Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Enjoy It First

Even the most devoted instructor cannot teach a good style or reduce the elements of style to a set of quickly learned techniques. We learn to write well, if we ever do, by reading good prose, paying close attention to our own words, revising relentlessly, and recalling the connections between written and spoken language.

Christopher Lasch

I sometimes get invited to hold workshops about academic writing. (I've just returned from three wonderful days in Budapest, for example.) I am mindful of the desire of participants to learn concrete "tricks of the trade", rules of composition, and guidelines for authors. Quite understandably, participants in my workshops hope that I will tell them something they don't already know. They assume that the reason they are not getting published as much as they would like is that there is something about publishing that they don't understand. That is, of course, partly true, and I do try to be as straightforwardly informative as I can. But there are real limits to what I can accomplish in a one-day workshop. What I can do, however, is to emphasize the importance of individual discipline and social environment.

You cannot learn to write publishable prose overnight. Nor can an editor convert your notes into a publishable article by fixing the grammar. Successful academic writers are people who have made a habit of prosing their world, as Foucault might put it, and of conversing about it. They have submitted to a writing discipline and are embedded in a environment that reads their work. So I talk a lot about how to organize your time and how to build up a local community around writing.

Are you writing regularly? Does your writing schedule include periods of revision and proofreading? Does your reading respect your writing (and vice versa)? Do you have time to take your writing sessions seriously as learning opportunities? Do you study your own writing alongside the good prose you are reading? Do you have conversations with peers about the things you are writing about? That is, is there a "spoken language" for your research?

Like Anne Huff, I like to emphasize the role of "exemplars". Try to agree with your colleagues about a collection of, say, thirty journal articles that set a useful standard for work in your field, and then hold regular sessions to discuss those articles, either individually or in various combinations. What is it that makes them "good"? What distinguishes them as publishable prose? You can talk about whatever you like: theory choice, methodology, empirical conclusions, and, of course, style and composition. This ongoing conversation about the standard-setting articles in your field will then support your own attempts to write likewise publishable prose.

Scholarship is a long journey. There are about a 1000 days between the start of a PhD program and its completion. Perhaps another 1000 between your assistant professorship and your associate professorship. After that, you probably have another 10,000 days as a scholar before you. You have to be relentless about your writing in those days; you have to be paying attention. But you also have to enjoy it. Spend the first 1000 days or 2000 days of research learning whether or not you enjoy the work of articulating what you know in "academic prose" and talking to your peers about the ideas that are published in the literature. It's going to be a big part of your life.

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