How to Like Writing

Writing is a big part of a research career. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re going to be spending a lot of time not liking your job as a researcher. If you can’t find a way to like writing academically, I honestly think you’re better off finding something else to do with your life. But don’t give up right away. During your graduate studies, and especially your PhD, spend some time learning how to enjoy writing. Insist on finding joy in the act of sitting down at the machine and addressing yourself to your peers.

Obviously, at the end of the day, you have to find that joy in your own heart, and I won’t pretend to know where exactly that is. But through the years I have, I think, found some things that might help. If you don’t like writing, it’s probably because you don’t write often enough, you write too much when you do, you don’t know what you’re writing about, or you resent your reader. Or some combination. My somewhat simpleminded advice is to just stop doing those things. And, yes, then you must open your heart. A little.

Write regularly and in moderation about things you know for people you respect. Write every day, five days a week, 32 weeks a year. Don’t write more than three hours a day. Always decide the day before what you will say; make sure it’s something you know. Have someone who is qualified to tell you that you are wrong in mind as you write. (Remind yourself that you really do want them to tell you if you are.) Enjoy.

Enjoy the Company

If I were asked to summarize my writing advice in a single sentence I know what I’d say. Spend between one half and three hours every day writing paragraphs about things you know for people you respect. I would add that you should enjoy it, but why wouldn’t you? If you don’t like writing, it’s probably because you don’t write often enough, have been at it too long today, are writing about something you don’t know, or are imagining a reader you don’t respect. Basically, my advice is to do your writing under orderly conditions and in good company. The joy should come naturally.

Now, the scholarly life isn’t for everyone. There are people who don’t like the company of scholars and there is no shame in that; they can find something else to do with their lives. But it’s likely that the problem is specific to a particular scholarly community. You may not like the company of historians or psychologists but enjoy that of physicists or economists. And even these disciplines exist as much smaller communities, working on particular topics in particular traditions. You may not like one group of historians but find another full of kindred spirits. It takes a village to know something, and there are many villages to choose from.

The important thing is not to get yourself bogged down in a bunch of relationships that make you feel bad. In general, you shouldn’t feel stupid or ignorant when talking to your peers. They shouldn’t make you feel sad or angry all the time. (We’re human, so you have to feel this way some of the time, of course.) On the whole and in the long run, you should admire your peers for what they do and you should want them to admire you. You should also generally think they do.

When you’re writing, you should feel like you are in good company. It’s not quite the company of friends, but there should be a friendly feeling about it, a “collegial” atmosphere. These are your peers. You have chosen them because you recognize your intelligence in theirs and you share a curiosity about the same things. They have also chosen you. You disagree with them about a great many things, but you understand these disagreements as grounded in a common interest in the truth. If you find your disagreements are not constructive in this sense, you should be looking for new peers to talk to.

For any particular paragraph, you know what you want to say and who you’re saying it to. Indeed, to you want to say it to them. If you were talking to someone else you’d be less interested in saying it, or you’d be less confident that they want to hear it. Because this reader is familiar to you, you can decide whether you need to support, elaborate or defend your claim. It’s not easy to write but the difficulty can be easily identified. In rare cases, you know your reader is a little bored, but you can empathize. You can imagine your writing from your reader’s point of view; indeed, you know many of your readers’ names, where they work, what they’re working on at the moment. You have reviewed the literature to which they have contributed.

This, then, is my advice to doctoral students and early career researchers. Spend some time looking for a group of people you like writing for and just go ahead and enjoy it for a few hours every week. (I recommend at least two and a half hours and at most fifteen.) This will all be happening within you, in your heart and mind, so you are in control of the moment. Keep the mood warm and collegial. Don’t spend a lot of time writing for readers you don’t like, or readers you fear, or don’t respect, or feel humiliated by. Spend most of your writing time among your peers. Enjoy their company.

Academic Writing Doesn’t Suck (You’re Just Doing It Wrong)

It’s highly likely you will graduate [from your PhD program] a worse writer than you started. This is because we spend a lot of time teaching you how to write in a particular ‘academic’ style that, not to put too fine a point on it: sucks. Academic writing, as a genre, is ritualised, peculiar, archaic and does almost as much to hide knowledge as it does to share it. Mastering academic writing is just as much about signalling you are the member of an ‘in-group’ as it is about conveying ideas.

