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Writing is Thinking II: Takes it to the Next Level

April 18, 2013
Writing is Thinking II: Taking it to the Next Level

Writing is Thinking II: Taking It to the Next Level, a two-part writing event and workshop sponsored by the Center for Philosophy, Arts and Literature (PAL), The Thompson Writing Program, and the Graduate School, was held on Friday, March 1, 2013. This workshop built on the concepts introduced in the original workshop held on Friday, January 28, 2011, titled “Writing as Thinking: Writing as a Way of Life in the Academy,” an event that was designed to help graduate students and new Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences with the perennial problems of crafting research and writing in a sustainable manner. Approximately 65 graduate students attended the morning session, and an afternoon session allowed selected students to work directly with workshop presenters on a piece of writing that is in progress. The Duke University presenters included Toril Moi (Literature, Romance Studies,Theater Studies, PAL) and Kristen Neuschel (History, Thompson Writing Program). The invited speakers included Nancy Bauer (Philosophy, Tufts University), Bernard Rhie (English, Williams College), and Aaron Sachs (History, Cornell University). The text of Professor Toril Moi’s remarks is printed here.

Writing for Others: Or, What I Have Learnt About Academic Writing
from Writing for Newspapers

If we learn anything from studying philosophy and literature, it is surely that words matter. Our words express our experience, including our intellectual experience. They tell others what we see in the world around us, and in the books we read. But words also express the speaker. When I speak about my experiences, I can’t help revealing who I am: how perceptive I am, how thoughtful I am, what I am interested in, who I take myself to be speaking to, and much more. This is as true in academic matters as it is in everyday life, and it certainly explains why it can feel so scary to write, why it easily can come to feel as if it is not just my intellectual insights that are on the line, but myself, my whole being in the world.

If you belong to the large group of graduate students and professors who feel anxious about making their words public, who worry about their words’ power to reveal them, who fear that they will become the object of scorn when they hand over a manuscript to anyone at all, you have an urgent task ahead of you: you need to make your peace with writing, get to the point where it becomes an enjoyable part of your life. For you have chosen a way of life that requires you to find the words to express what you see in your research materials.

One student once succinctly expressed her anxiety about writing as a fear of “writing for others.” This was a deeply perceptive remark. For the fact is that writing always involves others, or, if you prefer a more theoretical phrasing, the Other. Even if you for some reason decide to write only for yourself, you won’t escape the Other, for language is in its very nature something public, something shared. To make writing enjoyable we must learn to experience writing for others as productive and helpful. Learning to edit oneself, learning to improve one’s drafts, is, essentially, learning to understand what others will make of our words.

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Learning to write for others involves many things. First, of course, you need to make writing part of everyday life. That was the topic of our first Writing Is Thinking workshop, in January 2011. That point is so fundamental that I will emphasize it again: Write every day. Make it a part of your life. But don’t despair if you can’t get to it one day. Just pick it up again the next day.

Two years ago I had two messages. The first was beware of the fantasy of a clear day, let alone the clear week or month. And don’t go overboard with the dream of the clear desk, either. In short, don’t put off writing until you have a clear day. Don’t clean the house before writing. Don’t let an appointment at noon prevent you from writing at ten a. m. Write first, clear off the busy work later. Surely you can go one more day without cleaning the refrigerator.

The second message was know yourself. Get to know and accept your writing process. Watch yourself trying to get ready to write; watch yourself writing. Watch yourself in the same way that Freud listened to his analysands: with “evenly suspended attention.” Call it a Zen attitude if you prefer. Don’t beat up on yourself. Accept yourself. Just figure out what you are like as a writer, and work with that.

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Today I will take it a step further. While it is absolutely fundamental to write every day, it isn’t all there is to a happy writing life. The theme of today’s workshop — take it to the next level — is a response to things I have heard from graduate students over the years. Two remarks, in particular, have stayed with me: “Now that I have made writing a part of my daily life, how do I make sure I turn out quality writing?” And: “I feel awful about this, but although I have been writing every day, I really haven’t produced anything dissertation grade to show you.” There is a difference between these remarks. The first is more neutral in its affect, more open to advice, more professional, in short. The second is far more anguished. The first student isn’t sure whether her drafts are good enough, the second is convinced they are not. It will be harder for the second than for the first to become a happy and productive writer. Yet both are grappling with the same question: how can I tell whether my writing is any good?

