Monthly Archives: October 2019


This came up in two of my classes last week. And back in August I pushed back a little on Eric Hayot’s approach to it. But today I find myself being mainly grateful for his honesty on the subject. In his Elements of Academic Style, he writes:

Let’s start with fear. I am terrified — seriously terrified — of academic writing. Nothing that I do confronts me as strongly with a fear of total, consuming incompetency and inadequacy. The problem is that I’m trying to be great, and I am (quite reasonably, unfortunately) afraid that I am not great. (P. 17)

I think some of my students are entirely familiar with this feeling. So am I, of course. But this morning a clip of Barack Obama urging college students to “get over” their obsession with being politically “woke” sooner rather than later has inspired me to repeat what I told my students last week.

If you’re seriously afraid of hearing what your classmates think of your writing (or of them finding out what you think of theirs) you need to “get over that quickly” too. At a deeper level you are, of course, like Eric and I, afraid that you’re ideas aren’t so “great”. When we write for our peers we are exposing our ideas to criticism from people who are specifically qualified to tell us we are wrong. This can be a little scary, to be sure, but it is important that we face this difficulty squarely every day. It is by facing our fears that we overcome them.

To that end, make sure that you face a fear that you really can overcome. You don’t cure your fear of heights by going skydiving on the first day. (Disclaimer: I am not a psychologists or in any way an expert on phobias. I’m talking about ordinary, garden-variety fear, here.) You have to find a small manageable occasion on which to face it. You should cultivate my “little disciplines” and seek “unfiltered feedback” on the results. Write a single paragraph in a single, well-defined sitting. Then ask a peer for a few minutes of feedback on what you have made. Do the writing deliberately and listen to the feedback carefully. Relax. Don’t make it a big ordeal or a socially complicated act. When it’s done you’re a little stronger and little less afraid of exposing your ideas to criticism.

As Obama says, even the best person has flaws; your enemies love their children too. Good writers can have bad ideas and even the greatest thinkers have written some impenetrable prose. Get comfortable with the idea of not being great in every paragraph. Then just put your mind to being as a good as you can. And put yourself out there.

Seven Little Disciplines

I’ve been talking to students lately about deciding what to say and how to say it. In this post, I want to break these competences down into seven simple exercises that can be trained deliberately. If you can make this part of your discipline as a student or a scholar, it may help you develop a workable style — a way of writing that gets the job done. The first two exercises should be carried out in sequence at the end of the day before you do the other five, which I recommend you do at the beginning of the next day. Naturally, I recommend you do this on a regular basis, either every day or every other day, for about 4 x 8 weeks of the year. Every series of exercises will take 5 + 30 minutes of your time. So you can prioritize your investment accordingly.

[Update: I ended up writing a post for each discipline. Click on the numbers to see them.]

1. At the end of the day, when you have decided you’re not going to get any smarter, spend exactly two minutes thinking of an intellectually interesting object. Remember that “intellectual interest” isn’t a merely subjective matter. It’s what connects you to your peers. It should be possible think of something that is of interest to you and to others working in your field — if you’re a student, to your classmates. In two minutes, you should only name this thing. Since you’ll probably spend the time deciding among alternatives, just keep one at the top of the list and when the two minutes are up, that’s your choice.

2. Now spend three minutes writing a sentence that conceptualizes this thing in the intellectually interesting way you had in mind. You can approach this in any number of ways: you can install it on a background of shared concern, you can make your theoretical expectations of it explicit, you can suggest a good way to study it, you can summarize an analysis of it, or you can discuss its implications for theory or practice. The important thing is to write an intellectually interesting true sentence about it. Jot down a short simple sentence right away and then spend the time refining it, making sure it’s always a grammatically correct sentence. After three minutes, stop. Your working day is now officially over. Time to relax.

Don’t think about what you’ve done until tomorrow morning, when you will sit down at a particular time to write a paragraph using it as your key sentence. You decide when, but make it the first intellectually challenging thing you do. You need to set aside exactly 30 minutes. Start on time and finish on time.

