What Makes a Good Prose Style?

Jonathan says that my prose style has become a lot better than it was last summer. The truth, however, is that it hasn’t. What changed is that I now write every day, which means that I start every writing session by rereading the entire document. This means that I have read my most recent article 26 times.

Of course, every time I read it, I change something in it. As a result, the style improves a little bit with every change.

Maybe a good writing style is just that: a very polished kind of writing that the author has spent a lot of time editing, rereading, and then editing some more. People will now tell me that this is self-evident but, for me, this is a huge discovery. I always thought that people who wrote well just sat down and produced beautiful prose as a matter of course. A lot of editing, however, meant that a person had a bad writing style.

It’s like that joke:

“So how is married life?”

“Great! I like everything about my wife, except for one thing.”

“What is that?”

“She is very dirty.”


“Yes! She showers twice a day, so she must be absolutely filthy.”

Update From the Seinfeld Chain

The second week on the Seinfeld Chain was much harder that the first one. Writing every day still hasn’t become a habit for me. I have struggled with my writing all week and the culmination of that struggle was yesterday.

I had spent a completely sleepless night (as people probably noticed from the many posts and comments I had been leaving on this blog all night long). As a result, on the next day I was feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. The weather is changing, too, so I had a headache and felt completely exhausted.

So I realized that I would not be able to do any writing. When this happens, I turn to my secret weapon, a.k.a. Jonathan’s website Stupid Motivational Tricks. It is absolutely uncanny but Jonathan somehow always posts articles that I need to read at every given moment. Yesterday, he shared how difficultit was for him to stay on the Seinfeld Chain and shared the following important insight:

Since the power is in the continuity, not in the efficacy of any one day’s writing, I try to do something on the project every day, even when exhausted and spent like today. The writing got done, that is the important thing, not how I feel.

I found this really helpful. I had no energy or brain power to generate any important new ideas for my article but, still, there is always some work that can be done even when one feels exhausted.

I opened my article and decided that today I would work on polishing the writing, organizing the notes, and fleshing out some paragraphs that needed it. This was not a long writing session but at the end of it I discovered that I now had one new page of writing that somehow magically added itself to my text.

It makes me feel really good to know that I managed to get over myself and continued on the Seinfeld Chain.

Insight About Writing

Writing is only hard when you have to experience this nagging thought, “I need to be writing, I’m not doing any writing. I just need to sit down and write but when will I be able to?” all the time. It isn’t writing itself that is exhausting. Rather, worrying about having to do it and not doing it is.

The reason why I always thought that academic writing was hard is because I wasn’t doing enough of it.

I’m on Day 8 of my Seinfeld Chain, and I just looked at my document and discovered that it’s 9 pages long without the notes and the bibliography. Those nine pages just appeared there from pretty much nowhere. And all it took was just writing for 90-120 minutes every morning. Compared to worrying about not writing, actual writing is a piece of cake, people.

Great Motivation

So I almost interrupted my Seinfeld Chain yesterday. You don’t want to hear my excuses because they are all very predictable and amount to one thing: simple laziness.

Then I went to Jonathan’s blog in search for motivation and read the following statement:

Just remember that there are people like me out there, people who not only have the intellectual capability to publish scholarship of high quality, but who also can work over a hundred days straight on a major project.

And that really lit a fire under my ass. “Oh, really?” I exclaimed loudly, scaring people who were hanging out in the vicinity of my office. “And you are suggesting that I’m not such a person? That I can’t do it? I’ll show you!”

After which, I attacked my document with a passionate dedication.

It’s  a rare skill to know how to motivate people as well as Jonathan does.

P.S. I know that people are bored by the posts on my struggle with research but scholarship is a huge part of my life and I want to write about it. Since I have abandoned personal diary writing in favor of the blog, I need a place to record my journey as a researcher. Feel free to scroll down for more general interest posts.

Seinfeld Chain

Jonathan never ceases to come up with inventive ways to inspire his fellow academics. Here is the strategy he has adopted now to motivate himself to write more:

I’ve decided to go back to one of my best and most ruthless techniques, the Seinfeld Chain, in which I write on the calendar every day the number of consecutive days I have been writing. I am just going to write every day, with no more excuses. Already, on the second day, I had an extraordinarily productive session.

Here is more on the Seinfeld Chain.

I have decided to start my own Seinfeld Chain. I want to make it as long as I can and, as Jonathan says, “None of this “I can’t write on days I’m teaching crap”.” This is my favorite crappy excuse ever and I have not been able to defeat it a single time.

Jonathan also says, “I will give myself a break if and when I feel I have earned it.” This is very impressive given that he is the leading authority on the poet Garcia Lorca and has published several great books. In the meanwhile, some academics I know (pointing an accusatory finger at myself) feel mortally tired and in need of long stretches of rest after writing for one day. Shame on Clarissa! Bad, lazy Clarissa! Clarissa in the doghouse! (I respond well to negative motivation, hence the invective.)

