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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Friday, June 10, 2005

Graff’s Academic Writing Advice Considered

Posted by Jonathan Goodwin on 06/10/05 at 11:55 AM

Perhaps you’ve read his list before. Perhaps not. In any case, my claim here is that these items may or may not constitute uniformly good advice.

So let’s take a look.

1. Be dialogical. Begin your text by directly identifying the prior conversation or debate that you are entering. What you are saying probably won’t make sense unless readers know the conversation in which you say it..

Do you have to identify it directly? How specific should this be? Isn’t there some room for allowing a reader to make a plausible inference here?

2. Make a claim, the sooner the better, and flag it for the reader by a phrase like “My claim here is that [. . .].” You don’t have to use such a phrase, but if you can’t do so you’re in trouble..

I agree that if you can’t do it, trouble, etc., but how soon is soon? Introduction? First section? Again, can the claim be inferred? Do writers sometimes feel, I don’t know, a bit crude just coming out and making a claim like some kind of commoner? Probably not. But a lot of people do detest “signposting” in academic prose.

3. Remind readers of your claim periodically, especially the more you complicate it. If you’re writing about a disputed topic (and if you aren’t, why write?), you’ll also have to stop and tell readers what you are not saying, what you don’t want to be taken as saying. Some of them will take you as saying that anyway, but you don’t have to make it easy for them.

How about if you’re writing about a topic that no one’s bothered to dispute? Does that then mean there’s no point? Makes me feel kind of bad, personally, to know that people think this way. And does anyone get positively annoyed by the metatextual gestures, which are easy to overdo?

4. Summarize the objections that you anticipate can be made (or that have been made)against your claim. Remember that objectors, even when mean and nasty, are your friends--they help you clarify your claim, and they indicate why it is of interest to others besides yourself. If the objectors weren’t out there, you wouldn’t need to say what you are saying.

I have no quibble here.

5. Say explicitly—or at least imply—why your ideas are important, what difference it makes to the world if you are right or wrong, and so forth. Imagine a reader over your shoulder who asks, “So what?” Or, “Who cares about any of this?” Again, you don’t have to write in such questions, but if you were to write them in and couldn’t answer them, you’re in trouble.

Also no quibble, but it could lend itself to being overdone. I should probably provide examples.

6. (This one is already implicit in several of the above points.) Generate a metatext that stands apart from your main text and puts it in perspective. Any essay really consists of two texts, one in which you make your argument and a second in which you tell readers how (and how not) to read it. This second text is usually signaled by reflexive phrases like “I do not mean to suggest that [. . .],” “Here you will probably object that [. . .],” “To put the point another way [...],” “But why am I so emphatic on this point?,” and “What I’ve been trying to say here, then, is [. . .].” When writing is unclear or lame (as beginning student writing often is), the reason usually has less to do with jargon or verbal obscurity than with the absence of such metacommentary, which may be needed to explain why it was necessary to write the essay.

But isn’t it very easy for these types of gestures to make writing even lamer than it would have been otherwise? Successful papers I’ve read seem to do this far more subtly than Graff indicates here. I’m especially curious for feedback on this point.

7. Remember that readers can process only one claim at a time, so there’s no use trying to squeeze in secondary and tertiary claims that are better left for another book, essay, or paragraph or at least for another part of your book or essay, where they can be clearly marked off from your main claim. If you’re an academic, you are probably so eager to prove that you’ve left no thought unconsidered that you find it hard to resist the temptation to say everything at once, and consequently you say nothing that is understood while producing horribly overloaded paragraphs and sentences like this sentence, monster-sized discursive footnotes, and readers who fling your text aside and turn on the TV.

Though I recognize its wisdom, I personally enjoy allusive and difficult critical works which make constant subordinate claims. Maybe that’s an acquired taste. And then there’s the bad-mouthing of the beloved discursive footnote.

8. Be bilingual. It is not necessary to avoid academese—you sometimes need the stuff. But whenever you have to say something in academese, try to say it in the vernacular as well. You’ll be surprised to find that when you restate an academic point in your nonacademic voice,the point is enriched (or else you see how vacuous it is), and you’re led to new perceptions.

I’m not entirely sure what he means here. Anyone have a ready example?

9. Don’t kid yourself. If you could not explain it to your parents or your most mediocre student, the chances are you don’t understand it yourself.

I think this could be taken the wrong way. Does “most mediocre” mean closest to average? Or simply worst?


The point I would like to make in this comment is this: The tips are all either banal truisms or unnecessary impediments to creativity and subtlety, sometimes both.  I also question the wisdom of making sure that every point one is making is immediately reduceable to “laymans’ terms,” when one is writing for fellow-specialists.

By Adam Kotsko on 06/10/05 at 03:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Like William Gass, I always aim low.  I only desire “to manufacture sentences which will persist past all utility, live outrageously beyond their means like exiled aristocracy or the nouveau riche, outlasting fashion and every novelty of thought or fad in phrasing? sentences in language like a vaulter’s limber pole to leap times, to transcend the initial circumstances of their making as well as each succeeding situation which might reasonably require them, as if one set of Last Words might be properly the first learned, and so to welcome, as if summoned, as if appropriately dressed, every moment after” (114-5). 

