On How-To Books

They’re alluring, they sell books, they get citations in papers, but at their core is a reduction in understanding, a learned helplessness, that I think is the opposite of what we should be striving for in academia.


Much of my writing involves giving practical advice to academic writers, which puts me squarely in the field of how-to guides. I personally like the genre. A good how-to book can be a real pleasure to read because you can sense the competence under the words of the writer. Oliver Senior’s How to Draw Hands is an example I often cite, and my struggle to write a book of my own is probably made more difficult by the impossible standard it sets in my mind. So when I read Chris’s reflections I had to take a moment to think it through. Are my two series of talks, twenty talks in all, all of them titled “How to…” one thing or another, really “the opposite of what we should be striving for in academia”? Am I empowering my students to meet the challenges of scholarship or inculcating a “learned helplessness”? Am I, at best, simply using those titles to “lure” an audience, to “sell” my ideas (even to get “cited”!)? At the end of the day, do my talks actually reduce their understanding of what scholarship is?

I’m not done thinking about these questions, but I was reminded of a blogpost at my retired blog that I wrote a decade and a half ago. I repost it here in a lightly edited form.

The downside of books — and blogs — about writing is that they leave the impression that there is something important to know about writing, and that we, who know it, can tell you how to write well. People who have difficulty expressing themselves in writing come to feel, by the very existence of so much good advice about how to do it, that their problem amounts to not having been let in on the secret. Underneath their inability to write, that is, they imagine a profound ignorance.

It is therefore important to emphasize that you do not learn what you need to know about writing by reading a book or listening to a teacher explain to you how a sentence, paragraph, or journal article “works”. You learn how to write well by writing regularly, revising often, and presenting your writing to its intended audience for critique. Good writing is not something you learn but something you train; it is not so much knowledge but discipline that counts. People who “can’t write” are not primarily stupid or ignorant. (Though they may also be such things.) They are just a little weak, a little out of shape.

Please don’t understand that too quickly.

Your prose style, like your physique and your posture, emerges from your training. People notice that you “write well” much like they might notice that you walk and stand with a certain kind of dignity, or that you are able to lift and move things with ease. Grace in everyday motion depends on having much stronger muscles than one “needs” for simple tasks, i.e., from being far from the limit of one’s power when doing ordinary things, and these virtues of physical comportment (dignity, ease, grace) are of course virtues of style. Good prose, similarly, has a certain kind of strength.

The purpose of a sentence and a paragraph is to affect the reader’s mind in some way, to “move” it. The writer pushes against the mental comportment of the reader, and the reader pushes back. While there are a lot “tricks” and “moves” you might learn in order to “handle yourself” in this situation (to “write with power”, as Peter Elbow famously put it) there is simply no substitute for the strength you develop by training, i.e., by practicing this ability to push against the mind of another. A strong prose style develops by repeatedly writing with a relevant audience “in mind”, imagining how it will push back, and by presenting it to that audience often, i.e., letting it actually push back.

You will not become a better writer by believing what I tell you. You will become a better writer by doing as I say. As often as you can, take a moment a to compose yourself. Work from the center of your strength. “The only truly comprehensive answer to any enquiry as to ‘How to…’,” as Oliver Senior reminds us, “is the simple instruction

“Get on with it.”

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