Saturday, February 18, 2006

Terrible Writing

No, not the student papers I've been grading (some of which have been excellent). My own writing in the (sadly, not so distant) past.

Orin Kerr at Volokh Conspiracy in this post writes about finding an old article and being embarrassed at how wordy and convoluted his writing was. I have had exactly the same experience in the final editing of How Tradition Works (final proofs are in transit as I write this).

It's hard to do a lot of editing at the galley stage, and I probably drove my editor crazy, but, well, what was I thinking???? There were so many sentences where I actually had to stop and re-parse the entire thing to make sure that the subject and the verb agreed. They were that really so complicated that it wasn't obvious. And everything was hedged six ways from Sunday, with multiple subjects and multiple objects in some kind of hideous mis-mosh. Ugh.

Partly this is a problem with academic writing and dissertation writing in particular (although HTW isn't my dissertation, a lot of the basic research grew out of the diss, which clearly contaminated it). It's not that I was trying to seem smart (I don't think), or that I thought obfuscation was a good idea (my original goal, even way back at the dissertation stage, was to write a book that would fit both the popular and the academic audiences, a la Stephen Jay Gould). It was more that even five years ago I wasn't as confident about my ideas and my research as I am now. And when you're not confident, you go to extreme lengths to make sure that you dot every i and cross every t, not only in terms of content but in terms of form -- you try to show, in every sentence, that you've considered the complexities of every question.

I think I've slashed out the most horrendous of the tangled sentences, but, well, just ugh!

On a related note, I have now, through consideration of my own writing, formulated several rules that may be of help to those just entering academia:

Anything that follows "of course" is almost certainly questionable and in fact likely points in the opposite direction of the way the author is using it.

Likewise, if a sentence begins "clearly" or "obviously," you can be pretty darn sure that what follows will not be clear or obvious.

If you reach the phrase "that is to say," stop and skip to the next paragraph, because everything that follows was just covered in the prevous sentences.

Rhetorical questions are a sign that the author doesn't want you to consider what he or she has just written very closely. Rhetorical questions are now my pet peeve. If I can convince my co-editors, I am going to ban them from Tolkien Studies and I am now forbidding my students from using them. In the past eight weeks (since I have been thinking about this), I have yet to find a single situation in which a rhetorical questions is more logically effective than the answer to that rhetorical question. Why do people use them? Because they are on weak logical ground and they want to shove the reader along before he or she notices that there is something wrong.

Ok, back to other work.

And for those three family members who are interested:

The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia is done as of Monday (until page proofs come in, of course).

Tolkien Studies volume 3 is done except for editing one article and page proofs (If you owe a person a beer for a small favor, I owe Marcel Bülles something like four kegs for the bibliography, and I'll probably have to get a pony for my research assistant, Rebecca Epstein).

The fantasy course, Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature for Recorded Books is done and at the printer.

The final proofs of How Tradition Works are FedExing their way to me and will be back to the printer in ten days for late April delivery.

Still to do:

Faculty lunch talk: "Beowulf: Is it really the greatest English poem?" March 2.

Hosting (and now, running the supertitles) of Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf, March 9 at Wheaton.

Fourteen Science Fiction lectures to write for Recorded Books by March 13.

Paper/Book Chapter “Possible Instructional Uses of the Exeter Book 'Wisdom Poems: The Benedictine Reform Context,” Universitá Udine, Italy, April 6-8 at the Leornungcræft conference.

Kalamazoo Paper: “Albert S. Cook and the Invention of Cynewulf: The Origins of English Studies in America.”


Brendan said...

"Beowulf: Is it really the greatest English poem?"

It is irresistible to wonder: "Is 'no' the answer to this question?!!!!'

Jeff said...

It's not just academic writing. I'm working my way through edits on a non-academic manuscript right now, and I can see evidence of my own limited artifice on every page. I'm deeply embarrassed by how many paragraphs I began with "Even so," but I'm also newly grateful for the work my editor has done.

Be glad you're so critical of your own recent writing. It means you're still learning stuff.

Chaser said...

Soooooo glad it's not just me who winces when I get page proofs. I rely on wine, lots and lots of wine.

Richard Reitz said...

Re: Brendan on Beowulf

Perhaps not the greatest English poem, but if Helen's was the face that launched a thousand ships, Beowulf may be the poem that launched a thousand books.

I am tempted to ask: have you read it?