(That question mark hovers in the middle of that sentence intentionally.  Short of Pope, no author’s prose style enacts its content as well as Gass’.)

Contra Adam’s interpretation of Graff, I do believe that it’s possible to speak of complex matters without writing unnecessarily complex prose.  What constitutes “necessity” differs from field to field, but Graff’s general advice strikes me as sound: write in the most accessible style your field and topic will permit. 

That style might strike layman as unnecessarily complex, but it shouldn’t strike fellow-specialists as such.  For instance, when I last read Derrida--for Derrida’s seminar, no less--I prepared for the experience of reading his prose by reminding myself that it’s written in the unfamiliar idiom of a field on which I’ve little purchase, and despite the extra effort involved, I came away with my sanity and an understanding of his general argument.  However, when I read the work of literary scholars who draw on Derrida, I have an entirely different set of expectations...because the work belongs to a fellow-specialist.  If this fellow-specialist wants to draw from Derrida to illuminate a work of literature, that’s fine; however, unlike Derrida himself, the literary scholar doesn’t have the right--strong words, I know--to speak in the unfamiliar idiom of a field on which I’ve little purchase.  He or she ought to be speaking our language and explaining his or her appropriation of Derridian concepts in the idiom of literary scholars.  Is that an unreasonable expectation? 

(I have a lot more I could say about this--how the privileging of philosophically-informed idiolects in literary scholarship prevents real circulation of ideas between academics and encourages, instead, a counterfeit circulation of what one scholar thinks another might mean by this appropriation of yet another’s understanding of...--but I’ll save it for another post.  Oh, and how about the Sternian ellipses/em-dash combo I dropped there?  Wicked.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/10/05 at 05:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a lot to be said for most of these instructions, but wouldn’t it be easy to produce a list exactly contradicting every claim here?  I like allusive and densely packed critical writing too, but beyond questions of taste I think that the full complexity of some subjects can’t actually be discussed properly except in writing that is tricky and complicated and full of openings and leads and tangents.  Why does he say readers can only process one claim at a time? 

That thing about the pseudo-dialogic metatext, I really don’t buy.  Far more effective, and honest, to refrain from second-guessing your reader in this way. 

The equation of one’s parents with one’s most mediocre student is a pretty gesture.

By Laura on 06/10/05 at 11:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think some of Graff’s tips would be more useful for someone giving an oral presentation. For instance, I find it harder to process more than one claim at a time if I’m listening than if I’m reading.

By jpb on 06/10/05 at 11:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I personally enjoy allusive and difficult critical works which make constant subordinate claims.

Jonathan, I’m curious: why do you enjoy such works?

I’m not saying I don’t enjoy them. But I have my reasons. What are yours?

By Amardeep on 06/11/05 at 05:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d attribute it to the Fiend Folio, mainly (cf. Miéville).

There are many different ways of making subordinate claims, mind you. Take Kenner. You’ve got to be careful when reading Kenner.

By Jonathan on 06/11/05 at 05:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ok, you have out-alluded me. I don’t know what Mieville has to do with it… (I haven’t read Fiend Folio)

While briefly trying to figure it out using Google, I came across this interesting interview with Mieville, which you may have read.

In it, there is this paragraph:

<i>I use AD&D-type fascination with teratology in a lot of my books, and I have the original Monster Manual, and the Monster Manual 2, and the Fiend Folio. I still collect role-playing game bestiaries, because I find that kind of fascination with the creation of the monstrous tremendously inspiring, basically. And the golem that you’re talking about in AD&D, it’s very perspicacious of you, because that is directly an influence. There is a scene in Iron Council where Judah creates a golem of corpses. He shoves his hand into a pile of corpses and makes them into this huge, lumbering golem of dead people, and that is a riff on the flesh golem. One of the things that I love so much about fantasy and science fiction is that the weirdness that it creates is always at its best completely its own end and also metaphorically and symbolically laden. I get very frustrated when I read certain types of magical realism and you end up saying, “Okay, I understand this figure of this golden elf is symbolizing such and such.” The thing about genre fantasy is that it is its own end, but it also does that job of symbolizing.<i>

Nice, huh. Though it still doesn’t explain anything.

By Amardeep on 06/11/05 at 05:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kyuss kicked ass. I don’t think we can argue this.

More directly, however, I’d say that simple-seeming prose sometimes ain’t. So I might, personally, prefer to see the system laid bare (I’m almost just inflicted “by her Bachelards” on you--be wary) in my critical prose. I could then invoke S.B. Johnson all the way back to Teilhard de Chardin and reintegrate the RPG developmental world-picture back up in here. But I won’t.

Astonishingly, I’m just reading Miéville now, and, when I recognize obvious AD&D allusions, I point at the offending passage and yell “NERD!!” Often in public places. Great, great stuff.

By Jonathan on 06/11/05 at 06:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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