Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category
Good writing involves obsessing over punctuation marks.
Says this piece and goes on to list the 5 best punctuation marks (of which I knew only Primo Levi’s period). Via. The one I liked best in the list is the colon of Dickens:
4. The colon in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
“Marley was dead: to begin with.”
That is the opening line of A Christmas Carol, although it is less like an opening than like a train car immediately running into another train car. The sentence would be unremarkable if it read, “Marley was dead, to begin with.” The colon would be unremarkable if the sentence read “To begin with: Marley was dead.” But as written, this sentence is insane, or anyway destined to foment insanity in the grammatically prissy. It has death, a dangling participle, and a wonderfully garrulous narrator with some kind of unmentionable Victorian-era disease: wandering colon. It is great.
I agree; the others are close competitors. Take a look.
Tomorrow’s Professor has a post about writing as an action of discipline (post number 1209):
Perhaps brilliant, transformative ideas are not the only ones that should be written down (and perhaps these types of ideas only can come about in the context of writing more routine, ordinary insights). Perhaps the goal should be providing meaningful, valuable contributions to our professions. Expecting anything more may create too much pressure and lead to debilitating blocks and limitations. Besides, more than one brilliant scholar has been denied tenure for not having developed the practice of writing and so not publishing. To be successful in publishing articles, you need to develop writing as a practice or discipline.
In this sense, writing is similar to meditation. It is very hard to meditate well if you only do so once in awhile. Meditating only when you want to reduce stress may provide some benefits, yet many of the most powerful effects demand daily practice. When you meditate daily, meditation becomes integrated into the core of your life. Over time it becomes both easier and more beneficial. Having a daily meditation practice forces you to be disciplined, consistent, and focused. Over time, you experience new depths, insights, and benefits. If you miss more than a day or two, you come to feel as if something were missing, as if something were not right.
The same is true with writing. When you are out of practice, the blank sheet is daunting. However, when writing has become a central part of your life, words and ideas tend to flow—if not effortlessly, at least more smoothly. Daily or near-daily writing can even become like a meditation practice, something that takes you out of yourself, connects you to different parts of your personality, and helps you let go. When writing becomes a friend, a daily routine, it loses much of its anxiety-producing qualities.When you do not have to worry whether you will be able to produce because you already are producing on a consistent basis you are free to consider what you want to write about and who you want to become as a scholar. What we are suggesting is that we treat writing as a creative, life-inspiring practice. This clearly demands an attitude shift for many of us. It is not enough to wish this relationship into existence: it requires practice and work, including work on the psychological and emotional barriers that you identify in yourself. It also can mean learning to view writing as a vehicle for becoming more fully who you are. For some, this may be an extreme and unhelpful goal. For those of you who do not wish to see writing in this almost spiritual light, at the very least you nevertheless will need to develop a practice of writing.
The post could not have come at a better time for me than when I am struggling with nearly five writing projects: two big ones (book length writing projects), one very important (funding proposal) and a couple of small ones (papers to be completed and sent)!
It says a lot about Carl Djerassi that his first venture into literature was as an act of revenge. It was 1983; he was 60, an eminent professor of chemistry at Stanford University, famous for his successful synthesis, in 1951, of norethindrone, the first oral contraceptive. And he was in love with the woman who would become his third wife – Diane Middlebrook, the biographer, poet, and fellow Stanford professor. But, after several years together, she had fallen in love with someone else.
When he found out, Djerassi was distraught. “Like any man, I thought, ‘Who is this other person?’” he says now. “It turned out that he was a professor of literature. So I decided, ‘Well, I’m going to show her.’ And I started writing.”
Thomas Friedman knows how to write a freshman-year research paper at the last minute.
It goes on to point the importance of developing a formula:
… Friedman, although admittedly annoying, actually has manufactured a coherent, transportable analytical framework. We many disagree with it. He may simply be wrong (often, I suspect). But he’s actually got a coherent explanatory strategy that you can even spoof as Nolan has. The satire works because of the formula.
The sad thing is that, at this point, I’m not sure that we’ve got the same sorts of, hopefully much better, formula to provide a public based on new research in neuroanthropology. Evolutionary psychology has got a formula. Marxism has got a formula. Dynamic systems theory in biocultural anthropology — nope.
