Ph.D.s Are Still Writing Poorly, Part 2

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

Dear Pretenure Faculty Member:

You were an excellent student, a deep thinker, curious, maybe a little quirky. You loved learning and got interested — so interested — in things most people didn’t care much about. You lived to read, to question, to puzzle and ponder. Back in the day, you may even have loved to write.

Then you went to graduate school, and the joy of being a pupil got pummeled out of you. Years of hazing — being told by professors that you weren’t getting it: your ideas too obvious, your prose too uncomplicated — made you a little sour, a bit less enthusiastic about the whole knowledge-production business.

Early on, you felt capable. Then you were assigned to read the work of the best minds in your field, and found yourself rereading — over and over — paragraphs whose meaning you couldn’t extract. You shook your head. Blamed your incomprehension on a hangover. Got new glasses.

Reading became an exercise in intellectual rigor. You learned to extract useful nuggets and to ignore what you didn’t understand. You read the luminaries in your field and aped their sentences. You tried to sound on the page like those academics you most admired. In class, you mimicked the speech patterns of your professors.

You learned the secret handshakes and shibboleths without questioning, or even noticing, the changes taking place in your language. You hid behind the third person, used the passive voice when you could, and shied away from making blunt assertions and bold arguments. You wrote nothing you couldn’t back up with a zillion footnotes. You began to pad your ideas with throat-clearing statements and ready-made phrases, taking 25 pages to say what what could have been plainly expressed in 10.

Here’s what I want you to know: The emperor has no clothes. Yes, the intellectual heavyweights did have big ideas; they did posit new theories that changed their disciplines or the world. That doesn’t mean all of their writing is good or should be imitated. For the most part, you mold yourself after them at your own peril.

Your advisers were smart, caring people who came of age in a different time. They taught you as they were taught, expecting you to reap the same rewards they did. But their training methods and advice are not doing you any favors in today’s world, academic or otherwise. That dissertation on which you worked so long and hard is probably not a book and may never be a book. It was the last hurdle in the hazing process, but it won’t do you much good outside the fraternity.

And the fact is, many of you — especially those working in visiting, part-time, and other nontenure-track positions — will have to learn to survive off campus.

Perhaps you sent out hundreds of job applications and got zero tenure-track interviews. You heard murmurings when you started grad school about the academic job market, about how rough it was, but you were always a star student. You would be the exception. Now you’re eking it out on the adjunct path, pulling espressos and tutoring SAT takers. Bitterness threatens to consume you.

Or. You snagged a gig as a full-time, nontenure-track lecturer. You teach too many classes and worry each year whether your contract will be renewed. You devote all your time to students. The questions, the emails, the texts never stop. You give them everything you have, and still they want more. They love you, but your job security is tenuous.

Or. You finished your dissertation and, against odds no one in the state of Nevada would take, you landed one of those rare tenure-track jobs. You hustle to prepare for your classes and grade papers between committee meetings. Your own writing and research gets back-burnered. But the clock, it ticks. Third-year review comes too soon, and you’re making progress. You have a book project that’s based on your thesis. You know that books and dissertations are different, but you’re not exactly sure how. No one has ever taught you, or even talked about, how to write a book. You figure you might have picked it up through a process of osmosis.

You start your book’s introduction by writing, "This project looks at X," and then you say what X is. You might claim that no one has ever looked at X before. Perhaps you’ll be brave and argue that those who have studied X got it wrong. You assume that, because you find your topic interesting (or once did), others will as well.

Here’s the bad news. While you could count on one hand the number of copies you had to make of your dissertation, your book will need to find a bigger market. It’s no longer anyone’s job to read your work. Now it’s up to you to seduce your readers, to entice them to heed you.

I don’t blame you for not knowing any of this. As a professor, a writer, and a former book editor myself, I want to help you succeed in the academic-industrial complex. Here are some writing tips you may not have gotten from your advisers:

  • As you write, imagine an actual reader. Not your thesis adviser or one of your grad-school pals. Think of someone smart in ways you value — someone who is not an academic, or at least not in your field. It might be your mother, or your favorite undergraduate. The question such readers ask themselves as they scan your writing: Why should I care about this? In the first pages of your work, explain how your research matters, and do so in language that these intelligent, nonacademic readers will understand.
  • Write the way you teach. Imagine leading a college seminar on your topic. What background do people need? How can you explain clearly where your work enters the conversation? (Note: This is not the same as providing an exhaustive literature review to prove you’ve done your homework.)
  • Whose prose do you love? Think about scholarly work you find pleasurable to read. What makes it enjoyable? Which academic authors do you most want to have dinner with because their personalities come alive on the page? Reread their work to figure out how they managed that. Steal their moves.
  • Write so someone who knows you will recognize your voice. You want your readers to say, "This sounds like you." Not like a neophyte slinger of polysyllabic Latinate diction, but the best you — the you who loved to read and write, the you who gets good teaching evaluations. A strong voice makes readers feel that a human is speaking directly to them. On the page, be someone the reader wants to have dinner with.
  • Remember what initially interested you in your topic. Recover the excitement of unearthing new material or reaching a startling conclusion from your data. What’s the part you talk about when you describe your work to friends? Know where your juicy bits are.
  • Tell a story. Narrative desire is hot in all of us. Go deep into your notes to find an anecdote that contains the seeds of your entire argument and start there. That will probably be the easiest and most fun section to write.
  • Search for — and destroy — pretentious language. You know which words you use to make yourself sound smart. Remember that you are smart; don’t slum in the ghetto of cant to try to prove it. Trust that your ideas are good enough not to have to fancy them up with jargon. (If you’re worried about lack of complexity or depth, think harder.) Use technical terms when necessary, but only after you’ve introduced the concepts they represent.
  • Clarity is a good thing. When you find yourself perpetrating one of those long sentences loaded with 25-cent words, type the phrase, "by that I mean," and see what you write next. Keep that explanation, but go back and delete "by that I mean" — and also, maybe, the long preceding sentence.
  • Cut as much as you can. Make sure your sentences are not too long, too short, or too similar. Vacuum out junk phrases. Omit needless words by using simple editing tricks.
  • Start your revisions with a new blank document. Re-vision: See again. After you’ve spent years working on something, you know which pieces actually fit in your manuscript and which ones you shoehorned in to please someone else or to cover your butt. Cut the parts that bored you to write. Start over, with your most exciting material. (Yes, I know how hard that is, and it never gets easier. And yet this technique always pays off.)
  • Use technology. If you’re comfortable with PowerPoint, try using it to make a new outline. Move chapters and concepts around until they flow logically and you have an energetic structure that carries the reader forward.
  • Realize that four chapters are not enough for a book. They might be enough for one groundbreaking journal article. You won’t fool editors by sending in something that has the heft of a book manuscript without the substance. It must also read like a book.

At this point of your pretenure career, you’ve passed the big test and learned the secret handshakes. Your dissertation was your last work as a student. Now you must become a professional. Be brave enough to put your ideas into the world unadorned by all the bad habits you picked up in your doctoral program. Strive not just to please your advisers, but to surpass them.



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