Inger Mewburn, The Thesis Whisperer

This is a widely held view that is worth pushing back against. Of course, there’s a lot of bad academic writing out there, but there’s also a lot of bad writing in journalism, business, and government, not to mention the endless wealth of bad novels you can read at your leisure. There is nothing uniquely bad about academic writing and, at the end of the day, the suggestion that academics are required to write badly in order to conform to genre conventions (and that good writing must be learned by way of other genres) is simply bad writing advice. There is no reason that taking a PhD should make you a worse writer. In fact, it’s an excellent opportunity to improve.

Let’s begin with that so-called “in-group” you seem to resent. They’re your peers and if you don’t like writing for them, you should find another discipline, another group of peers. Disciplines differ both in style and content and you should find one that doesn’t suck. In fact, one of the reasons to do a literature review is to find your readers and get to know them. If you can’t find a solid two dozen people whose writing you like, or can at least respect, what are you doing in this discipline? Much of your time will indeed be spent reading them and writing for them, and telling your students to read them and teaching your students to write like them. (What did you think academia would be?) Why would you teach your students to suck?

Academic writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. You’re not supposed to merely “convey ideas”, you’re supposed to expose them (your ideas and their ideas) to criticism. You are writing specifically for people who are qualified to tell you that you’re wrong. Pick people whose opinions you respect, people whose style resonates with yours. If you find people you like to talk to, it doesn’t even suck to be told you’re wrong. That’s when you either learn exactly how right you are (because you’ve got a good counterargument) or are relieved of an error that has been holding you back.

There’s nothing archaic or “peculiar” about writing coherent prose paragraphs that support, elaborate, or defend your knowledge claims, nor about arranging them into essays and papers and dissertations that make larger arguments. (Next, you’ll be telling me that the wheel is “archaic”!) And if you’re using your writing to conceal what you know, you’re doing it wrong. Usually, of course, bad writing will be used to to hide your ignorance, not your knowledge, but it always makes criticism less constructive than it could be. Bad writing, after all, is often simply false writing, dishonest writing, insincere writing — writing something you don’t know for someone you don’t respect. Just don’t do that. It sucks for both of you. Don’t ever explain away the badness you see in your own writing as the result of a supervisor’s or a reviewer’s or an editor’s stuffy demands. Ultimately, you’re punishing your reader, and your reader will not fail to recognize your contempt for what you think they’ve made you do.

No one is going to force you to write badly. In the long run, you won’t even be rewarded for it. But, unfortunately, it is true that they’ll often let you get away with it. The important thing is not to let yourself get away with it — that’s when the whole business really starts to suck. Please don’t let anyone convince you that you have to write badly to succeed as an academic. Don’t let them persuade you that academic writing just sucks and that it’s normal to hate it. Don’t participate in this ritualized self-flagellation. As an academic you’re going to do a lot of specifically academic writing, and a lot of academic reading. Don’t be ashamed of it and learn to love it. Understand why it matters that you do it well. If you want to write popular essays or government memos or blog posts, go and do that. We need good writers of all kinds in all genres in our culture, and in academia we need, yes, academic writers. We need people who are looking for other people to tell them they are wrong.

A Course in Writing

With summer approaching, I’ll be posting less regularly here on the blog. I’m quite happy with the three series of posts I wrote during the lockdown — on discipline, imagination, and time (I’ve linked to the first post in each series). But I fear I’ve been somewhat self-indulgent, pursuing my own obsessions and fascinations with the possibilities of scholarly prose. In August, I’ll get back to more practical matters, which will hopefully be of direct use to scholars and students. This week, I’m planning a course for doctoral students and I thought I’d spend the summer posting my thoughts on how to teach, and how to learn, writing. I’m going to think out loud about what you can do to become a better a writer and what I might do to help you. Comments and criticisms are, as always, welcome.

Before you begin any course in writing, or even a program of self-study, you should decide how many hours you’re going to devote to it, and how long the course will run. How much of that time will be devoted to instruction (either from a live teacher or from reading a book, or a blog, about writing), how much should be devoted to workshopping your writing and getting feedback (either from a teacher or a peer), and, most importantly, how much will be devoted to actually writing? My minimum suggestion for anyone who wants to improve their writing (not merely keep their prose in shape) is 40 hours of writing over an eight-week period, 10 hours of instruction, and 10 hours of feedback. You can design your course or regimen differently, of course, but I suggest roughly those proportions. Spend about two thirds of your time writing, about one sixth listening to (or reading) someone else about writing in general, and another sixth letting someone tell you about your writing specifically. Also, I do suggest keeping at it for about two months.