And, the need for effective writing with some examples:
One thing you and I at least try to do is communicate with the public, and to write reasonably clearly when we discuss our ideas and research. That in itself – good writing, without the convolutions and jargon and stilted prose seen in some academic papers – is a form of generalization. That is something I appreciated about the Nolan piece. Take this short paragraph:
Scrutiny does not make it more difficult for leaders to make sensible, brave decisions; it makes it more difficult for leaders to be corrupt and cheat on their wives. Thomas Friedman does not point out this discrepancy. He has more important thoughts to deliver.
That paragraph delivers critique, a discussion of power, a characterization of leaders, and more, all in four simple lines. It’s complex, even though it reads in a straight-forward manner. I do wish more anthropologists realized that effective writing matters. Rather than going on and on, hitting the reader over the head with all the detail of how something is complex, good writing can deliver complexity in an intelligible and enjoyable way. It’s one of our greatest tools, but we misuse it constantly.
And, there are also some nice pointers to writing a blog post too:
Have a lead, something to grab readers attention. Then tell readers what your post is about. Go through a series of clear points or illustrations (your argument). Wrap it up, generally by providing the reader with some sort of pay-off for sticking with you for so long – a good conclusion, some funny final thought, a personal note, and so forth.
In his pointer, John Hawks makes another interesting point about the current status of column writing:
The “public intellectual” space is choked with airheads who don’t understand science and technology. But I would sound like an airhead if I argued that people would better understand complexity if only scientists could write more like Thomas Friedman. The problem isn’t that the 800-word NY Times column lacks content. That’s foreordained. The problem is that longer-form pieces, the 4000-word New Yorker variety, have become the province of formula writers like Malcolm Gladwell. Long-form gives space to actually explore a complex idea, but mainstream media has blinkified the format. For now.
Finally, while we are on the topic, I had thoughts very similar to that of Greg and Daniel while reading Nico Slate’s Colored cosmopolitanism: the shared struggle for freedom in the United States and India. The book has several interesting things to say; but the way it says them is such a plod! And, certain passages are distinctly academic (specifically, of the dissertation or thesis writing variety). With a little bit of crisp-ifying, it would have been such a pleasure to read.
NB: By the way, the comment of how Slate’s book is written should not discourage you from picking it up; it is just a warning; the plodding is worth for the information that you glean; all I am saying is that it could have been done with more style and flair.
Rereading not only ferrets out problems, but it also ensures continuity of voice, as well as that elusive quality dear to both writers and rappers: flow. Constant rereading, which can be done out loud if you don’t trust your inner ear, is especially important now that progress has eliminated the tiresome but useful drudgery of retyping. Sometimes a glaring error that you motored blithely past a dozen times will become apparent only on the 13th read.
There are many more tips in the piece; take a look. Link via Jenny at Light Reading.
But I disagree that the scholarly monograph is dead. Personally, I expect monographs to undergo a renaissance as more academics adopt e-publishing. Academic presses affiliated with universities should be going all-digital, and should start massively promoting their back catalogs as e-books at fire-sale prices. The smart ones will take the opportunity to change their agenda, competing to publish new books by a new generation of scholars who are building a broad readership both inside and outside academia. There’s no reason why we need to constrain our scholarship to books so boring that nobody wants to read them. Tomorrow’s scholars should be engaging with a much broader public than university presses have historically cultivated.
I agree; of course, there is a stumbling block, and remedies for the same are discussed in the piece. take a look!
I need all of it and more since I will also be racing to meet the deadline on at least three different writing projects within the next three to six months:
Paradoxically, I think setting a 1,000 word/day pace for myself turns out to be a good way to bring on that more creative state, that feeling of being entangled with the work. The more you’re able to write to a schedule, the more likely you are to hit those great moments when you feel like you’re transcribing ideas that come from somewhere other than your own mind. It can take at least a day to get to that mental state where the ideas really flow well; inspiration doesn’t come in a flash, but after a long run-up. Put another way, those states can, to some degree, be induced: you can start wordsmithing and end up doing something really creative. This helps explain Frans Johannsen’s observation (in The Medici Effect) that creative people do some of their best, most memorable work when they’re doing a LOT of work. We assume that masterpieces are the result of long solitary focus on a single problem, but they’re more usually part of a bigger enterprise.
A good one!