The Elements of Academic Style
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The Elements of Academic Style

Writing for the Humanities

Eric Hayot

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eBook - ePub

The Elements of Academic Style

Writing for the Humanities

Eric Hayot

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À propos de ce livre

Eric Hayot teaches graduate students and faculty in literary and cultural studies how to think and write like a professional scholar. From granular concerns, such as sentence structure and grammar, to big-picture issues, such as adhering to genre patterns for successful research and publishing and developing productive and rewarding writing habits, Hayot helps ambitious students, newly minted Ph.D.'s, and established professors shape their work and develop their voices.

Hayot does more than explain the techniques of academic writing. He aims to adjust the writer's perspective, encouraging scholars to think of themselves as makers and doers of important work. Scholarly writing can be frustrating and exhausting, yet also satisfying and crucial, and Hayot weaves these experiences, including his own trials and tribulations, into an ethos for scholars to draw on as they write. Combining psychological support with practical suggestions for composing introductions and conclusions, developing a schedule for writing, using notes and citations, and structuring paragraphs and essays, this guide to the elements of academic style does its part to rejuvenate scholarship and writing in the humanities.

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Informations

One
Why Read This Book?
Writing is not the memorialization of ideas. Writing distills, crafts, and pressure-tests ideas—it creates ideas. Active, engaged writing makes works from words. And these works belong, in turn, to the means that made them. They emerge from a process; they represent their becoming, and that emergence, in their final form.
Writing is, therefore, a kind of learning. I say so to oppose writing to dictation, to a conception of writing as a necessary but tedious step in the distribution and fixation of ideas. Conceiving of writing as the process whereby you put down thoughts you already have will give you a bad theory of what writing does and can do. As an idea of writing’s purpose, it tends to make for mediocre writers and mediocre prose. Writing as though you already know what you have to say hinders it as a medium for research and discovery; it blocks the possibilities—the openings—that appear at the intersection of an intention and an audience, and constitute themselves, there, as a larger, complete performance. Active writing should not involve saying things you already understand and know, but instead let you think new things. And that is why, this book will argue, you cannot know what your ideas are, mean, or do until you set them down in sentences, whether on paper or on screen. It is also why the essay or the book you write will not be, if you are open and generous and unafraid, the essay or book you started with. To understand that process as a good thing and to develop a writing practice that helps you inhabit it: those are the two projects of this book.
Why read this book instead of any other book about academic writing? To answer that question, let’s look at the three major types of books of this type that scholars in literary studies might be tempted to read:
1. Books addressing nonfiction style, especially at the level of the paragraph and the sentence, though often including a general ethos of writing as well. This category, the largest of the three, includes Strunk and White’s famous Elements of Style, Jacques Barzun’s Simple and Direct, Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite, Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and Joseph Williams’s Style. Most of these books assume a college-educated audience; almost all focus heavily on semi-journalistic forms like the magazine essay. None of them address scholarly writing at all. The exceptions are Helen Sword’s recently published Stylish Academic Writing, whose focus on major features of nonfictional style (storytelling, sentencing, jargon, etc.) draws from examples from across the academic disciplines, from the humanities to the hard sciences, and Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly, which deals almost exclusively with academic writing in the social sciences.
2. Books focused on the psychological and working structures that help people write. Some of these are for lay audiences and undergraduate students, including Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Others focus specifically on the kinds of problems the academic professoriate faces, such as Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers, Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot, and Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day (a sentence from the introduction of that book: “I don’t actually know anyone who’s [written a dissertation] in only fifteen minutes a day.”).
3. Books that cover the formal patterns and structure necessary to produce specific academic genres. Books like William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book or The Thesis and the Book, edited by Eleanor Harman and her colleagues, follow this format. In this category you will also find something like Wendy Belcher’s excellent Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, which includes advice about work patterns alongside its highly detailed analysis about the journal article as a genre.
The Elements of Academic Style covers ground from all three of these areas. The first part of the book, “Writing as Practice,” frames the discussion of academic style by talking about how writing is currently taught (implicitly and explicitly) in graduate school. It goes on to offer advice about psychological and social structures designed to promote writing and looks at the institutional contexts that govern the major genres in humanistic style (mainly the kind of thing that appears in books of the second and third type). I also present an ethos of writing—a way of thinking about what writing does, and how it should work—that aims to help you understand why you might write a certain way, or why I recommend certain structural strategies or sentence-level choices. Together, these pieces of advice guide you toward an understanding of writing as an extensively lived practice governed by (and governing in turn) a wide variety of behaviors, attitudes, institutional patterns, and personal and social regimes.
