When I finished graduate school, I was a passable writer. By this I mean that I usually could make myself understood, but I was no one’s definition of eloquent or elegant. At the time, I considered this a win, because I was a pretty terrible writer as an undergraduate and through most of my graduate school career.
For me, the path to becoming a passable writer was slowing down, revising drafts, and being deliberate. As a result, my dissertation, which was not terribly long, took close to 5 years to finish. This was in no small part the result of a conscious decision to slow down and revise every chapter very carefully.
Immediately after graduation, I spent a couple of years writing an article that was never published (although part of it were spun off into other publications. I still rather like the article, but it never really got traction with anyone else. Fine, whatever.) As I got my first job and contemplated my career on the tenure track, I began to realize that a deliberate approach to writing, while rewarding, was hardly sustainable if I planned on producing enough publications for tenure. To this end, I decided to train myself to write more quickly.
To guide this effort, I attempted (with varying success) to follow three rules: (1) write every day, (2) write in active voice, (3) keep my sentences simple.
Everything else would be more or less gravy. For example, I recognized that I should, whenever possible, follow the rules of grammar. I also paid some attention to my style, (such as it was) in much the same way that I pay attention to my lawn. I assume that my lawn will develop in a way most suited to its purpose. In other words, it’ll become the best lawn it can be if left to itself. Finally, I still revise, but my revisions are usually mechanical rather than writerly.
The blog was a key tool in my effort to write more and more quickly. By waking up every morning and writing 500-1000 words while I drank my coffee, I developed some kind of writing muscles which helped me write more efficiently over the course my day. As readers of this blog know, the emphasis on speed and efficiency over quality ensured that my blog was usually basically comprehensible, if not stylistically appealing. Even I realize that I use too many adverbs and rely on too many particles (however, of course, in other words, that is to say…) to try to breath life into my otherwise moribund style.
Over the past few years, I’ve been reading more good writing in my capacity as editor of North Dakota Quarterly. I not only read submissions to the Quarterly, but subscribe to a number of little magazines and literary journals that regularly feature some of the best non-fiction writers working today. I’m regularly amazed by their ability to turn a phrase, their elegance of both sentences structure and argument, and their vast vocabulary. The more I read their work, the more I want to emulate their prose.
I also have spent a good bit of time with various guides to good academic writing and editing (especially the series published by University of Chicago). Many of these works have helped me think more clearly about writing (and research) as a process with useful attention to matters of organization, but few of them offer substantive insights into matters of style. It’s clear, as one might expect, that style is something that comes from reading and writing deliberately. I need to read with greater attention to how others write and then attempt to apply these lessons to my own prose.
The downside of this is that it requires me to write less quickly and probably less often and to shift time each week from “writing practice” (where I am now probably just reinforcing bad habits) to the craft of reading. Like most academics, I read about 50-70 books per year. About 10% of those are now fiction. I suspect that I’d become a better writer if I added to that list another 5-7 quality non-fiction books. This seems like a reasonable goal, but, as always, change is hard.