Writing Wednesday

The first Wednesday after spring break is always the first Wednesday of the University of North Dakota Writers’ Conference. As usual, it has a cool poster.

WCPoster 2017

It also gives me a chance to think explicitly about writing for a little while. It’s great to see writers talk about their ideas and how their creative processes work. This is something that happens all too infrequently on a college campus where most people (who aren’t devoting all of their time to worrying about the budget) are focused on doing work rather than talking about how they do their work. 

So, on my drive onto campus this morning, I got to thinking a bit about writerly things. Here is what I thought about:

1. Writing an Introduction. My buddy David Pettegrew and I are editing the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology. As part of this project, we’re writing the introduction which both frames the 250,000+ word volume and the field of Early Christian archaeology for an audience that might not be familiar with this sub-field. After puttering around on the introduction for a few weeks, we decided just to write and see where things went. We produced over 25,000 words in about two months. This will become a draft of a small book on Early Christian archaeology (we hope) and we’ll compress it down into 8,000 words for an introduction.

When we adopted this strategy, we (or maybe just I thought): “How hard could this be?”

The answer is: really hard.

2. 90% Reading/10% Writing. In a little article for Forbes, Sarah Bond related that she had always been told to spend 90% of time reading and 10% of her time writing. This doesn’t seem like good advice (and I don’t want to suggest that Sarah was advocating for this). After all, as a working academic who might only spend half of their week (let’s pretend 20 hours) doing research, this would amount to a paltry 2 hours a week dedicated to writing. This seems hardly enough to develop the skills necessary to construct convincing (much less pleasing) argument. In fact, I would think that 2 hours a DAY might still be a bit on the short side to develop any serious writerly chops. I average about 15 hours per week writing and probably about the same reading (for research). It would seem to me that a 50/50 split is better.

3. Editing and Writing. As part of my graduate historiography course this semester, I’ve asked the students to produce some kind of manifesto or “statement” on studying history and as graduate students in history. I then hope to make it available for public comments. I largely let the students manage their own production of this document intending to contribute some comments when the text was largely set.

As sometimes happens, though, students did not entirely get along during the process and one student was offended by the way another student edited her work. This is normal, of course. I can vividly recall going back and forth with David Pettegrew over a few sentences in something that we wrote together. He’d change it one way, and I’d change it back, and then he’d change it back. After doing this 20 or 30 times, one of us gave in. I don’t really remember who.

Thinking about how to respond to this little conflict, I got to thinking about the role of the editor in writing. An editor can hear how your voice should sound, while the writer hears their voice as they want it to sound. Neither of these are “wrong,” but I can’t recall an editor ever making my work worse. To be a good editor, though, you have to communicate well. An offended writer will struggle to hear how their voice should sound and will sometimes become more stubbornly committed to how it sounds in their own head.

4. Citations. I really sucks at citations. I’m going through page proofs for an article now, and it appear that, when in doubt, I just wrote a random author’s name and a random date after it. It’s really remarkable that editors put up with stuff like that. What is the matter with me?

One Comment

  1. The converse of sucking at citations is letting the citation process drag us down into a fascinating but secondary Germanic hell of exhaustive referencing. I think for WRITING, citations are a barrier for most. For generating prose, maybe not so much.


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