The book’s second part, “Strategy,” examines large-scale structures that govern the production of scholarship in literary and cultural studies, including introductions, conclusions, structural rhythm, transitions, and so on. The third part, “Tactics,” covers lower-level aspects of writing practice: footnotes, figurative language, diction, ventilation, and a variety of other concepts that usually operate below the level of a writer’s conscious activity. I know of no other book that gives this kind of detailed guidance for scholarly writers in the humanities (Helen Sword’s book comes closest, but flies at a higher altitude). It’s in the detailed, writing instruction about scholarship—breaking down the “Uneven U” paragraph, demonstrating how to “show your iceberg,” laying out a continuum of metadiscursive practice, or working through three major types of transitions, all of these specifically focused on scholarship in literary and cultural studies—that this book offers things you can’t find anywhere else.
The Elements of Academic Style is mostly written for scholars in literary and cultural studies, whether graduate students or members of the faculty. At its most particular, it is a book about how to write “theory,” or rather, how to write literary scholarship in the mode that was born out of the influence of philosophy and cultural studies on literary criticism over the last three decades. I make no guarantees as to its general applicability! Might these lessons only work for someone with my idiosyncratic educational trajectory; my Continental, soupless childhood; or my suspiciously comedic history of psychological disasters? Perhaps. But perhaps again you and I share, happily, a history of psychological disasters. In which case what works for me may well work, mutatis mutandis, for you as well.
I do think that, regardless of who you are, many of the lessons here are abstractable for general use. Readers outside the literature Ph.D. sweet spot—interested undergraduates and amateurs, or professional historians and philosophers of all stripes—will undoubtedly find lessons to take home, if they are willing to account on their own dime for field-specific differences in style. Because in the long run I don’t care whether you write just like me. I care whether you write just like you—that you come to scholarly prose with both purpose and intention, that you take it seriously as a craft, that you understand how and why you do what you do, that you strive to do more than reproduce the stylistic average of your age and experience. And that you follow, in the long run, the path that you make.
This is a book for finding your way.
Part I
Writing as Practice
Two
Unlearning What You (Probably) Know
Why write a book on scholarly writing for graduate students and faculty in the humanities? Partly because no such book exists.
Other volumes, most famously Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, cover aspects of writing essayistic nonfiction style at the sentence level. Even fewer cover structure; Joseph M. Williams’s Style stands out in that arena. Fewer still focus specifically on academic style, and those that do tend to cover broad swaths of the social sciences and humanities, and even, like Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing, the sciences as well. A number of books help with psychology and time management; still others are geared toward making dissertations into books. All are useful, yet all aim broader, narrower, or to the side of what this book wants to do. What’s more, some of these books are written by people who seem to be jerks, or at least are perfectly happy to take on that role in prose. Being the ideal reader of Jacques Barzun’s Simple & Direct, for instance, entails reading a sentence like “we are forced to notice our contemporaries’ fumbling purpose in the choice and manufacture of words” and feeling like you want to belong to that “we.” I don’t. Writing is hard, and it gives me little pleasure to feel contempt for those who don’t do it well. I’m among them often enough.
But the main reason to write for faculty and students in literature is to counteract the current state of writing instruction in graduate programs. Mostly such instruction doesn’t happen at all. This is startling when you consider that writing well in two or three major professional forms—the conference paper, the twenty-five- to thirty-five-page journal article or longer book chapter, and the complete book—is one of the most important things you should know how to do, and how to do well, as an academic. It is more startling to realize that even when writing is taught—and it is, though usually unconsciously and implicitly—what little instruction that does happen doesn’t actually teach students how to write in those important professional formats, instead often inculcating habits that make it more difficult to write well in them. All in all, much of what graduate school teaches about writing and writing practice makes things harder and worse.
Let me explain. Many writing assignments given in graduate courses in literary and cultural studies (and in their upper-level undergraduate cousins) involve asking students to write an end-of-term essay, usually twenty to thirty pages in length, that connects thematically to the course material. Students usually conceive of and write these essays in the final three to four weeks of the semester. All of these essays receive grades, but only a small subset of them ever gets marked up and commented on. (Many are simply never seen again.) If you are a student like I was, you will, after reading the professor’s comments, put the essay away and never think about it again. The new semester follows; you have new reading and work to do; summer teaching begins; or you have to study for your comprehensive exams.
Yet everything we know about writing tells us that lessons about style, structure, and argument don’t take without commentary or revision. In fact, if you’ve been a graduate student in English, you’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to convince recalcitrant undergraduates to believe and practice that very thing. So why does the vast majority of graduate education in U.S. programs in literature happen without extensive discussion of writing, or any active, institutionally structured revision?