Every single piece of academic advice that I have gleaned from Jonathan’s blog so far has been really helpful to me. I have started writing a lot better and have gotten my articles accepted at good journals at a rate that I didn’t even think possible before. This is why I will now start my Seinfeld Chain and promise to update you, folks, on how it goes. Two hours of writing every day, for as long as I can do it.

If you are an academic who just can’t get published (or can’t get published enough), do yourself a favor and read Stupid Motivational Tricks. The tricks really work.

Article Accepted, Happiness Ensues

OK, folks, I know you will laugh but I just had an article accepted for publication in a very good journal. A very good journal. It’s my third accepted article in two months. I’m on a roll here.

When I got the acceptance email, I thought I wasn’t reading it right because I never thought this journal would accept me. I’d had a glass of wine just before, so I suspected that maybe I was imagining it. So I called N. and had him read the email. And he confirmed that it was an acceptance.

“I just realized,” I told him, “that you are married to a brilliant woman.”

“I’ve always known that,” he responded.

“Well, I haven’t,” I said.

It is very good to know that I’m not an intellectual failure.

I’m too emotional now to say anything intelligent but in my next post I will share what I did to turn myself from a slacker into a publishing machine. 🙂

I feel very very happy.

Easy PhDs

So I’m talking on the phone to my sister and she says at some point:

“I was interviewing this guy today and he has a PhD in one of those really hard disciplines.”

“What, as opposed to people who have all those easy PhDs?” I ask. “Like maybe in literature?”

My own sister, folks. I changed her nappies and dropped her on the floor twice when she was an infant. I taught her to read and to write. And I still can’t get over her biting the nose off my favorite toy piglet when she was six months and I was six years old.

Even for my sister “the really hard PhDs” are not the ones in Humanities. Because anybody can read about books and then blab about what they’ve read, right?

You have no idea how many times I heard from people in sciences, “Well, what you do is not real research, right? I mean, you can just argue anything you like. It isn’t like anybody can prove you wrong.”

Well, it’s time for me to go engage in some of that easy-peasy research of mine, folks.

Does Beauty Help You Get Hired?

I think I need to start a new series titled “The Stupid Study of the Week.” There are so many pseudo-scientists engaged in fake research whose only goal is to get into the media that I will never run out of blogging topics. Consider the following study, for example:

A team at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg in northern Germany questioned more than 3,000 people about their career, and compared this with rankings of how attractive they were. The results suggest that being one point more attractive was worth a three percent wage hike, while being five points more attractive boosted a career by the same amount as having a university degree.

Professor Christian Pfeifer said his study, published this week in the Applied Economics Letters journal, also showed that the importance of looks in the workplace was even more important for men than it was for women. . . “Five points more – that is about the difference between an ordinary face and downright beauty – helps in getting a job as much as a university degree,” he said.

Let’s leave aside the question of who composed the rankings of attractiveness and why we are supposed to take that person’s idea of beauty as a universal yard-stick. Who’s to say that the creator of this ranking system doesn’t have a really horrible taste?

Never mind that, however. Let’s look at the last statement of the passage I quoted. Is this weird researcher at all familiar with how the hiring process is organized nowadays? Does he think that people just show up at the place where they hope to be employed to demonstrate their beauty? Did anybody find their job, a job that required a university degree, in this strange manner?

When I was on the job market, I never got a chance to impress anybody with my “downright beauty” before proving I had the necessary college degrees. Nobody would have discovered how I looked at all if I hadn’t had the required diplomas. My CV would have ended up in the trash can in a matter of seconds. I cannot imagine a situation where a search committee would have looked at my CV and said, “Well, she never went to college at all but let’s meet her anyways. Maybe she’s pretty. Then, we might still consider hiring her for a professorial position.” I also don’t recall any discussion of the candidates’ beauty or lack thereof at the (often very heated) meetings of the search committees where I participated.

I actually got my very first academic position as a Visiting Professor at an Ivy League university without ever meeting anybody from that school face to face. They hired me sight unseen on the basis of my CV and portfolio. Probably if they had gotten an opportunity to see me before hiring me, I’d be the university’s president instead of just a junior faculty member.

My sister is a professional recruiter, so we discuss the job market and successful recruitment strategies all the time. From what she tells me, a recruiter first reads a cover letter, then a CV, and then decides whether it makes sense to meet the candidate in person. She tells me that a college degree is crucial in the job mandates she handles. The question of a candidate’s beauty came up a single time in her career. That was when she was looking for a receptionist for a plastic surgeon’s practice.

I do believe, however, that Professor Christian Pfeifer had to be hired for his beauty. Based on the kind of study that occupies his time, I find it hard to believe he was hired because of his intellect.