What Writers Tell Us About Writing

 

Scholars and professionals can learn a lot from the advice offered by writers, that is, individuals who make their living by writing fiction and non-fiction (and, as well, from teaching about it). For one thing, these individuals write to gain a public readership, pushing them to develop a clarity and style that communicates well. Umberto Eco reminds us that literature “is not intended solely for entertaining and consoling people. It also aims at provoking and inspiring people to read the same text twice, maybe even several times, because they want to understand it better” [Umberto Eco, Confessions of a Young Novelist (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 32] Given that kind of purpose, there should be little reservation in accepting the idea that learning to write better, more clearly, and for broader audiences are positive assets to possess. One also assumes that academics want to influence some portion of their audience.

Learning to write can be stressful. In order to improve one’s writing, we must learn to accept criticism. Roy Peter Clark offers this advice: “The right frame of mind can transform criticism that is nasty, petty, insincere, biased, and even profane, into gold” [Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2006), p. 236]. Many academics, especially early in their career, can become discouraged with such criticism. Instead, they need to learn from the process and move on. Revising and reworking their essays and books until they are acceptable to a peer review process can be exhausting. Bret Lott’s contribution, Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), focuses on the barriers and challenges, and the successes and failures of writing. Lott acknowledges from the beginning that he is always learning more about the craft: “Because the longer I write – and this is the one sure thing I know about writing – the harder it gets, and the more I hold close the truth that I know nothing” (pp. 12-13). He minces no words about the possibilities inherent to writing: “And here’s what I know most intimately, most truly, about the life of a writer: You will be rejected. Period” (p. 117). He counsels about how one has to learn about writing, suggesting, “even the worst rejection I ever got taught me something” (p. 147). I concur.

We also must appreciate writing as a craft. Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York: HarperPerennial, 1989) presents writing as learning to use a set of tools: “The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls lightly, everywhere” (p. 4). As one gains experience, Dillard suggests that you learn surprising lessons: “How fondly I recall thinking, in the old days, that to write you needed paper, pen, and a lap. How appalled I was to discover that, in order to write so much as a sonnet, you need a warehouse” (p. 46). Bonnie

Friedman’s Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993) is loaded with extensive commonsense advice, such as “Successful writers are not the ones who write the best sentences. They are the ones who keep writing” (p. xiii). Writing demands practice, and patience.

Academics have been particularly concerned about the quality of their writing, or what they perceive to be a decline in its quality. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Persuasive Writing (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2007) is a useful primer on the writing of the academic essay. The authors argue that when writing the essay that we are in a conversation, and we need to explain what others have said and to remember that quotations do not speak for themselves. They contend, “writing well does not mean piling up uncontroversial truths in a vacuum; it means engaging others in a dialogue or debate. . . .” (p. 75). There is considerable practical advice, along with exercises, in this book. “Regardless of how interesting a topic may be to you as a writer,” they state, “readers always need to know what is at stake in a text and why they should care” (p. 88). They also push the boundaries of what we generally consider to be the limits of academic writing: “academic writing can . . . be relaxed, easy to follow, and even a little bit fun” (p. 115).

We can understand the concern of academics about writing and their audiences when we discern that some disciplines, like history, that once yielded a large public following have encountered considerable problems in maintaining such audiences. Historians have been in the lead in worrying about how they have lost a public audience for their publications. Thomas Bender, charting the changing focus and writing styles of historians, states, “As historians eschewed biography, narrative style, and large topics, our writing also became analytic: an explanation of the nature of the sources, methodology (often quantitative), and particular findings. We began to imagine not a general reader but fellow specialists at our elbow.” Thomas Bender, “How Historians Lost the Public,” The Chronicle Review (April 3, 2015): B4-5 (quotation p. B5), He continues, “What we should not do is assume that because our public culture has fractured and we seem to be losing our longstanding alliance with journalism, we no longer have obligations to the public that date from the origins of our profession. The scholarship of the past couple of generations is too valuable to keep to ourselves.” (p. B5). Well, some might say, at least they once had a public audience.

There are also examples of scholars who have dedicated themselves to reaching the public outside of their disciplines. Reading broadly and deeply will help anyone learn how to discern opportunities for stories and how to write them. There are many other aids to learning how to present stories in effective ways. An interesting new addition is Randy Olson, Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Narrative (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). Olson, a marine biologist who gave up tenure and went to work in Hollywood to become a filmmaker, explains why he believes science suffers from a “narrative deficiency” (p. 8) and needs to learn “what makes for a good story” (p. 9). Olson considers the nature of narrative, “stories that connect a series of events over time, creating large-scale patterns” (p. 52). He describes numerous case studies of and methodologies for improving science communication, beating back “boredom” and “confusion,” the two primary ways communication breaks down (p. 113).

