How to Write Brilliant Academic Prose*

Twelve days, 5555 words, and three ruthless cuts later, I think I may finally have an introduction to chapter 3. Which experience, while frustrating, reminds me of these three cardinal rules of writing well:

1. Find your voice. I can't actually write "academic prose." Every time I try, it comes out stilted and fake. Because there is no such thing as "academic prose" (except in a bad way, see #2). There is having an academic audience, which means you can assume certain levels of knowledge and experience on the part of your readers (although even this is not set in stone), but there is no one way to write to such an audience, just as there is no one way to write brilliant fiction or poetry. There are conventions of presentation, things that one must be able to demonstrate, but there are in fact no rules--at least, no rules of voice--about how one must go about arguing one's point. Which is not the same thing as to say that style does not matter; it does, very much. But style is not the same thing as voice. Voice expresses who you are, how you think about a problem. To a certain extent, it is defined by your audience, but this does not mean simply fulfilling your audience's expectations about how you should write. There is no "should," other than clarity. And, yes, it is perfectly permissible to use the first person in academic prose. I do.

2. Say what you mean. Which perhaps might be better put, "Write from the heart." Getting stuck in writer's block is a sure sign that you are trying to say something other than what you actually think. Maybe you don't know yet what you actually think and you need some time writing to figure out what it is, but in my experience, it is more than likely that you do know what you think but are afraid to say it. These past two weeks, it took me twelve pages of hard writing to discover the five pages of what I actually wanted to say, all because I kept writing about things other people have thought were important and about which, therefore, I had the feeling that I ought to have something to say. Every day, I would write another page, thinking I was making progress, only to come back the next day and realize that I was still dodging saying what I thought. I wish I could find better words right now for how to detect when you're doing this; sometimes it's subtle and can take multiple re-readings to acknowledge. It typically manifests, however, in the form of what critical readers call "academic prose": tangled, ornate, laborious passages that seem to be saying something important but really aren't. These are almost invariably the hardest passages (paragraphs, pages, sections) to cut because they took so much effort to write, but if they were that hard to write, then it is practically a guarantee that they should be cut. Saying what you mean is easy; it's not saying what you mean that is hard.

3. Don't apologize. Yes, writing academic prose is scary. Here I am, little ol' me, trying to say something profound and true about something that I (as an historian, at least) have learned only from books (aka sources). What do I know about how medieval people experienced praying to the Virgin? It's not as if I can actually ask them. And even if I could, the conventions of scholarship would still demand that I translate their experience into terms other than the ones that they used, otherwise (horrible to think!) my teachers and colleagues will say I'm just quoting what my sources say, not interpreting at all. Hogwash. True, it is risky saying something about experiences other than our own, but that is the whole point of our efforts at analysis. If I want to imagine how Mary's devotees experienced praying the psalms, that's what I need to write about. And no, I do not need to apologize for the way in which medieval Christians read the Bible or for not writing about things that I think my colleagues want to hear. That's mainly what I've had to keep cutting these past two weeks: excuses. Justifications. Efforts at making my argument seem to be something it's not. Particularly efforts at trying to make my argument seem more important than it actually is. Yes, as academics we need to learn how to answer potential objections to our arguments, but if the answer takes more than a sentence, it has probably gone on too long.*

4. Say only what you need to say, and then stop.

*Unless it's an answer specifically designed to answer such objections, at which point we call it "methodology," a.k.a. self-consciously thinking about why we write or think the way we do. As in this post. Which has no place in the chapter I am trying to write, which is why I'm writing it here. Showing your methodology is like a magician explaining his tricks and should be done only under highly-controlled circumstances, e.g. in the classroom or in footnotes. See how insidious apologies are?


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