Explorations of Style, A blog about academic writing

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Jan 232013

Explorations of Style offers readers an ongoing discussion of the challenges of academic writing. The ability to formulate and clarify our thoughts is central to the academic enterprise; this blog discusses strategies to improve the process of expressing our research in writing. The flexibility of the blogging format allows me to explore writing instruction in a way that is more permanent than that found in the classroom and less permanent than that in a book. My key strategies, resources, and principles are used to ground discussions of more specific writing issues. Those writing issues will be ones that come up in my teaching or that are raised by readers. As I move back and forth between new writing questions and established principles, I will have the opportunity to revise and refine my own approach. My ultimate goal is to create a working approach to academic writing, one that can be entered at multiple points and one that can shift in response to my interactions with students and readers. In addition to offering my approach to academic writing, I hope to use the blog to present the broader context in which I think about academic writing. By attaching links to recent articles, I will engage with ongoing conversations about issues such as the future of graduate education; the practices of writing instruction; the state of academic publishing; the role of English in global academic conversation; the notion of grammatical purity; and the way that technological shifts may change our relationships to academic texts.

Dear “Having Said That”

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Nov 112012

You allow your disciples to cushion their blows, to cover all their bases, to issue deformed stepchildren of opinions that couldn’t possibly be attacked because it would just be too pointless and sad. Those that drink from your cup are able to fill the void of a conversation with a kind of soft fluffy substance that promises to love everybody, all of them, equally, while at the same time remaining as elusive and ethereal as dark matter. You entice the hardheaded away from their hubris and convert them instead to a religion of relativism. You whisper to them so softly, allowing them to give in to the much gentler, fuzzy borderline indifference akin to what overcomes them while flossing or listening to the Shins. Hey man, it’s all good right? To each their own and birds of a feather and there’s more than one truth and all that jazz?

But here’s the thing. People will choose what they want to hear anyway.

@ McSweeney’s

On Making Sentences Do Something

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Sep 252012

When I started writing seriously — by which I mean that I was serious in my intentions and commitment, which seem to me the main things a writer can control — I started by writing sentences. I spent a lot of time, sometimes a day, sometimes the better part of a week, on each one, moving its parts around, weighing the thing in my hand, struggling to achieve balance and shapeliness, waiting for all the pieces to click perfectly into place.

Paul Valéry once told André Breton that he couldn’t be a novelist because he refused to write, “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.” Fiction writing, Breton and Valéry agreed, relies too much on sentences written in this “purely informative style,” sentences of a “circumstantial, needlessly specific nature” — why five o’clock? why not five thirty? and why not a princess? In those early days of writing, I thought often of Valéry’s remark. I wanted to write fiction, but I didn’t want to write that kind of bluntly functional sentence. I wanted each sentence to be a thing unto itself, self-sufficient and entire. Needless to say, these sentences were all a long way from “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.”

~ Christopher R. Beha @ The Millions

Style is the life that disproves the machine

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Aug 192012

It’s the easiest argument in the world, and one of the most specious, style v content. The cliched view of literary style, especially style which draws attention to itself as style, is that it’s a surface thing, a thing of appearance, a skin-deep thing; a fraudulent thing, not the real thing, blocking us from what it’s trying to say even as it says it.

But everything written has style. The list of ingredients on the side of a cornflakes box has style. And everything literary has literary style. And style is integral to a work. How something is told correlates with – more – makes what’s being told. A story is its style. A style is its story, and stories – like onions, like the Earth we live on, like style – are layered, stratified constructs. Style is never not content. This is because words themselves when put together produce style, never lack style of one sort or another. Otherwise we could junk, say, one of the most recent translators of Madame Bovary, Lydia Davis (who went back and looked at Flaubert’s edits and took into account for her translation his removal, from draft to draft, of metaphoric or lyrical elements in the language of the novel), and just run Madame Bovary through Google Translate.

Style isn’t the ghost in the machine, it’s the life that disproves the machine. There’s nothing ghostly about it. It’s alive and human. More, style proves not just individual human existence, but communal existence.

~ Ali Smith

Becoming a ‘Stylish’ Writer

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Jul 062012

Complaining about bad academic prose is like discussing the weather: talk, talk, talk, and no one does anything. In my recovering-editor mode, I finally took the first step and allowed myself to admit that most scholarly manuscripts read as badly as many first-year composition papers. In my work for a publisher, I had perpetrated on the world a whole lot of garbled ideas expressed in jargon and in meaningless, incomprehensible, and never-ending sentences. It was then that I started to feel, as they say, bad about myself. Now as I go about trying to make amends, I end up sounding like Chicken Little, running around and screeching about how the academic sky is falling.

But, if you look up, you may notice the academic sky is crashing in on us. Jobs are about as abundant as ivory-billed woodpeckers and book publishing is in the crapper. Journal subscriptions, long swollen by libraries, are in danger of starting to look as dry as the Los Angeles River.

Plenty of people are sounding alarms. Last fall historians Anthony Grafton and James Grossman argued for big changes in graduate education. Michael Berube, president of the Modern Language Association, is toiling to make things better for contingent faculty. Such voices of reason are shaking things up and we need to listen to them. But we also need to focus on training students to be good at the things that academics are supposed to do: read, write, think clearly and critically, and present new ideas and material so their importance shines through.

~ Rachel Toor @ Chronicle.com

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