Writing Like a Scholar

For the last decade, I’ve been teaching our department’s historical methods class and the final weeks of the that class are almost always devoted to encouraging students to think about their writing. In a practical sense, this involves urging students to write clear, well-organized prose. Like thousands of other teachers, I stress the need for a thesis statement, a clear introduction, and body paragraphs that make clear the link between evidence and argument.

A few weeks ago, I read Rebecca Solnit’s piece on writing titled “In Praise of the Meander: Rebecca Solnit on Letting Nonfiction Narrative Find Its Own Way.”  And, at the same time, I’m working on revising a book manuscript that one of the editors of the series called “discursive” and one of my reviewers suggested showed a struggle with organization. An editor recently called a rough draft of an article that I let her see for comment “almost random.”  

I’ve long felt pretty self-conscious about my writing style. I tend to write on the edge of what I understand, as readers of this blog are surely away. I also tend to write more than I read and my writing often drives my research. The result is what we used to call “a hot mess” where I move from idea to idea and then backfill connective fabric. Arguments, when they do occur, tend to emerge organically from the primordial soup of free associations and coalesce for moments before dissipating again under the relentless pressure of awkward grammar, syntax, and structure. When I teach about writing, I constantly tell students to write as I say not as I do and tell them nearly every class that most of my writing tips reflect my own struggles with words and ideas as much as anything that I see in their work.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the pleasure of editing a literary magazine, North Dakota Quarterly. This has given me the chance to read a good bit more poetry and fiction than I would have read otherwise. I’m constantly struck by how hard it is to read poetry. Poetry seems to resist easy interpretation. It doubles back on itself, contradicts itself, and sometimes flat out lies (albeit in the interest of truth). Fiction likewise meanders about dispensing loose ends and false starts and abjuring balance and order in the name of pacing, emphasis, and tension. In fact, the disorder of poetry and good fiction is often what draws us to it especially if we’re drip-fed on a constant diet of academic writing, journalism, and mainstream creative media. In this context, the obstinance of poetry, the disorder of fiction, and the meandering prose of Rebecca Solnit force us to trust the authors and to take a break from the need for efficient knowledge transfer and entertainment.

Of course, trusting Rebecca Solnit or an accomplished poet is very different from asking an academic reader to trust me, and I get that. But I also have started to worry that our need to read and write efficiently is turning research and scholarly production into a kind of assembly line. Perhaps I’m just speaking for myself here, but I know that I rarely have the luxury of reading an entire book or article at a leisurely pace. At best, I pour through it looking for how it might intersect with my own work. More usually, I read looking for specific arguments, evidence, or positions that will contribute to something that I’m working on right now. In my professional reading, I have very little time for meandering or the kind of productive confusion that poetry can create.

Maybe this is a good thing. Perhaps academic writing should be clear, well organized, and efficient. Maybe we shouldn’t try to mix reading for work with reading for pleasure and respect the contested borders between work and life. That said, it’s strange there is a growing genre of academic writing that adopts journalistic conventions which, if anything, tend to double down on efficiency and privilege the communication of information over stimulating the imagination.  

At the same time, I wonder if our commitment to efficient reading and writing speaks to a kind of distrust of the author. The desire for transparency in argument is obviously a key part academic work. Our citation system reflects a writerly economy that is built upon acknowledging our intellectual debts. Thus we tend to write in such a way to allow a reader to see how our ideas stand in relationship to both other ideas and our sources. Sometimes, I feel like when I acknowledge other scholars’ work, that I’m also proving that what I’m saying is valid or relevant. There’s a constant need for me to secure the reader’s trust that I’m not wasting their time.

It’s hard to imagine that this is a good thing for academic writing.  

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