Friday, February 29, 2008

Wood Writing Guide - Keeping Your Voice

One of the hardest lessons to be learned by a college student is how to not write like a college student. Personally, I continue to struggle with my almost pathological need to forecast, transition, and review everything I write, recalling a time in my community college years when I wished that somewhere I could find a job comprised solely of crafting five-paragraph essays. Oh, how I loved the simplicity of that form. Even so, I have picked up one pointer in the intervening years that concerns authorial voice: Keep yours.

Beginning students can be forgiven for a tendency to cite authorities at every turn, especially when they're engaging a scholarly conversation for the first time. Pouring through voluminous (and frequently impenetrable) prose, the beginning student understandably wants to demonstrate her diligence. "Yes, I did the reading," she announces with paragraph after paragraph of cite and counter-cite. What's more, students often confront lousy examples from published scholarship of writers who seem much more interested in establishing their academic bona fides than taking the risk of saying something original.

In that spirit, I recall an essay I attempted to publish from my grad school days that included, I think, about five pages of analysis and fifteen pages of "discussion." That's a bad sign. Add another ten pages of literature review and I had the makings of (to employ a technical term) a POS. I had no clue, but the editor did. That piece remains today a sad reminder of a career that threatened to be built solely around the ideas of other people, moldering in a lost floppy disk somewhere.

I suppose I would have continued along the same dismal path had I not received a half-hour master class from my former officemate, Phil Wander, while sipping a martini at lunch (on a non-teaching day). He'd read my work and noted that I demonstrated some promise as a scholar. My problem, among several he noted, was my fear of straying too far from established ideas. Every paragraph tacked awkwardly back and forth from my own nascent notions and those more established ideas of others, dangling precariously over stony cliffs while clinging to citation lifelines that anchored me. It seemed that I could not write a page without appealing to some authority. Even when citing ostensibly "radical" scholarship, my writing seemed far too conservative as I sought to type and retype the ideas of others. In response, Phil offered an idea: Don't cite anyone.

Actually, his suggestion was a bit more nuanced than that. Phil proposed that I should write a manuscript with no in-text citations. If I felt compelled to name-drop, I could develop pithy and provocative endnotes, the location where so many academic scholars produce their most interesting works anyway. But a reader must be capable of reading the entire piece without the aid of endnotes, finding something useful and unique in the work "above the line." Try it, he said, and see what happens.

I tackled Phil's suggestion and subsequently found that many of my early essays demonstrated little of my own voice. I had simply cobbled together quotes from established scholars, dipping only a little bit into shallow waters of my own. Faced with an empty page to be filled solely with my own thoughts, I rediscovered the utility of deep analysis, rich illustration, historical context, and personal narrative. From this perspective, I also found it much easier to pass another of Phil's tests: I could ask a family member to read my ideas with hopes of receiving a meaningful review.

That is the primary test of decent prose, Phil said: Can a non-academic, a non-specialist, read your work and discover something useful within? Most of us in the academy learn early how to weave a thick web of verbiage, acronyms, and jargon. Our colleagues nod at the cryptic references, fearful that a glazed stare will reveal insufficient knowledge of our arcane arts. But few scholars learn how to write clearly enough for their mothers to read. Strip away the academic crutches, and a writer faces a broad audience that can discern BS easily. That's a scary proposition, no doubt. But it's also a good way to get good advice.

So that's how I write my first drafts: No cites, no references, no authorities of any kind. Once I get a decent manuscript, I'll ask a friend or family member to review my progress thus far. Without the protection of ponderous supports, my work usually reveals itself as baked or half-baked, which is a good thing to know early on. Eventually I weave in some in-text quotes -- at least for those publications that require them. But I do so with confidence that these authorities are helping me make my own point; I'm not just retyping theirs. Finally my work looks like an academic essay, without, I hope, reading too much like one.


detroit dog said...

The word "prose" shouldn't be within parentheses.

I'm getting a complex because I never see anyone else comment. I trust that they are emailing you or talking with you during office hours.

Good advice; it is how you came to "omnitopia." Writing is so much like art: learn the fundamentals, the basics, then utilize them to create your own work.

Andrew Wood said...


Thanks for your eagle eye in helping me catch that pesky typo. Consider it gone.

To address your concern: I'm happy to report that my students do generally employ my office hours and direct email address to ask questions and seek feedback. I'm using this blog (in its educational context) as a chance to develop more coherent responses to issues they often confront. So when a student says, "I just don't understand what you're looking for in a literature review," I can say, "check out this web address" as a way to bolster our face-to-face conversation (whether they read it remains another factor altogether). In a broader sense, I view blogging as a chance to write a number of textbooks in this medium over the years that I don't have time to pursue through traditional means. I'm happy to earn some financial remuneration through my formally published works. But I like to share useful material with folks for the simple pleasure of doing so. Given the creativity and care you bring to your blog, DD, I know that you understand that desire.

As to omnitopia, you can rest assured that Phil (and a number of other wonderful people) will be acknowledged for their roles in helping me develop as a thinker and writer. Anyone who says you can do this stuff alone is just not paying attention. :-)

LDS Kid said...

Interesting advice. My college papers have been killing me so I will give it a try. Thanks for sharing.

Andrew Wood said...

Best of luck, lds kid, I hope it helps.