Monday, March 1, 2010

Writers Write and Academics Do, Too

Sure, I married an editor/aspiring novelist.  And I have published a couple of books, but do I really know that much about writing?  Nope.

But Elmore Leonard does.  He may not always be right, but his take is interesting.  See this post for not just his take but how others come up with ten rules.

Margaret Atwood has some really good ones, besides bring two pencils on planes:
You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you're on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.

Roddy Doyle (who?):
Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.
Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg "horse", "ran", "said".
Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones.

Geof Dyer
Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over – or not. Conversation with my American publisher. Me: "I'm writing a book so boring, of such limited commercial appeal, that if you publish it, it will probably cost you your job." Publisher: "That's exactly what makes me want to stay in my job."
Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.

Anne Enright: 
The first 12 years are the worst.

Richard Ford has a short lists of do's and don'ts.

Neil Gaiman:

Put it aside. Read it pretending you've never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
 PD James:
Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

What are my rules for academic writing?  This should be familiar to my grad students, despite the fact they tend to ignore them most of the time.
  • 1) If it is not relevant, cut it.  Each paragraph should be internally consistent and then speak to the larger ideas of the work.  If you cannot link a paragraph to the general argument in a few steps, it deserves to die.
  • 2) Do not think in terms of literature review.  Lit reviews are boring.  You need to raise and consider what other folks have said, but only in terms of rule #1.  
  • 3) When reading, think not just of content, but the form/style of the best stuff you have read.  Content should not be plagiarized but form can be, ahem, imitated.
  • 4) Do not think of the dissertation/book when measuring progress.  Each day should produce pages/sections and thinking in terms of subunits of an outline is less daunting than thinking in terms of chapters or the entirety.
  • 5) Edit before having anyone else look at it.  And then edit again before having anyone else look at it.  I have had too many students present with something that is hard to read and overly long and then happily present me with something shorter--after I have read the long version.  Yuck.
  • 6) Consider feedback received seriously.  The critic may not be right, but you may not be either.
  • 7) Jargon is not inherently bad, but be sure that your understanding of it is the mainstream view.
  • 8) Once you have something ready to go, circulate among friends and then submit.  Try to have at least one thing under review at a time, as the processes take forever and are uncertain at best.
  • 9) Lists should always have either three, five, seven or ten items.  Never nine.
    Any suggestions?


    Anonymous said...

    Why not nine?

    Steve Saideman said...

    I edited to enumerate the list--hopefully, the joke now is a bit more obvious.

    Anonymous said...

    "Lists should always have either three, five, seven or ten items. Never nine."

    Now I'm paranoid about lists passed in...

    Steve Greene said...

    I think 1 and 2 are really spot-on. I definitely try and live by those myself.