My message today is simple: The only way to learn to assess the quality of one’s own writing is by being open to the response of others. You have to be willing to rewrite based on their feed-back. However, it is not unusual to get conflicting advice. I can’t tell you how many times a graduate student has told me that she doesn’t know what to do, because Professor X has told her to revise in one way, and Professor Y has told her to go in quite the opposite direction. But you aren’t supposed to lose your own judgment in the process of listening to others. Don’t let anyone talk you out of writing about the things you really care about, those things that truly excite you. Do let them advise you on how best to communicate your excitement and passion to others. Revising and rewriting isn’t slavishly to follow instructions. In order to use others’ input productively you just need to make sure that you understand what it is in your text that makes your readers react as they do. Once you see why they say what they say, you will know what to do. Never forget that it is your text, and in the end you will have to take responsibility for it. In short: while engaging in the process of writing, listening to others, rewriting, and listening some more to others, never lose sight of what you genuinely care about. Try to mean every word you write.

You may be convinced that you have produced a work of staggering genius. But if none of your readers share your conviction, you should rewrite. Surely there are ways you can make your points clearer, better, stronger. Let’s be honest: the chances that your dissertation will turn out to be the Finnegans Wake of academia — a work that breaks all the rules, challenges the reader’s utmost powers of imagination and concentration in every sentence, and spawns a scholarly industry working overtime to annotate its enigmatic utterances — are not great. And unlike graduate students, Joyce didn’t have to go on the job market.

In any case, most of us don’t suffer from megalomania, but from excessive anxiety. For us, the question is how to develop the confidence to share our writing with others, and the skill to use their feed-back as productively as possible.

On this point, we can learn a lot from journalists. I know this from experience, for I am privileged to be allowed to write regularly for newspapers in my native country, Norway. I have also occasionally written for The Guardian, and I recently co-authored a piece for The New York Times. After over ten years of writing columns and opinion pieces, as well as reviews and longer articles on literary subjects, I can assure you that my academic writing has improved from the experience.

When I sat down to think about what I have learned from working with newspaper editors, I realized that I could divide my experiences in two: fundamental attitudes, and useful tricks of the trade. First the four attitudes:

think of writing as a process in which you necessarily interact with others
think of the editor as your ally
think of rewriting as where the writing gets its shape and its edge, where you finally realize what you are thinking
know when to let go

To write is to convey what you see to others. Therefore you need to understand how others react to your words. Don’t be either dismissive or dejected when they don’t understand. Be professional! Ask yourself what there is in your text that makes them misunderstand. Rewrite.

Your first readers are your allies, not your enemies. In a newspaper your editor wants your piece to be as powerful as possible. She wants readers who glance at the beginning to get so hooked that they go on to read the rest. Therefore she will ruthlessly point out that your draft lacks a clear point, correct sentences, exhort you to cut sections you really, really care about, and make no bones about what she has understood and misunderstood.

To encounter a truly good editor is an amazing stroke of luck. Such an editor makes you feel that she understands what you are trying to do, even when you haven’t in fact done it yet. If you find such an editor — or reader, or advisor — you will quickly learn to trust her reactions more than your own. Such an editor can actually tell you what your draft lacks, what she thinks you are saying, and what she thinks should be cut, and make you really see your text in a new and clearer light. I worked for years with such an editor. Because she always saw what I was trying to do, her advice was infallible. To collaborate with her saved me days and weeks of work.

If others misunderstand you, anger or dejection are not helpful reactions. Instead of brooding on the unfairness of the world, you need to learn to figure out why they take you to be saying what you are not in fact saying. As the British philosopher J. L. Austin puts it in a different context: “a misunderstanding about what we should say when is not to be shied off, but to be pounced upon: for the explanation of it can hardly fail to be illuminating.” In short: the very fact that your readers fail to get your point is an occasion for new discovery. Rejoice! Maybe you imagined the situation differently from your readers. Figure out what they thought the situation was. Rewrite to specify what conditions you had in mind. This will make your writing stronger, more lucid, more accessible to more readers. In short: other people’s reactions can only help you improve your writing.