One area separating the academic writer from the professional writer (like the novelist or essayist) is the focus on writing style. Professors’ interest in this often does not go beyond following citation forms required by scholarly journals and monograph publishers. But there is more to this. Ben Yagoda, in his The Sound on the Page: Style and Value in Writing (New York: HarperResources, 2004), defines style in this way: “Every time we write a word, a phrase, a sentence, we have to choose from what seems like an infinite number of acceptable candidates. Then, just as significantly, we choose how to link the sentences together into paragraphs. Together, these decisions constitute a style” (p. 29). Yagoda thinks of style like a writer’s fingerprint, and he discusses in his book different styles and provides exercise about learning to write in different styles. Academics and scholars often don’t think of style, but they usually are mimicking a certain style, sometimes tailoring to that of particular disciplines and journals.

There have been some important books written about style for academics, most notably Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012). Sword stresses the need to break disciplinary molds and traditions. She stresses, “There is a massive gap between what most readers consider to be good writing and what academics typically produce and publish” (p. 3). Sword interviews academics, examines books by “exemplary” academic authors, considers the academic literature relevant to the topic, and reviews recently published writing guides. Sword notes that learning to write by imitation, which is the most prevalent way academics learn to write and publish, leads to perpetuating bad writing habits. She adds, “academics who care about good writing could do worse than to study the opening moves of novelists and journalists, who generally know a thing or two about how to capture an audience’s attention” (p. 77). At the least, she argues, we need reject jargon as a way of communicating.

An important new addition to the exploration of writing style is Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (New York: Viking, 2014). Pinker, a cognitive scientist and a self-professed avid reader of style manuals, has given us a practical guide to writers who want to write better, meaning clearer and in a manner that reaches an audience of non-specialists, describing the importance of style in this way: “Style . . . adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures” (p. 9). Just because a professor knows their subject doesn’t mean they are good writers: “The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows – that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so she doesn’t bother to explain the jargon or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail” (p. 61).

So, we have a lot of potential help out there to help us improve our writing.

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How to Steal a Document

For a long time, I have thought it would be fine and clever to write a book entitled How to Steal a Documents, as a way of communicating the challenges and problems archivists face in securing their holdings and demonstrating the often flawed ways in which the public and media understand the value of our documentary heritage. I even have thought about a suitable sequel, How to Forge a Document. These books would be tongue-in-cheek, of course. And they also would be controversial, all the better to draw attention to the problems archivists and their compatriots, librarians and museum curators, face in our contemporary world. Of course I have not tackled such a project because I know that I would become the center of an ethical debate and, perhaps, do more harm than good.

Then, again, I am not sure I really need to do this since there are other books that tread on the same path or, at least, head in the same direction. For example, consider Nancy Moses, Stolen, Smuggled, Sold: On the Hunt for Cultural Treasures (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), a collection of essays about seven cultural objects with poignant stories to be told and lessons to be learned. The book includes essays on the recovery of the Gustav Klimt portrait seized by the Nazis, the Pearl Buck typescript of The Good Earth, a Ghost Dance shirt from Wounded Knee, an audio recording of Babe Ruth on a quail hunt, a mummy of a Pharaoh, the North Carolina vellum copy of the Bill of Rights, and a plundered antiquity from the Sumerians.

Some of these essays are particularly valuable for or pertinent to archivists. For example, in the essay about the archivists who stole the Babe Ruth audio from the National Archives, Moses thinks he was “motivated by the feeling that sits at the heart of every archivist, librarian, registrar, and curator in every country in the world. All of them love the material. They are passionate about things that are old and rare” (p. 62). Woods goes on to comment on how these items possess a “magical” quality, thinking that because they get to work with these materials that “archivists and curators are some of the most contented people. . . , because they can indulge their craving for the old and rare every day” (p. 62). This might be the case, but it is more likely that this is the way they are often seen from the outside. At least I hope so. Because there are far more important reasons why people become archivists (commitments to understanding the past, accountability and transparency, a public good).

While this book is not a manual about to steal items from archives and cultural institutions, it provides insights into how easy such theft can be, the prevalence of insider theft, the thrill of the chase, and the close relationship of such theft to the collecting impulse and activity. In a concluding chapter, Moses also suggests actions and attitudes we need to develop to ensure that such cultural materials are protected (reminding us that at presence a very small portion of these materials are recovered). This collection focuses on ones that were successfully recovered, hopefully inspiring us to be more diligent in our work with them.

Mixing It With Big Data, Again

We can’t afford to ignore Big Data. Everybody is talking about it. Some worship at its altar. But an increasing number are providing more balanced accounts of its role in society, as two recent books suggest.

