not write like Judith Butler, so I think they still need to work out a few bugs.
Say what you will about deadline pressure and the 9-to-5 grind, but a little pressure is good every now and then. As a writer and an editor in the Hamster World, I lost the luxury of waiting until I had a good idea to write a long time ago. Deadlines forced words out of me whether I liked it or not. Here’s how to cope if you’re in the kind of work environment where you’re a writer, but you can’t ask for an extension:
Admit it won’t be perfect. This is the hardest one, so we’ll get it out of the way now. Academics are perfectionists, and perfectionists and deadlines do not mix. In fact, they clash, and the deadline will win every time. Your editor or manager will be happier with you if you meet the deadline, not if you turn in perfect copy.
Treat the content like gold. When producing an article, content or copy, the style is much harder to handle than the substance. In most cases, however, what people want to see is the substance. How on earth do journalists generate so many articles? Because they focus on the substance, and they use a template that delivers the most important content–who? what? when? where? why?–first. Yes, it seems simple, but it’s popular because it works.
More tips after the jump! The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. Movie still, public domain on Wikimedia Commons.
At work, one of my colleagues suffered a hard drive crash, and it’s going to be a while before she can access her files. In the Hamster World, an IT department can come to your rescue. But what do you do if you’re a grad student or an academic and you don’t have IT guys at your disposal?
It’s time to get in the habit of backing up your files regularly. The process is kind of like flossing. It seems tedious, but it can save you from losing your files, which is almost as horrific as a root canal.
I use Norton 360, which nudges me every so often and tells me that it’s time to back up my computer. Windows also has a Backup and Restore feature.
A backup won’t do much good if you aren’t backing your files up to a CD, DVD, or external hard drive. The external hard drive is your best bet. It might cost a little something, but it has plenty of room. All you need to do is connect the external hard drive to your computer via a USB cable, plug it in, turn it on, and launch the backup program.
If that seems unwieldy, consider saving your files in the cloud. Try opening a free Dropbox account at dropbox.com. The Dropbox software creates a folder on your hard drive. By saving a file in that folder, it is automatically saved online, and you can fetch it when you need it. An even simpler alternative is Google Docs, although it has some space constraints and might not be the best fit for a dissertation-sized file.
A glimpse of the horror you will feel after a busted hard drive from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Establishing a shorter time to degree has its pros and cons. One major pro might surprise you: Writing gets better when you are forced to work with boundaries, whether they are deadlines, word limits, or formatting restrictions.
Lifehacker suggests that people are more productive when faced with limits because you have to get creative. The best limit I set for myself is trying to answer one single question in a piece of writing. “What do I want someone to think or do after reading this piece?”
Usually, in the kind of writing that I do, the answer is simple: Buy now, call us, click through, etc. Once you have that goal, you can flesh it out. Otherwise, you’ll get lost, and the reader will get lost as you try to explain several different ideas at once.
This is tough for academics because academic writing involves a slow buildup, and the best academics can build an argument brick by brick. This style has value and can lead to surprising conclusions, but if you want to hook a reader, you need to at least suggest that you will answer one question. Then, once the reader is hooked, you can go all Derrida on them and take them on the theoretical equivalent of a magic carpet ride.
FYI: I hope that, after reading this piece, you set a deadline for finishing your dissertation or turning your resume into a CV.
Image of the seen power of the picket fence by Idir Fida from Vancouver, Canada, from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.
I was reading this opinion piece from the Chronicle by Rachel Toor about bad academic writing and it got me wondering about who was the best writer–the academic, the creative writer, or the journalist. Now there’s no decisive way to judge this and the question seems to be a futile one to ask, at best, or a stupid one, at worst, since it obviously boils down to a matter of opinion and probably subject position. But seeing as I’m kinda two of the three types of writer I’ve listed, I was thinking about the skills that the different kinds of writing entail.
To try to compare apples to oranges to bananas, I came up with three criteria to consider each kind of writer/each style of writing: the writer’s strengths, the self-identified weaknesses, and how one might make a case for itself/against the others. I’m only focusing on an academic’s point of view here, since Toor’s essay got me to think about this. And if someone wants to make a case for the creative writer down the line, please do, because I’m definitely not one!
Strengths: As an academic, I’ve always been invested in the idea that scholarly writing was the superior or at least the most intellectually engaged (read: superior) form, because it allowed for the most complexity and the ability to make connections that neither journalism and creative writing could. So what if academic writing is dense and opaque more than some of the time?: It just reflected the complexity of the thought it was trying to convey and there really is an art to slowly building an argument that makes academic writing appealing. Plus, academic writing and research require a command of materials like no other, since the scholar needs not only to have a strong grasp of the creative works it is analyzing, but also other critical work in the field, historical background, and theoretical methodologies. So I guess that’s why academic essays and manuscripts have to be so long, if they have to incorporate all of those elements.
More below the fold…