by Adrian Sobers
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.
“There’s a deep craft satisfaction in writing that comes before everything except family.” – Carlo Rotella “You are alive in inverse proportion to the density of clichés in your writing.” – (Nassim Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes) Donald Ritchie (The Columnist) recounts the instructions Drew Pearson left his staff on how to operate in his absence, “It is your job as newspapermen to spur the lazy, watch the weak, expose the corrupt. You must be the eyes, ears, and nose of the American people. Yes, the nose, too, is important. For no matter what stench you may be exposed to, never lose your sense of smell.”
Pearson’s column (Washington Merry-Go-Round) appeared on the pages of more than six hundred newspapers. Many a politician fell victim to “Pearson’s poisonous pen”. Pearson the columnist doubled as the most hated and feared man in Washington (and abroad). Franklin Roosevelt called him a chronic liar. Winston Churchill went further.
He crowned him “champion liar of the United States.”
Pearson’s journalistic vigilance was said to have kept “small men honest” and forced “bigger men to work in an atmosphere of caution that frequently cramps their style.” Pearson’s advice to his staff applies not only to “newspapermen”, but writers across the spectrum. And as said writers know all too well: writing is hard work.
This is a matter-of-fact observation, not a complaint. To continue William Zinsser’s quote from On Writing Well, “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.” This is for the brave souls who labour at this difficult but rewarding craft.
Zinsser reminds us that writing is not a contest. This is not to say that all writers are equal. C.S. Lewis is, well, C.S. Lewis.
Marilynne Robinson is Marilynne Robinson. “Every writer”, says Zinsser, “is starting from a different point and is bound for a different destination. Yet many writers are paralyzed by the thought that they are competing with everybody else who is trying to write and presumably doing it better.”
Relax, no one is better than you in the competitive sense, but reading a good grammar book or style guide can’t hurt.
Neither can the choir and wordplay on Heaven and Hell from Kayne’s DONDA. (Those who know, know. For those who don’t, there’s genius.com.) I am currently on Arika Okrent’s Highly Irregular. While standards and rules are important, the English language is anything but logical. This is mostly a function of the natural historical process; and snobs. In the section, What’s the Deal with Latin Plurals?, she writes, “In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries you could write about “collecting data” and not be attacked by a flood of letters to the editor about your mistake.”
Try that in 2021 and the snobs will have a field day. Okrent explains, “Data (originally the plural of datum) is now more often used with singular verb agreement. It is a mass noun, like evidence or information, and it’s been used that way for a long time. Still, style guides continue to pass down a caution about its use, a warning that you might be challenged on “the data is,” and it’s good preparation to know why.”
The snobbish tendency is how we got some of our words.
Okrent notes that “The urge to Latinize spellings made etymological connections that were never there in the first place. Iland, for example, was from an Old English word, ígland, but in the late sixteenth century it gained an s to become an island on the mistaken assumption that it had something to do with Latin insula.” Pity we can’t ship the snobs to their own ígland and get on with our writing.
Those of us in the Plebian class who are not members of the privileged scribal class in Academe can still learn from how successful academics write.
This brings us to Helen Sword’s lovely little book, Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Sword offers reflections on the craft of writing from academics across various disciplines: English, Biology, Physics, Philosophy, Education, and Economics. Writing is hard enough as it is; do yourself and your (potential) audience a favour by taking it seriously.
One academic revealed that they don’t schedule any meetings before 10:30 a.m. “If people ask, I say I’m writing.
I try to talk about writing as an important part of building a research culture, a reinforcement of what you do. There is nothing wrong with making writing and research a core part of your work, as important as anything else that requires the same level of effort and protection.” I have the most patient wife and son in this regard. I don’t subscribe to the write a specific number of words per day school, but some find it helpful. Like scientist Linus Pauling, “If you want to have good ideas, you must have many ideas.” And one way to have many ideas is to literally write every day. Hard pass for me. Some academics reported that they improved their writing from the most unexpected of sources (and other disciplines).
“My husband is a brilliant man but not an academic. He has six different trade tickets: machinery millwright, welder, pipefitter, steam engineer. He’s a bright man and a curious man and will poke holes in my argument faster and sooner than any of my colleagues.”
This lesson from journalism resonated with me: “I learned that the perfectionist’s voice has to be stifled really quickly because you realize you have to hand the thing in.” The most important lesson from Sword’s survey concerns what matters most: people, people, people.
Sword cites Tim Appenzeller, former editor at Nature, who notes that many academics “are not sympathetic to a wider audience; they are much more concerned with looking good to their immediate peers.”
On this point mathematician, Bill Barton is spot on, “The gold standard of academic writing, for most, is the scholarly book or article that speaks to readers both within and beyond academe: The phrase I had in my mind as I wrote my book was that I wanted mathematicians to agree with it and my wife to understand it.”
As Sword put it, “Writing for publication is, after all, a deeply human act: we write to communicate our research findings to other people; we learn to write from other people; our writing habits are enabled and inflected by other people.”
Virtually all successful academics, says Sword, “put enormous amounts of craft and care into making their work accessible to their chosen readers.”
“No man who cares about originality”, wrote C.S. Lewis, “will ever be original. It’s the man who’s only thinking about doing a good job of telling the truth who becomes really original – and doesn’t notice it.”
Paradoxically, the best way to achieve originality is through collaborative writing. “Communities of practice” where writers share information, and ideas is one of the best ways to stand out from the crowd. Sword gives practical tips at the end of each chapter. Tellingly, the only heading that appears at the end of every chapter is: read a book.
I leave you with a random list from her recommended titles: Professors as Writers; Writing Places; How We Write; Voice and Vision; Clueless in Academe; Sin and Syntax; Women, Fire and Dangerous Things; Metaphors We Live By. Writing is hard work; so work hard at it.
Adrian Sobers is a prolific letter writer and commentator on social issues. This column was offered as a Letter to the Editor.