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.”

“Really?”

“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.

Am I A Writer?

Báyron of the great Ethecofem blog asks:

Wait a minute, does this mean I count as a writer if I keep a blog?

If you are asking yourself the same question, here is what you need to consider:

– Do you write?

– Do you spend a significant portion of your time writing?

– Do you have readers?

– Are you a reader?

– Is writing an important part of your identity?

If the answer is yes, then you are a writer. And the reason why you have trouble seeing yourself as a writer might be that you have an erroneous image of what a writer is like. (See here and here for more on this subject).

A Writer’s Mentality

You always know a writer when you meet one. Irrespective of whether they have published anything, people with a writer’s mentality share one extremely annoying characteristic: they can only talk about their writing. No matter what topic you try to broach with them, it always comes back to their writing.

“The weather is really beautiful today,” you mention to a writer.

“Yes,” she responds. “This makes me think of a description of springtime from a short story I wrote in 1992. Let me read it to you.”

“My boss is not happy with my performance,” you share with a writer. “This is very stressful to me. What if I get fired?”

“Hardship is an inescapable part of life,” he says. “My most recent novel has been rejected by 17 publishing houses. Let me read you a letter I received from one of them and you’ll tell me what you think.”

“My husband and I had a huge fight,” you complain. “I’m thinking we might need couples’ therapy.”

“I offered some interesting insights into challenges people encounter in their romantic life in my 2010 trilogy. Have you read it? Can I ask you to review it on Amazon?”

I almost turned into this person (“Yes, as I said last week on my blog. . .”) but I stopped myself in time. I don’t want people I know to have nervous breakdowns when they hear the word “blog.”