Alex Ross, The Industries of the Future (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016) a former advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State, considers innovation and globalism, focusing on data as the “new material of the information age.” He sees digitization as another milestone following the earliest writing and recording systems up to the advent of computers and networks. Ross reminds us that “ninety percent of the world’s digital data has been generated over the last two years” (p. 154), a truly astounding assessment. He looks at industries utilizing robotics, genomics, codification of the financial markets, technology’s use in weapons and warfare, and forth.

This is not a book lauding Big Data. “As it becomes more ubiquitous, big data will fade from use as a buzz phrase. As it reaches into more and different aspects of our everyday lives, the combination of big data and behavioral science will subtly change our routines and expectations through a series of digital nudges that guide our choices through the day” (p. 180). This, for me, can’t happen fast enough. Ross also provides a sense of reality about what data represents. “Big data is, by its nature, soulless and uncreative. It nudges us this way and that for reasons we are not meant to understand. It strips us of our privacy and puts our mistakes, secrets, and scandals on public display. It reinforces stereotypes and historical bias. And it is largely unregulated because we need it for economic growth and because of efforts to try to regulate it have tended not to work; the technologies are too far reaching and are not built to recognize the national foundations of our world’s 196 sovereign nation states” (p. 184). It is why Big Data is so intellectually engaging, for me and my students.

The other book is Christine L. Borgman, Big Data, Little Data, No Data: Scholarship in the Networked World (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015). Like her earlier works, this is a volume aimed at a “broad audience of stakeholders in research data” (p. xix), and it is certainly a goal well achieved. Borgman is a scholar careful to take into account the promises and pitfalls of the uses of computing: “It is the power of data, combined with their fragility, that makes them such a fascinating topic of study” (p. 4). She provides excellent historical context for what we now term Big Data, something that many avoid providing, instead addressing it as a new issue (when it really isn’t).

Borgman considers a lot of issues relevant to the work of both librarians and archivists, that is, of the new emerging kinds of librarians and archivists. She wrestles with the challenge of what to preserve and how, rejecting the idea that we can maintain everything. She is expressly focused on the challenges of maintaining the evidentiary records: “Cited objects disappear, links break, and search algorithms evolve as proprietary secrets” (p. 57). Borgman provides lengthy case studies of data scholarship in the sciences (such as astronomy), the social sciences (such as social media studies), and the humanities (such as classical art and archaeology) She raises the issue of data policy for sharing, opening, and reusing data and the challenges associated with implementing such policy. If we do not solve these concerns, she forecasts a tough road ahead: “Data will remain ‘dark matter’ in scholarly communication unless they are described, curated, and made discoverable” (p. 241). In such an assessment, we can see the focus for new graduate studies in archives and libraries.

In a refreshing chapter in a book on Big Data, Borgman considers what to keep and why, concluding the book in this way: “To restate the premise of this book, the value of data lies in their use. Unless stakeholders can agree on what to keep and why, and invest in the invisible work necessary to sustain knowledge infrastructures, big data and little data alike will quickly become no data” (p. 287). Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing as a Way of Life: A Forgotten Aspect of the Information Age?

Writing is rewarding, but it is also hard and difficult work. It is a craft that is learned through experience, experimentation, and exercise. Some say it cannot be taught. Writer and editor Joseph Epstein states, “After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advance prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject . . . is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned. . . .” [Joseph Epstein, A Literary Education (Edinburg, VA: Axios Press, 2014), p. 367]. Margaret Atwood comments, in a similar vein, that “talking is very old, writing is not. Most people learn to talk when they are infants, but many people never learn to read. Reading is decoding, and in order to do it you have to learn a purely arbitrary set of markings, an abstract formula” [Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 46]. Fortunately, we have many useful resources that prospective and experienced writers can turn to for assistance. In the coming months in this blog I will comment on various aspects of writing in our society and in the academy.

We write because we want to be remembered or to have an impact. William Zinsser, in his memoir, mentions that the “great writers” at Yale when he was there were the historians “who understood that their knowledge could only be handed down if they imposed on the past an act of storytelling, one that had a strong narrative pull and a robust cast of characters” [William Zinsser, Writing Places: The Life Journey of a Writer and a Teacher (New York: Harper, 2009), p. 84]. Zinsser also reassures us that even as the Web and other technologies continue to develop that writers should not feel that they are becoming “obsolete”: “Whatever new technology may come along, writers will continue to write, going wherever their curiosities and affections beckon”[Zinsser, Writing Places, p. 191]. It is not uncommon for writers of all stripes to think of the long-term impact of their work, as H. J. Jackson has considered in a recent investigation. It is easy these days for academic writers to focus on short-term goals (tenure and promotion) rather than the kinds of literary fame Jackson considers [H. J. Jackson, Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015)]. Telling stories and finding audiences are not elements we should dismiss, even as more of our writing space occurs on the Internet.

