Monday, January 08, 2007

Academic Writing: now with feeling

Writers normally begin the year with a resolution to write more, or at least more often, more regularly. That's certainly my intention with this blog. So, it's Monday afternoon, I'm waiting for my two o'clock meeting, and I pick Harry Blamires' Compose Yourself off the shelf. "This book," he begins (I don't recommend beginning that way), "is directed at readers who want to be able to express their thoughts on paper clearly and logically." There is nothing wrong with that desire, of course, but I think being able to write well is a broader skill. Let me start the new year by explaining what I mean.

First, let me suggest that "being able to express a thought" is really identical with the ability to put it "clearly and logically" to paper. So Blamires is simply proposing to help people express their thoughts in writing. Or, which is the same thing, he proposes to help people to write clearly and logically. Now, I think there is also a need to help people express their feelings on paper. Indeed, people arguably need more help in this department than the one Blamires proposes.

Even the most academic text has a mood. (I'll try to find Heidegger's remark to this effect in Being and Time.) Many research papers are difficult to read not just because their thoughts, but also their feelings, are imprecisely expressed. "Clarity" is our name for precision in thinking; "intensity" denotes the corresponding precision of feeling. So while I think people do well to write clearly and logically, I also feel that there is a need to help people write more intensely and passionately.

I don't mean they should write more "personally" or that they should say more about how they feel. I simply mean that the very specific set of feelings that underlie a particular research result could be much more precisely rendered in writing than is often the case. Writing involves thoughts and feelings. The difference between texts is a distribution of emphasis, not the absolute absence of one or the other. So, this year, whenever you are preparing your second-to-last draft, try saying "once more, and this time with feeling" before you begin your editing.

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