Let us recognize the exceptions. Many professors do bring writing instruction into the classroom, and a number of graduate programs have a course dedicated specifically to writing practice. A friend of mine speaks of a wonderful intro-to-grad-school class (his was taught by taught by Sam Otter, at UC Berkeley, in English), where students wrote a critical review of scholarship, an argumentative essay, and a final ten- to fifteen-page work of literary criticism. Another colleague at the University of Arizona some years ago had students produce an abstract, a conference paper, and a final essay, with one assignment leading into the other as a way of showing students how to carve a developmental path through professional forms. (He then set up a mini-conference for his students, so that they could practice giving conference papers—extra work for him, but how generous and serious!). And so on. There are good people, trying hard, almost everywhere, in the cause of good writing.
My argument here is, accordingly, with the institutional patterns, not the individual faculty. That’s because, though I hope that every student gets to study with a faculty member who teaches writing well, I know that the sheer luck of the draw (or the necessity of choosing an advisor in your field) will in many cases mean that students get almost no writing instruction at all. (Even if, as a faculty member, you are one of the “good guys,” ask yourself: to what degree has your graduate faculty ever had serious discussions about the institutional patterns of teaching writing, or asked how your program could better integrate the teaching of writing in professionally normative forms into the intellectual and professional development of your students? To what degree have you been willing to subordinate the pedagogical choices of any single faculty member to some institutional or developmental logic that you have discussed together and allowed to become part of the nature of your graduate program?) The problem is structural rather than personal. It has to do with the relationship between the entire pattern of graduate-level pedagogy on one hand, and professional life after graduate school on the other.
To understand this more clearly let’s look at one specific instance of that overall pattern: the seminar paper. What, we might ask, does the seminar paper teach?
Let’s start answering this question by concentrating on what the seminar paper teaches as a matter of writing practice, asking what kinds of behavior it trains graduate students to do. It’s perhaps easiest to begin by noticing that the patterns and practices of the seminar paper bear no resemblance to the ways professors write. No one I know writes publishable essays in three weeks, much less when simultaneously working on one or two other essays over the same time period. Most of us write a single essay over the course of a steady, longer period of work—a summer, a semester, or a year—while engaging in extensive periods of research and rewriting. During this time we will often present pieces of this larger work at conferences, share portions with friends and colleagues, or pass some of our ideas through our teaching, using the feedback from those arenas to refine and focus concepts and intuitions or to find new directions and patterns of thought. Once complete, essays submitted to journals always go through periods of more or less serious revision in response to anonymous or editorial review or to suggestions made by copyeditors. The process of publishing an essay in a journal or book rarely takes less than a year from start to finish and usually involves a complex and iterative series of thinking, writing, and revision.
Note the differences between this drawn-out practice and that of the seminar paper. The way things work now, a visitor from Mars might reasonably guess that the purpose of the first two or three years of graduate coursework is to train students in a writing practice designed to generate seventy-five pages or so over three to four weeks. Which would be great if that were what the profession actually asked for. Since it’s not, you would minimally want some assurance from someone that the frequent training in this particular skill—writing seventy-five pages over three weeks—actually helps prepare graduate students for the kinds of work they will be asked to do when they begin writing their dissertations.
The most obvious assurance I can think of would claim that the value of the seminar paper is that it acts as a “junior,” or “practice,” article—it’s about the same length as an article, is written in sentences and paragraphs, makes an argument, uses evidence, and so on. Such a response usefully allows us to see some of the specific virtues of the seminar paper, namely that it can teach students to organize and manage an argument of an appropriate length; that it helps give students a intuitive sense of the shape of a twenty-five-page idea; and that it requires them (usually) to manage both primary and secondary sources. Fair enough.
But seminar papers differ from articles or book chapters in some important ways. Because they are written in three or so weeks, seminar papers tend to have far less research in them than in publishable articles. This means that they’re not very densely citational, rarely use narrative footnotes, and cannot address existing professional debates in a significant way. Also, since they’re written in a hurry, they are likely to have horizontal (paratactic) rather than subordinating (hypotactic) structures, in which one simply says the next big thing one can think of while trying desperately to get to the minimum page length requirement. For similar reasons, seminar papers usually involve close readings of two to three texts in the course, and their intellectual center often lies somewhere in the set of questions and texts organized by the course’s professor. Reviewers who encounter such essays as journal submissions recognize them immediately because the basic question they address has an unspoken justification in the logic of the course for which the paper was originally written, about which the essays themselves cannot, of course, speak. The result is that even very good seminar papers need a summer or semester of work to approach the form and structure necessary to get pub...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover 
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright
  4. Contents 
  5. 1. Why Read This Book?
  6. Part I: Writing as Practice
  7. Part II: Strategy
  8. Part III: Tactics
  9. Part IV: Becoming
  10. Appendix: A Writer’s Workbook
  11. Works Cited
  12. Bibliography