Two Short Things on Writing

I’ve been thinking a bit about writing (and reading) lately. 

On my flight out to Atlanta this past week I read Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard 2012). I’ll likely assign it to my graduate methods class next year. It’s a nice summary of how different disciplines write and offers some substantial tips on how to make academic writing more accessible to a wider audience without losing its intricacy, depth, or distinct tone and voice. Most readers will have heard her recommendations before: vary your writing, avoid substantive nouns, use jargon sparingly, reconsider disciplinary orthodoxies (e.g. using the first person), engage the reader early in the piece, and avoid noun-style, adverbs, and passive voice. 

While anyone who takes writing seriously should check out Sword’s book, she does little to unpack why academic writing has developed such an idiosyncratic style. On the one hand, I think it is safe to assume that academic style begets academic style. In other words, academics write as they do because we spend a good bit of our formative years reading academic writing. If reading good writing helps writers write better, then reading academic writing almost certainly encourages academics to write in a particular style. The problem, then, is as much with how academics read as with how academics write. Making tweaks to our style is one approach to refining academic language, but to make a real change to how academics write we have to change how (and what) academics read.

I was bummed out to read Andrew Henry’s guest blog post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. According to his post, a panel on blogging at the Society for Biblical Literature/American Association of Religion conference discouraged graduate students from blogging. Henry doesn’t provide much detail (but James McGrath does), but apparently the panelists considered the risks associated with graduate students blogging outweighs potential benefits (I suppose to the student and to the field). The Twitters came alive with comments on how blogging helped folks get their tenure track jobs and expand the audience for the various disciplines represented at the SBL/AAR.

One thing that struck me about their conversation is how much more active the SBL/AAR blogging community is. My blog has been running for over 5 years and I rarely get more than a couple comments per post. I have received some charitable mentions in scholarship and across social media, but my general impression is that my blog has a limited (if loyal) audience which is not inclined to troll, debate, or even comment on my musings. From what I gather about the SBL/AAR blogging culture, there is genuine and active debate across these public platforms and a graduate student’s participation in these debates has real risks and benefits for their career. Scholars associated with the SBL/AAR must read in a different way from those in more conventional silos associated with ancient history, Classics, and Mediterranean archaeology. These different reading practices must shape how and when and where scholars write.  

3 Comments

  1. From above, “my general impression is that my blog has a limited (if loyal) audience which is not inclined to troll, debate, or even comment on my musings.”

    You have an absolutely phenomenal blog, and yet I too have noticed how rarely it sparks broad conversation – at least here on the blog itself. This is why I continually resist the urge to spend time blogging. I don’t see the value of it when so many other things call for my time, although I did not know until today that “blogging helped folks get their tenure track jobs and expand the audience for the various disciplines represented at the SBL/AAR.” I would be interested in blogging in the kind of culture you speculate above that the SBL/AAR likely has.

    For the moment, I limit myself to Facebook and Academia.edu. This is a little unfortunate because there are things that would work better on a blog than on Ac.edu or Fb. For example, I would really like to write about the awesome recipe for poultry that I have from a medieval manuscript. It’s Thanksgiving, and with a good blog following, I would feel justified spending an hour putting together a post about how we have used this recipe with modern ingredients (instead of urine, for example). Since I don’t have much of a following on my blog, I will likely post it on Ac.edu or Fb. Without the automatically loading images at Ac.edu (and the fact that I’m not really saying anything scholarly about the recipe – just that it’s delicious, and everyone should try it) and with the space limitations of Fb, neither is really the right forum. A blog is perfect, but no one will see it.

    Danielle

    Reply

    1. It occurs to me that a public Facebook note might be an option. I could share it on my wall and with a couple of groups.

      Reply

  2. I’ve beaten this horse before but writing needn’t be dull. My favorite author is Thomas Hodgkin. OK, he wasn’t doing a technical monograph but the eight volumes of his “Italy And Her Invaders” which includes a chapter long aside on the Roman aqueducts in a volume otherwise devoted to the sixth century isn’t chopped liver either. (Further he doesn’t fall into a repetitious style as did Gibbon of whom a few chapters while beautiful are quite enough.)

    Reply

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