3. Spend two minutes retyping and thinking carefully about your key sentence. What difficulty does it pose for your reader? Will you need to support, elaborate or defend it? How can it most clearly occasion that difficulty, setting up your next task?

4. Spend ten minutes writing more sentences, coming up with the relevant support, elaboration or defense of your claim. The goal isn’t to write as much or as fast as you absolutely can, but you do want to write at least six sentences if possible. You want to draw out the supporting, elaborating or defending details quickly and efficiently, but also accurately.

5. Spend ten minutes clarifying what you have produced so far. This could involve adding more details to shed even greater light on what you’re saying. But it could also mean removing sentences that are taking you off topic or reordering the sentences in a more logical way. This is also where you can think about where the key sentence should end up. (It doesn’t have to be at the beginning of the paragraph.)

6. Read the paragraph out loud and polish it for five minutes. Consider the spelling and punctuation and referencing, but focus especially on the rhythm of the sentences.

7. React to whatever you learned about your paragraph by reading it out loud. Begin with the sound of the paragraph and improve it from there. When the five minutes are up, your 27 minute writing moment is over.

0. Do “nothing” for three minutes. This can take some practice, some discipline, to get right. Don’t keep working on your paragraph and don’t begin to do the next thing you have planned. Just relax. Put some space between the paragraph and the rest of your day. Then get on with it. (I don’t literally mean do nothing. But that is a possibility. You can do some push-ups, read a short poem, listen to a short piece of music. Just three minutes that are spent neither writing nor doing your next work-related task.)

That’s it. You don’t have to do exactly my exercises (but why not try them a few times?) and you don’t have to stick to my times. If you want compress the paragraph writing from 30 to 20 minutes, be my guest. But do try to become good at some discrete trainable activities. Become good at picking something to talk about, saying something about it, beginning a paragraph, composing one, sharpening it, and reading it out loud. Become good at stopping, at taking a break. Become good at getting down to your writing and then getting on with your day. Work on your discipline. And remember that being good at something means being able to enjoy it. Work on that too.

Boxers and Dancers

“Ballet and boxing require the single person to spend a lot of time with one’s self, and it’s very mental as a well as physical.” (Zoe Emilie Henrot, artistic director of the St. Paul Ballet)

“Movement is probably the biggest thing.” (Dalton Outlaw, founder of Element Boxing)

Kurt Vonnegut used to distinguish between “swoopers” and “bashers”. Some people write quick first drafts and spend a lot of time editing them into shape, while others work slowly, sentence by sentence, getting each of them right the first time around. Not only did he think that these types correlated roughly with the gender of the writer (you can guess how), he also thought they expressed different life attitudes. “Swoopers,” he suggested, “find it wonderful that people are funny or tragic or whatever, worth reporting, without wondering why or how people are alive in the first place,” while bashers are forever trying to figure out “What in heck is really going on?” (Timequake, p. 119)

In Monday’s post, I made a similar sort of distinction. I said that you’re free to think of yourself as a “boxer” or a “dancer” when deciding on a rhetorical posture for your paragraph. While I originally made the distinction in the spirit of “You don’t like that idea? I’ve got others,” as Marshall McLuhan put it, I’ve come to see that it may indicate two fundamentally different, but equally valid, attitudes to discourse. One may be more valid in some disciplines than the other, I should say, but there’s plenty of room in the academy for both kinds. There may even be plenty of room in each of us to try our hands (and feet) at both at different times. Indeed Muhammad Ali is often described as dancing in the ring. Jennifer Beals is surely a bit of a knockout.