Vulnerable and anxious writers overreact to the slightest criticism. If you want to become a better writer, you have to be able to distinguish between genuine feedback and a hostile put-down. Don’t be paranoid! Before you react, think about it. Let the reader’s point sink in. Try to see it from his or her point of view. If they explain why they don’t share your perspective, if they tell you what they miss in your text, if they point out clunky syntax and bad grammar, they are helping you to improve your text. Be grateful that they bother. Rewriting and revising give your writing edge and shape. Sharp prose will make your text stand out among hundreds. (Let’s face it: nobody — not even academics on search committees — enjoys the drudgery of reading boring and badly organized prose. Make the reading enjoyable, and you will get published, and maybe get a job too.)

So far I have insisted that other people’s reactions can only help you improve your writing. But what about the absolutely evil reaction, the hostile put-down, the nasty slur? Luckily, such reactions are quite rare. But if you do receive an unremittingly hostile response, remember that such reactions tell you more about the speaker than about your paper. Don’t use this reader again. If she is your dissertation director, change director.

The last attitude is knowing when to let a text go. This is also quite an art, for there is no obvious end to the process of writing and rewriting. Publication is no guarantee of perfection. (Surely we all know this: think of all the less than stellar published articles you have read in your life!) When I pick up a text I published years ago, I often get overwhelmed by the urge to “fix” it, to correct clunky sentences, to recast the argument, to make it better. But then I remember that there is nothing more I can do about that text now. I let it go when it was as good as I could make it at the time when I wrote it. It may not be perfect, but — but wait! What am I saying? Of course it isn’t perfect! What text is? Even Shakespeare had his weak moments. Why should my texts be perfect? To adapt a phrase by the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott: aim for good-enough writing. A writer haunted by the specter of perfection is doomed to misery.

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As for the tricks of the trade — the techniques that newspapers have helped me develop or fine-tune, the most important ones, the ones that have most helped me to improve my academic writing are these:

consider your readers: what information must you supply to get your point across?
make your text as accessible as it can be given its subject matter
avoid jargon, define your terms
write to a specific length
write succinctly —- cut verbiage: every character (including spaces) counts
make sure each paragraph has a clear point or purpose
make sure every larger section has a clear point, too
learn to cherish deadlines (newspaper deadlines are real)

This list really boils down to three major points:

(1) Write clearly for readers who may not have read exactly the same books as you. An example would be my reference to the “British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott” above. I could just have written “Winnicott,” which would assume that you all know who he is, namely the British psychoanalyst who invented the term “good-enough mothering.” If you take the trouble to add small explanations here and there, your manuscript will be much more available to readers who don’t share your frame of reference. Remember some members of your dissertation committee, and many members of a search committee may not share your field of expertise. Why alienate them gratuitously?

(2) Write strong prose. Strong prose is succinct. Train yourself to be aware of how much “scaffolding,” how many useless words you have in any given sentence. Ask yourself if your paragraphs are clearly organized. Can you cut anything in a given paragraph without losing your point? Does each paragraph naturally follow from the previous one? Learn to edit yourself on paragraph and sentence level. Learn to cut to the chase. Don’t ever say “I couldn’t make it shorter.” You always can. It just takes more time. If you can do all this, your paper will stand out a mile among the piles of manuscripts received by publishers, academic journals, search committees or the average faculty member. Do your professor the favor of giving her something enjoyable to read!

(3) Stick to deadlines. If you know you can’t make a deadline, try to negotiate a new one well ahead of time. A newspaper editor won’t hire you again if you force her to fill the column inches she saved for you with some other material at the last minute. Your dissertation director can’t exactly fire you, but she can get intensely annoyed by your constant breaking of agreed deadlines. If you keep doing this, she will get the impression that you have no respect for her time, that you expect her to read your prose at five minutes’ notice, regardless of her own work pressures. On the other hand, if you stick to your deadlines, you can and should expect her to stick to hers. There is no excuse for taking months to respond to a draft chapter delivered on time.

If you do all this, you will become the professional writer you need to become if you are to succeed as an academic. A professional writer is someone who knows that writing is a continuous process that requires the input of others. A professional writer rewrites and reworks her text as many times as it takes. A professional writer knows when to let a text go. A professional writer knows how to craft a decent sentence, and a decent paragraph. Above all, a professional writer knows that feedback from others is not about her worth as a human being, but about the writing.