thoughts on (academic) writing

Not mine, to be clear—I still think of myself as woefully underqualified to advise on academic writing, even more so than the other sorts of writing I do—but rather Dave Beer’s thoughts on academic writing.

I like that he’s at pains to frame them as thoughts, rather than as rules, or even tips; writing advice can easily be taken as gospel doctrine, not least because that’s what many newer writers are looking for, and they may thus miss the conditional stuff if it’s not heavily signposted. (That was certainly the case for me, at any rate.)

Some of these cross over with writing more generally, but I’m comforted to see a few of my own stumbled-upon strategies among the more academically oriented ones. F’rex:

3. Try to get a structure in place as early as possible. The structure can adapt but always have a working structure. Only change it if a better structure comes along.

Hell, yes. My corollary to this one would be: the abstract you pitched for this thing, which you will probably write a number of months or even years before you actually start writing the piece itself, should implicitly sketch the structure you have in mind. If you can’t see the basic structure of the thing you’re pitching, don’t send the abstract. (Learned this one the hard way.) Also, do a sketch of the outline somewhere you’ll be able to find it when it comes time to start the writing, as this will remove one of the major anxiety-procrastination obstacles to getting started.

5. When editing, don’t be afraid to delete content. See it as blowing away the loose chippings to reveal the carving underneath.

I know this is good advice, but I’m terrible at doing it. My compromise hack is a combination of versioning (i.e. save the early draft full of stuff I know you should delete but can’t bear to, rename the file, save again, then delete the stuff) and clipping (i.e. slicing those bits out and dumping them at the end of the document, so I can tell myself they’re there to reinstate if I need them; I very rarely need them).

8. If possible, printout and do the final read through on paper and mark-up changes with a red pen. Printed versions create distance and make the spatial aspects of the writing visible.

This is universal advice for all writers of any sort. I mean, seriously.

12. Plan the writing to give you a reason to read the things you most want to read.

An interesting strategy, and an interesting insight into a more mature (and presumably less precarious) academic practice. I assume this goes for a lot of non-fic authors and long-form journos as well.

14. Try to have only one substantial writing project on the go at any one time. Always know what the writing priority is before sitting down to write.

Hahahahah, oh fuck. *looks at writing schedule* Fuck.

19. Writing is difficult. Embrace the difficulty.

Well, yes. But the quality of that difficulty changes with experience, I think. My difficulty used to be getting the words down on the page, but nowadays the difficulty is getting the good words out of the vast pile of not so good words I’ve vomited forth in the drafting process.

Which is why—in contradiction of my own feelings about giving advice mentioned above—I am a cautious advocate of the handwritten draft: writing by hand slows you down a bit (though not so much as you might think, once you get back into the swing of it), and it also forces an early editing stage when it comes to getting the thing into the digital domain for further work. But I’ve also found it weirdly freeing: a blank screen still intimidates me horribly, but a blank notebook page is a place to play around with ideas without risk. I guess this is a result of the practice.



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