Next, give yourself or your students some very deliberate activities to do. My approach is to divide your writing time into half-hour “writing moments”, each devoted to the composition of a single paragraph. That way, if you’ve given yourself 40 hours to write over 8 weeks, you know you’ll be writing 80 paragraphs altogether, averaging 10 paragraphs a week. Every time you compose a deliberate paragraph you’re giving yourself an occasion on which to learn, and the activity itself will train your prose, much like practicing the piano trains your fingers and going for a run trains your legs. The point of arranging a “course” is to get the most out of those 80 teachable moments.

To this end, I suggest specifying an output. A standard research paper is a good focus because writing will require you to apply the full range of academic skills: you’ll have to introduce and conclude the paper; you’ll have to write about your theory and method; you’ll have to write a background and an analysis; and you’ll have to discuss the implications of your research. With 80 paragraphs at your disposal, you can plan to write a 40-paragraph paper twice. That’s a lot of learning-by-doing. The skills you learn that way can later be applied to writing entire chapters of theory, method, analysis, etc.

Finally, I want to say something about the spirit in which such a course should be run. Whether you’re teaching it or participating as a student, whether you’re doing it in a big group, or going at it alone, resolve not to worry about what is being accomplished, i.e., what contribution this is making to your academic career or those of your students. Don’t do this at a time when your main concern is finishing a text for publication or examination. (Make this clear to your students if you’re teaching the course.) Find eight weeks that are freed from worry about completion, and give yourself time just to learn how writing works. Every time you sit down write a paragraph, put your academic ambitions on one side and focus only on becoming a better writer. (A tip: choose to write about something you know really well. That way it’ll be the writing, not the knowing, that is the main the problem.) The important thing is to write those paragraphs, learning a little about how it’s done every time you do it. When the course is over, you can get back to work.

The Fourth Dimension

The fourth; the dimension of stillness.
And the power over wild beasts.

Ezra Pound, Canto 49

In physics, the fourth dimension is time. In poetry, however, and especially poetry that is inspired by Chinese literature and philosophy (as Pound’s was), the passing of time is approached in experiential terms, not simply as a measurable dimension. Since Pound tried to situate his poetry spatially “in periplum”, as if drawing a map of the coastline as it appears from a ship, not as it looks from above, it makes sense for him to describe the fourth dimension as “stillness”. Time is what happens — the only thing that happens — when we’re sitting utterly still, when we have completely suspended our motion through space. As when we’re reading a book.

It is this stillness that literature appeals to. In fact, we can say that a writer demands such stillness from the reader; the writer demands the reader’s attention. By meeting this demand, by paying attention, the reader produces the requisite stillness. Perhaps this is what Huineng was talking about in that famous koan about the two monks who are arguing about whether it is the flag or the wind that is moving. “You’re both wrong,” Huineng tells them. “It is the mind that is moving.” Most people understand (or fail to understand) that as a profound truth about reality in itself, but I sometimes think he was being ironic: “Right now, it’s your mouths that are moving. Stop arguing. Be still, and you’ll see what’s really going on.” Sit down, young grasshoppers, in other words, and shut up.

This is what every text implicitly tells you to do. Learning to read is learning to find that calm place in your mind where real insight is possible. The discipline of reading is that of letting words that someone else has chosen pass through your mind in an order that is as little under your control as the motion of a flag in the wind. The stream of words is punctuated, forming sentences that evoke images, and these, too, are not yours to determine. You let the words and the images pass through your imagination; you give yourself over to their power.

This civilizes us. We entrust our minds to books because because we know they are not a battery of sticks and stones pointed in our direction. If they abuse our trust, if they make us imagine things we don’t want to see, then we can always close them and put them down. While we are not in control of what happens when we read, we are in control of whether to continue reading. We are perfectly safe and it is this presumption of safety that makes literature so valuable. The writer should feel free to speak from what Lisa Robertson called “the motion of her own mind.” Neither the page nor the reader’s lips move. The mind moves.

To write is to occupy your reader’s time, not to encroach on their space. The two-dimensional page and the three-dimensional book are merely instruments, incidental to the main purpose of the text, which is to get the reader into the right frame of mind. It is a way for the text to interact with the four-dimensional space-time we call reality and establish the right kind of attention. Once this has been accomplished, the materiality of the text should fade into the background, noticed (like Luzhin’s matches) only unconsciously, or when something goes wrong, such as when we accidentally flip two pages at once and nothing makes sense any longer. Normally, the text is not merely superficial but altogether tenuous; oblivious to the height and width and depth of life, it proceeds, one word after another, along a single line that the writer has drawn. The reader, sitting still, follows it.