On writing: what academia taught me about being a writer

I’ve been thinking about academic and non-academic writing, as I’ve done a good deal of both. My years in academia gave me some valuable lessons about writing that cross over into my fiction.

Grad school assigned readings: Don’t use pretentious, unnecessary language. In plenty of fields there are specific terms academics use that seem arcane to those outside the field. But there is no field, no matter how philosophical, where clarity of language won’t help people understand your point. Don’t use the big word when the small one is just as accurate. Never use a word of whose meaning you are unsure. The more complex your ideas, the simpler your sentence structure should be.

Working as an editor for a scholarly journal: Authors who can stick to a deadline are gold! And everyone’s prose can use some tightening up, even big names in the field. It’s not an insult to get copious notes from your editor. It’s a compliment, a sign of a thorough reading. Also your editor does not expect you to make every suggested change, just to consider the feedback and then make your own decisions. If you don’t make any changes, though, your editor will assume you didn’t do a thorough reading and may even, depending on your contract, rescind the offer to publish.

Giving feedback on student papers: When helping a writer revise, there’s no point in working on sentence-level polishing when there are glaring structural errors. The Craft of Research, by Booth, Colomb, and Williams (which I highly recommend for researchers at all levels) has an excellent chapter about this. Why fix a sentence up all nice if you’re going to have to cut it later? Do big structural edits first, then paragraph-level stuff, then sentence-level stuff. This has helped me a lot with my fiction. When I get irritated with a sentence that isn’t working I leave it be, knowing that I’ll come back to it in a future draft if that scene still exists. Not polishing too early saves me a lot of time and hassle.

Writing a dissertation: Finish the thing! Whatever the thing is. Just finish it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It will probably never feel finished to you. It is not your magnum opus or the end-all-be-all of your career. Once you finish your current project you’ll move on to some new project. It’s okay not to be happy with old work. Just make new work!

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