Monday, November 29, 2010

Show Me the Type

Happy writers are all alike; unhappy writers are unhappy in their own way.* This wasn't quite how I responded to a question at a Writing Process Reengineering seminar on Friday, but it was what I had tried to say. The question was based on the idea, apparently promoted by the writers of some writing manuals, that there are different writing temperaments, different types of writers (the artistic type, I presume, the scientific type, the engineering type, the military type?), and that they should approach the task differently. Didn't my program of "outlines" and "schedules" assume a particular kind of writer (a very orderly and "linear" one)? I was asked. Shouldn't other kinds of writers do things differently?

"There may be different kinds of unhappy writers," I said. "All happy writers do it this way." That is, there may be many different reasons that people are not productive (expressed with sentences that begin "I'm the type that..."), but there is only one reason that they are productive: they are working on a regular schedule, writing paragraphs that fill out an outline. I suppose what I was really saying, however, is that the academic writer is already a "type" and if that's what you want to be, and be it happily, then you will have to experience the joy of writing paragraphs that defend claims one at a time. That's the only way.

If you are the "type" of writer who needs inspiration to write, or the type of writer who needs to read more before you begin to write, or if you are the type of writer who can't write for a half hour or an hour at a time but needs several days to get started, or if you are the type of writer who can't write when you're also teaching, or if you're the kind of writer who worries about how "original" you are or does not not know (or want to know) who your readers are, or if you're the kind of writer who can only write under the pressure of an immediate deadline, well, then, you will be unhappy (as an academic writer) in exactly that way. But if you write every day, always to a thesis and for a readership of your peers, one paragraph at a time, then you will be the "typical" happy academic writer.

Unhappy writers have their own approaches to writing. Happy writers do it my way.

*An aside for those who may or may not recognize this sentence. I am famously a stickler for plagiarism. Why don't I reference this allusion to the first sentence of Anna Karenina? I would argue, and I think rightly, that what I have done here is as obviously not my own (i.e., an obvious allusion to Tolstoy) as if I had written "To write or not to write: that is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous critics..." (Nor is my allusion, as a bit of Googling will show, very original either.)


Andrew Shields said...

The point of your footnote is that it is not plagiarism if you fail to use a footnote when parodying a well-known line. And that is one very well-known line! (Another frequently parodied one is the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, with variations on "it is a truth universally acknowledged.")

Thomas said...

Yes, in a paper I wouldn't have thought twice about it. But I do have a certain pedagogical mission in this blog. I figured it was a teachable moment.

Jonathan said...

Yes. Excellent post. It is a truth universally acknowledged that unhappy writers all use the same excuses, or excuses taken from the same reservoir of excuses. Happy writers all come by different routes to the same conclusions. I've been an unhappy writer myself and have come around to the one way of doing it happily.

Jonathan said...

BTW. i'd love to have you cross-post this to Stupid Motivational Tricks. At your discretion of course.

Thomas said...


I think unhappy writers make the mistake of thinking they are unique in too many ways. As if the "trick" to writing hadn't been discovered until they began to express themselves in prose.

Andrew Shields said...

At the moment, I myself am going down the road toward being an unhappy writer (getting little writing done), but I am at least a happy translator (getting steady work done on a big, fun translation project due in February).

[Corrected version of typo-laden first version of comment!)