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.”

Gender Genie Is Stupid

I’ve tried this gender genie thing that is supposed to guess the gender of any text’s author, and it hasn’t guessed right even a single time. I’ve tried it both on my research and on my blog posts. Of course, I haven’t tried it on everything I ever wrote. I’m sure I must have produced something “female” at some point.

The weirdest thing is that while both my research and my blog are “male writing” (whatever the hell that means), my blog is significantly more male than my research. And these results are consistent, so there must be some principle behind this madness.

I guess all that the gender genie proves is that gender is a myth. Maybe soon somebody will prove that the Earth is round and – if we are really lucky – that it revolves around the Sun.

P.S. I just checked this post in the gender genie, and here is the result:

Female Score: 115
Male Score: 273

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

I’ve spent 6 hours at a spa today and my writing is still male? What else is a person supposed to do to start writing female?

Let’s Kill the Book Report!

I don’t know which enemy of humanity first came up with the idea that getting high school students to write the so-called book reports will teach them to write well. All I know is that I just got through over a dozen academic essays that are inspired by the high-school book report model. And I can say that the book report is a horrible practice that needs to be abandoned as soon as possible.

This is how these book-report essays are structured:

– The essay title is always of the “Essay 1, Essay 2, Final Essay” variety. All my exhortations to come up with a meaningful title seem to fall on deaf ears. Alternatively, people might think that this is what a meaningful title is like.

– Before the essay begins, there is always some exceptionally cheesy quote that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything but that kind of sounds warm and fuzzy. At this point, I’m almost tempted to offer bonus points to anybody who spares me the aggravation of reading an epigraph to their essay.

– The student starts the essay by offering at least a page-long analysis of whether the “reading was easy to read” (sic!). The miserable professor has to slog through the endless recounting of how “first, the reading was kind of hard for me to understand. In the middle it was sort of easy for me to understand. But then in the end it was again very hard for me to understand. Altogether I’d say the reading was fairly easy for me to understand.” (All of the essays I grade this semester were written in the students’ first and only language, by the way. And the readings they analyzed were also all in English.)

Now imagine getting through a dozen of those one after another. Fun, eh?

– After the hard to understand / easy to understand part, the inevitable “how this made me feel” portion of the essay always follows. After reading several pages of minute analysis of how each part of the text made the patient the analysand the student feel, you forget whether you are a psychotherapist or a professor of literature.

– There is always (and I repeat, always) a discussion of whether “the author uses highly descriptive words to bring his point across.” What the point that is brought across with these highly descriptive words actually is always remains shrouded in mystery. I still have 17 more essays to grade this weekend and, I swear to God, if I come across the “highly descriptive words” once again, I will howl.

– A little less frequent topic of discussion in such essays is whether “the author’s outlook is positive or negative.” Am I the only person to feel that the word “outlook” is horribly overused nowadays?

– The book-report-inspired essay never fails to end on a note of condescension towards the writers whose work was being analyzed. “Overall, I’d say Julio and Jorge [Cortazar and Borges] are OK sort of writers. I mean they are nothing special of course. They obviously tried hard to create there little pieces so that’s commendable. But often they failed. They should be commended for trying hard though.

I understand the need to get students to read and to reflect on what they have read as early as possible. These book reports fail to do that, though. All they manage to achieve is instilling really bad writing habits in students and it’s weary work eradicating those habits in college.

And That’s How Some Professors Write

“Students noted that those native speakers that were assigned were of variable quality and a degree of assigned-expectation was greatly needed.”

“Students expressed that professors’ individualized instruction when needed.”

And these are not random gaffes, either. I have in my hands a six-page document that is written in its entirety in this kind of language. And then I complain that students can’t write worth a shit. Well, what can I expect when tenured faculty members produce and disseminate this kind of writing?

I can’t tell you how often I receive professional communications that regale me with statements like “The student’s are expected to be effected by this changes.”

Work on your writing skills, people. Especially if you are in academia. Or if you really can’t improve, then at least delegate writing to those who are capable of creating a semi-literate phrase.

I’m not even an English-speaker and it hurts me to see the language mangled in this way by people for whom English is the only language they speak.