Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Scholarly Writing Style: Modest suggestions for students

I have come to realize that some of my students are uncertain how to write a scholarly paper.  I produced this for my students and merely post it here, in case it will influence the practice of some.  This what we aspire to.  For what it's worth.  RLC [modified 2/19/10]

Notes on writing, for my classes.

1.  As you write – and this is especially a problem when we are writing longer pieces [a dissertation, an honors thesis] -- don’t let yourself suppose that you are writing about something.  Never write about something.  Say something.  That is, put forth your affirmation, your claims, and then, make use of whatever evidentiary material you can muster to explain why you hold that view.  Tell the reader what you are saying, not what your text is about.

2.  When you make an assertion back it up with precise evidentiary material.  Look at the following statement, the opening paragraph by Ervand Abrahamian in the London Review of Books [Vol. 31 No. 14 · 23 July 2009][‘I am not a speck of dirt, I am a retired teacher’]
Iran has a healthy respect for crowds – and for good reason. *Crowds brought about the 1906 constitutional revolution. *Crowds prevented the Iranian parliament from submitting to a tsarist ultimatum in 1911. *Crowds scuttled the 1919 Anglo-Iranian Agreement, which would have in effect incorporated the country into the British Empire. *Crowds prevented General Reza Khan from imitating Ataturk and establishing a republic in 1924 – as a compromise he kept the monarchy but named himself shah. *Crowds gave the communist Tudeh Party political clout in the brief period of political pluralism between 1941 and 1953. *Crowds in 1951-53 gave Mohammad Mossadegh, the country’s national hero, the power both to take over the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and to challenge the shah’s unconstitutional control of the armed forces. Crowds – aided by clerics – provided a backdrop to the 1953 military coup organised by the CIA and MI5. *Crowds in 1963 began what soon became known as Khomeini’s Islamic Movement. *And, of course, crowds played the central role in the drama of the 1979 Islamic Revolution – with the result that the new constitution enshrined the right of citizens to hold peaceful street demonstrations.
Notice the topic sentence of this paragraph [underlined].  Then notice how many times and in what specific ways Abrahamian demonstrates his opening claim.  I have placed an asterisk at the beginning of each sentence that he produces to support his claim.  Each of those sentences could in theory be supported with further citations if he were saying something relatively unknown or contested or critical to his point in this work [which he brings up later], but for his purposes in an opening paragraph there is no need for citations – what he is referring to here is all historically documented elsewhere.

3.  A paper should develop logically so that the reader can follow your point as you go along.  Each paragraph should make a point that helps you develop your main point, each sub-point of the argument being not only affirmed but also demonstrated and illustrated, as indicated above.  That is, as indicated above, Abrahamian could have developed each of those supporting statements with a body of more detailed evidentiary material; in that case, each of those sentences would constitute a sub-point that helps him make his main point.  The result should be a work in which the main point is clear and the evidentiary supporting material [illustrations, data, etc.] would collectively demonstrate his main point.  The project is to make the point persuasive.  The impact should come from the precise and explicit details that make the point.

4.  As you develop your ideas you want to remind the reader of the point: 
  • “The first reason that I believe the Americans should put a man on the moon [your point] is … [your supporting evidence].” . . .  
  • The second reason that the Americans should put a man on the moon is [another body of evidence]. 

The phrases such as those above, which iterate and reiterate your main point, are useful repetitions that remind the reader of what you are saying.  Readers easily get lost in the verbiage so they need to hear what you are saying, as you lead them through the thicket of details that help you make your point.

5.  Represent the views of other authors fairly and accurately.  A key task in demonstrating that you understand a text is to identify the key formulations in the text.  If you jump on marginal comments you demonstrate that you don’t get the point.  If you criticize an author make sure you quote from the key formulations, those that best capture his/her point.  Not long quotes; key quotes.  And make sure you have fully and fairly described his/her position on a particular matter before you take issue with it.  Part of that includes appreciating the time of writing and the social and political context.  Don’t flatten the opinions of anyone; that’s cheating. 

6.  Be sparing with long words:  Anglo-Saxon words are always best because they are shorter and have more punch; Latin based words [-tion words] are bookish and boring.  There is a way to evaluate the “readability” of a text based on the ratio of one and two-syllable words in the text.  Note the quotation by Abrahamian above:  Lots of one syllable words, few three syllable words.  There’s no pretense here, and no filler.  Note the verbs:  they are short and some have a distinct impact [NB “scuttled”]; no fancy verbiage.  By all means avoid the jargon of some writers [and journals] who effect an appearance of scholarly sophistication in awkward words [“problematize”, etc.]. 

7.  A few long sentences are OK but short sentences are good, and sometimes abruptly short sentences help break up the pattern  [E.g. “Enough.”  “Forget it.”].  But don’t overdo any particular pattern.  Keep it mixed up. 

8.  Eschew the passive voice.

9.  There is no substitute for authenticity.  You can write in the first person [“I” or the editorial “we”] but you want to mute yourself as much as possible unless you are writing an essentially personal piece.  Seek simplicity, authenticity, clarity, precision.

10.  If you are called upon to summarize or digest a book, make sure you get the formulations that best characterize the message of the book.  You can usually find those statements in the places where the author pauses to remind the reader of what he/she has said and where the argument is going.  Normally an author will pause at the beginning and ending of major passages to remind the reader of what he/she is saying.  Those are the places where you will find the most useful formulations.  Always watch for points he/she repeats; the repetition is meant to keep you aware of what he/she thinks is crucial as the narrative develops.

Sarah Kendzior suggests three more rules:

11.  Omit the adverbs. They are really, truly, indisputably, absolutely a drag on any sentence. 

12.  "Leave the boring parts out."  This is advice from the crime writer Elmore Leonard. It doesn't always work in academic writing, but most of the time, it does. Someone asked Leonard the secret to his success and he said "I just leave the boring parts out" -- what he meant was that he leaves out any information that is obvious or extraneous; if his work made sense without this information, then he cut it.

13.  When you're done delete 10% of your text because everything is better 10% shorter.