And a little Googling brings us something rather amazing. It turns out that the St. Paul Ballet has collaborated with a boxing gym, Element Boxing, to put on a performance that reveals what dancers can learn from boxers and what boxers can learn from dancers. I sometimes argue with my fellow writing instructors about how “transferable” formal writings skills, like paragraphing and the composition of school essays, are to other contexts. Well, if boxers and dancers are able to teach each other skills across the boundary between art and sport, I’m going to remain hopeful about the the boundary between academic and professional writing, even classic and romantic style. If writing can be like an iceberg, surely a writer can be a like a dancer, or like a boxer. Indeed, as Hemingway probably understood as well as anyone ever has, whether you’re a writer or a boxer or a dancer — and even if you’re an iceberg — it’s all about the “the dignity of movement.”

As I said in my last post, remember that there is no single moment in a fight or a dance, and certainly not a in a career, that makes or breaks you. Even Jennifer Beals falls on her first attempt at the audition. Even “The Greatest” lost “The Fight of the Century”. The important thing is to work on your discipline every day (or at least every other day), building the skills that will serve you, round after round, sequence after sequence, paragraph after paragraph, moment after moment. Let the bell save you now and then. If you fall, pick yourself up and start again. Whatever you do, please remember to think kindly of the reader and make sure they’re on the same page, i.e., in the same ring or on the same floor. Don’t treat someone who came to fight as though it’s just a dance — they’ll think you’re making fun of them. And — for obvious reasons — do not punch someone who just wanted to dance.

Deciding How to Say It

Let’s begin with the immortal words of Virginia Woolf: “To know whom to write for is to know how to write.” When deciding how to write something you are deciding who to write for, and once that decision is made everything else follows. Once you have decided what you want to say, the how follows from the who, at least in principle, if not always in practice.

Now, in academic or scholarly writing, you should always be writing for a peer, so imagining your teacher or your editor (or Reviewer #2!) is simply not going to work. Examiners and gatekeepers are not, properly speaking, your readers; but both are trying to decide whether your actual reader will find your writing useful, and they will judge your work on that standard. So you have to imagine someone who is roughly as knowledgeable about the subject as you are, someone in your class or discipline that you consider an intellectual equal. As I sometimes put it, don’t look up to your reader and don’t look down on them; pick someone your own size and look them in the eye.

Consider the difficulty you are occasioning for the reader. Will your reader find what you are saying hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with? (Alternatively, is your reader bored?) This is an important decision — a fateful one, we might say — because it will determine your rhetorical posture — will you be supporting, elaborating, or defending what you decided (yesterday) to say.

Do imagine yourself adopting a kind of “stance” and imagine your reader facing you in the complementary position. If the reader is likely to doubt your claims, be ready to offer support for them. If the reader is likely to misunderstand you, be ready to elaborate on what you mean. If the reader is likely to reject your view, be ready to defend yourself. Some people imagine this as a boxing match, or at least some light sparring. But if you don’t like fighting (even figuratively), feel free to imagine you and your reader as dancers. Remember, however, that it’s not all about the knock-out punch or the big dip at the end. It’s about lasting out the round, maintaining your grace throughout the whole number, and having enough strength left over for the next.

Let’s consider your reader’s situation. In most cases, you are going to be composing a paragraph of no more than 200 words. This means you have about one minute of your reader’s attention to work with, and this minute is part of a series of minutes that you are also in complete control of. (Except for your first and last paragraphs, you have just occupied the preceding minute of their experience and you propose to occupy the one that comes after as well.) You have to respect this constraint on your reader’s time. Except under very particular circumstances, and only to accomplish a very deliberate literary effect, do not expect your reader to read your paragraph two or three times. Imagine you only have their attention for one minute and that they’ve already spent as many minutes in your company as you’ve given them paragraphs to read.

Take stock of your resources. First of all, you have much more time than the reader. An ideal writing moment lasts 27 minutes and is followed by a 3-minute break. You are 27 times stronger (or faster, if you like) than your reader. You are writing in “bullet time”. More importantly, you are writing from the center of your epistemic strength, presenting justified, true beliefs that you are able to converse intelligently about in person. The paragraph you are now writing is just the tip of the iceberg of your knowledge, and it will have the dignity of everything that lies. unseen and unsaid, below the surface. An important part of the “how” of writing is experiencing yourself as knowledgeable, as solidly grounded in the literature, your experience, and your reasoning — everything you have read, everything you have seen and done, and everything you have thought carefully about. You have chosen but one of our many ideas that are as solidly well-founded as this. Write with the confidence that this choice gives you.