Learning to write is daunting, difficult, and takes discipline. It is also challenging to know where to get help. Stephen King reminds us that “most books about writing are filled with bullshit” [Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Pocket Books, 2000), 11. Despite this warning, King’s book is a very useful guide ]. I might add that so are most books about technology. It is amazing that we hear so much about the necessity of students and others being digital literate, when it is obvious that they also need to become more literate in other ways (including the ability to read critically and to write clearly).

Whatever the challenges of writing and publishing might be, books (whether print or digital) are essential in our modern civilization. Fernando Báez reminds us that “books are not destroyed as physical objects but as links to memory, that is, as one of the axes of identity of a person or a community” [Fernando Báez, A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq, trans. Alfred MacAdam (New York: Atlas and Co., 2008), p. 12]. He continues, “books are burned and libraries bombed because they are symbols” [Báez, A Universal History, p. 1]. In a similar vein, Rebecca Knuth states, “Because books and libraries preserve memory, provide witness, store evidence of the validity of a multitude of perspectives, facilitate intellectual freedom, and support group identity, they are carefully controlled, sanitized, and even extensively purged. When texts are too closely associated with an enemy, a group that stands in the way of transformation or cannot or will not further ideological goals, they are attacked along with the renegade group. When human voice is extinguished, texts as the disembodied material expression of that voice are also destroyed. And that, in short, is the dynamics of libricide” [Rebecca Knuth, Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2003), p.71].

Such sentiments ought to give those who seek to write and publish an extra incentive about accepting the significance of their work; it is a symbolic gesture, especially in an age awash in information. We are also reminded about how the often superficial promises of the digital era can ring hollow: “The Internet has most certainly been the first step toward the globalization of knowledge and will make the task of book destruction harder, but it will not stop censorship or the desire to eradicate stored data. In other words, the destruction of books is far from over” [Báez, A Universal History, p. 266]. And, moreover, writing books is also far from over. It is why librarianship and archival studies will remain important fields in the digital age even if their skill sets and knowledge domains are radically transformed. It is why working as an information professional today is both daunting and exhilarating.

 

The UnderBelly of the Digital Era

 

We are bombarded with messages that we live in an age of unlimited access to information. Wandering through public spaces, like airports and malls, easily remind us of this, as we observe people laden with smart phones, pads, and laptops, constantly connected to work, the news, and home. Many of us feel like we are well informed about our world. However, we also should pay attention to the casualties of this time.

Take, for example, the brief life of free information activist and computer prodigy Aaron Swartz. Justin Peters, in The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet (New York: Scribner, 2016), provides a grim portrait of the young activist who committed suicide in his late 20s. As Peters explains, his book is a “provisional narrative introduction to the story of free culture in America, using Swartz’s life as a lens on the rise of information sharing in the digital age” (p. ix). Peters provides a good overview of intellectual property and the challenges to it by the rise of file sharing. There is nothing extraordinary in this aspect of the book, except for Swartz’s undoing when he began downloading thousands of files from JSTOR via MIT computers, leading to his indictment by the United States Attorney’s office: “The story of Swartz’s life and the circumstances of his death are recent inflection points in a contentious debate over the means by which information circulates in society and the laws and technologies that speed or delay its progress. Aaron Swartz has become an avatar for a movement, his actions and presumed intentions an argument that the government ought to pass laws that promote, rather than inhibit, the digital dissemination of knowledge” (p. 11). Peters handles Swartz’s story with sensitivity, teasing out a variety of implications for what it reveals about us in this digital era: “The Internet is both a conduit for idealistic fantasies and a tool that can be used to supplement them. It is the real world that often creates resistance” (p. 267).

There are other problematic aspects of this age and its reliance on digital technologies. In an op-ed in the February 23rd New York Times, Arnold Weinstein, a professor of comparative literature, laments that the arts and humanities “can no longer compete with the prestige and financial payoffs promised by studying the STEM fields,” disciplines that offer precise information on practically everything. But, often and inadvertently, they distort our perceptions; they even shortchange us.” Weinstein, especially commenting on our fixation with data, seeks to make the point about the limitations of such a perspective: “Finding an address is one thing; finding one’s way in life is another. Even our smartest computers or most brilliant statisticians are at a loss when it comes to mapping our psychic landscapes.” It is the arts and humanities that assist us to go inward. We learn from the “human record that is available to us in libraries and museums and theaters and, yes, online. But that record is not calculable or teachable via numbers or bullet points.” This is why studying literature and the arts is not a “luxury item” in an expensive education.

Preparing to be an information professional, for example, requires exposure to issues such as this. – ethics, values, culture, the law. Staring at and using a computer require us to be critical of how we should use or not use it.