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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