At the end of the day, writing well means choosing the right words in the right order, to help the reader overcome the difficulty of what you are saying. You want to put the reader on the same solid footing you have for believing what you are saying to be true. This will also give them a way to understand you and, of course, a way to disagree with you. That’s what academic writing is for — to share our reasons for believing things, so that others may understand us or challenge us as they will. Remember to conserve your strength, which is to say, don’t try to put all your ideas in a single paragraph. This is one round of what may be many. The night is still young.

Deciding What You Want to Say

Good academic writers are people who can take a moment, or a series of moments, to write down what they think on a particular subject. Specifically, they are able to make effective use of twenty or thirty minutes to produce a paragraph of coherent prose. If they know something, they know that they know it, and also how they know it. So they can tell you what they think and why they think so. Working under a reasonable set of constraints, they can put all of this in writing. That, in any case, is the sense in which I try to help scholars and students become good (i.e., better) academic writers.

If you want to be a good academic writer, therefore, you have to learn how to make up your mind about what you are going to say. In fact, making up your mind is part of the much larger competence of being “knowledgeable”, and deciding what you’ll say in a particular paragraph is a way of keeping that competence in shape. This is why I recommend that you train it specifically and deliberately. The simplest way to do this is to take a very short moment, lasting no more than five minutes at the end of your working day, and write down a single true sentence that you know. A simple, declarative sentence that expresses a justified, true belief that you hold. Pick something that you already knew last week, even something you’ve known for months or years. Make sure it’s the sort of thing that you might use a paragraph to support, elaborate or defend in writing. Picking an idea with the right volume and attitude (the right message and rhetorical posture) is part of the craft. It’s something you want to be good at.

By waiting until the end of the day, you are making sure that it’s only the decision you are making. You will not write the paragraph itself; you’ll just decide what your paragraph will say. You are not yet training your ability to actually compose a paragraph; you’re training your ability to decide what to say. When the decision has been made, you’ll call it a day and begin your after-work activities. Relax. See some friends. Get something to Eat. Love. Pray. Sleep. You know the drill. The important thing is not to think about that sentence for the remains of the day. It may find its way into your dreams, but that is exactly where it belongs — in your unconscious. You’ve decided what you want to say, but you’re not yet in any position to decide whether it was a good idea, i.e., whether you made the right decision. You’ll find that out tomorrow.

Putting some conceptual space (and some actual time) between the decision and the execution, not only lets your unconscious prepare for the writing in the morning, it also sharpens your focus during the actual decision-making process. You go into it knowing you only have five minutes to think of something. So you’ll be picking ideas that are easily available to you, not ideas that you’re still struggling to understand. You’ll be calling on your clearest and most distinct ideas. (Descartes would be proud!) If you’re working on a project or paper, some ideas will be at the front of your mind, but only some of them will be clear enough to note down in a sentence given only five minutes of your attention. Those are the ones you want to choose from.

I know this all seems very artificial. But it is actually possible to develop this ability, and once you have it, you can apply it in more spontaneous ways. I will always insist that the best writing emerges from decisions that were made the day before they were executed. (In fact, most of the best actions are probably taken that way.) But those aren’t always the conditions under which real writing gets done. That’s why I’m suggesting you practice; for just a moment every day, or every other day, give your self slightly more ideal conditions than normal. Be a little more deliberate than you’re used to. Remember that athletes aren’t always competing, musicians aren’t always performing. Sometimes they’re just trying to get better. On Monday, I’ll say something about what to do with your decision when you get up the next day. Today, I just wanted to stress that making the decision is itself a valuable skill you develop through training.