Reflections On Writing and Writing Well

            Most professors rarely write for publication. Indeed, I was startled to learn recently that only 27 percent or so of this nation’s 40,000 higher education faculty members have ever published a peer-reviewed article. Fewer than 2 in 5 academics will ever publish a book. Nonetheless, as a general proposition, scholarly success, respect and standing require publication, at least at this country’s leading research institutions and most prestigious colleges. None of this is to say that one must write for publication to be an effective professor. Such would be far from the truth. It is simply to place into broader perspective the widely repeated mantra that one must “publish or perish.” That axiom really needs to be understood in terms of two questions: what sort of academic institution is in question and how one defines the professorial role and what constitutes active scholarly inquiry.

            That being so, today’s Ph.D. students, disproportionately educated in the nation’s research institutions, are understandably anxious to know how they should write and whether they can somewhere find tips that can assure them the Holy Grail of peer acceptance of their work in a well regarded journal, or even better, a book contract with a reputable press to turn their dissertation into a monograph. The most reflective and perceptive of these individuals are equally interested in learning processes by which to write successfully, realizing, rightly, that good writing is a product of clear thinking and prose and that such is likely to take them further than turgid arguments and unreadable tomes. In consequence, like many of my colleagues, I am asked often about these matters and I find I cannot readily respond with the desired handy “How To” list or “Top Ten” shibboleths, either about writing well or about how to succeed in publishing one’s efforts. In any case, to compile such a register somehow seems oddly to trivialize the challenge effective writing represents and also to rob the counseled individual of a key opportunity to make choices regarding their own development. It may also mislead students concerning how such capacities arise and how they are most likely to develop and evolve.

            I find myself musing about all of this having just read The Writer who Stayed, a collection of the distinguished journalist and writer William Zinsser’s personal essays first published online weekly for some nineteen months for The American Scholar. In this varied assemblage, Zinsser treated a wide range of concerns, including, particularly, the topic of writing. Perhaps the subject comes readily to him as the author of a nonfiction work titled, On Writing Well, now in its 13th edition and widely used in composition classes and English programs in the United States and beyond. As excellent writers often do, Zinsser soon had me engaged in a mental conversation with him on his selected topics, including how he came to develop his own style and voice. And, it seems to me that this is ultimately the question that students are asking when they inquire whether I (or anyone else) might share “writing tips” with them. That is, these doctoral candidates really want to know, “How can I develop my own self-confident style, voice and process for writing?”

            Zinsser reports that he first modeled his prose on the spare reporting he read avidly as he grew up in the 1930s and 1940s offered by now legendary New York Times and New York Herald Tribune sportswriters. Thereafter, as he matured, he sought to imitate E. B. White’s urbane and sophisticated prose and for a while, he reports, he did so effectively and to some considerable acclaim. But, Zinsser said that as elegant as this writing was, it was not his style or voice and it was not until he entered his 50s and had by then written for some decades for some of the nation’s finest magazines and publishing houses, that he developed his own personal form of expression. The lesson he offers that one must work assiduously to develop one’s own style and voice, and that it cannot simply be a fine imitation of another’s work, certainly mirrors my own experience.

            Unlike Zinsser, I do not think I have ever consciously mimed others’ writing, but I have deeply admired the essays of several writers, including especially, Robert Louis Stevenson, A. Bartlett Giamatti, George Steiner and Robertson Davies. All offered lovingly crafted and cogent work that literally shimmered (and shimmers) on the page. I recall experiencing the visceral lucidity and power of their gracefully expressed ideas in addition to the thoughtful arguments they shared. These writers continue to symbolize fine writing for me, and while I have not sought actively to emulate any of them, they have shaped how I write in every conceivable way. The deeper lesson for students wishing to develop their own writing, and to evolve a prose of their own, is to read widely and deeply and never to imagine for a moment that only work in their discipline or sub-discipline can teach them how to write. Such writing can surely acquaint students with format and organizational expectations, but it is by no means the only place they may learn about the art and craft of shaping an argument or developing an idea or doing so with verve and imagination. Indeed, it is likely not even the most important such place. I find myself advising students to read a variety of writers in a diverse array of genres while self-consciously asking themselves what is powerful and compelling about the work of those authors and what most impresses or moves them concerning it.

            I have much less to say in response to students inquiring about the writing process, which is different for each author. Some scholars write for specific periods each day. Some set aside certain times in which they write. Some compose only in a particular location, and so on. It seems to me that what is necessary first, before adopting any process, is to be clear about what you will say, or as clear as you can be as you begin any writing effort, and second, to go ahead and undertake it. My grandfather reminded me often as a child that “I am going to get to that” and “can’t” have never accomplished anything. I think his counsel applies neatly to writing. One must do it and work at refining it and expect that the doing will be very hard work. The same can be said of honing the tools of the trade: grammar, syntax, punctuation and the like. Effective prose and a readable, engaging writing style and individual voice will not happen magically without concerted and disciplined effort.

            Too few scholars today actually may be said to have developed a prose form of their own, let alone one that readers find striking or lyrical or sophisticated --all terms that I have used to describe the authors I most admire. That is a pity as developing one’s own style and voice can not only be a pleasurable pursuit in itself, but also the sine qua non by which all of the substantive ideas one is keen to express as a writer may be shared. So, perhaps most of all it is surpassingly important, as I note above, to suggest to today’s doctoral students that they should pay attention not only to the arguments they read, but also to the structure and character of the prose with which those claims are shared and to discern what it is they find most effective about that narrative and why. Thereafter, they can seek opportunities to find ways and means to make those elements their own in their writing as befits their career interests and trajectory. But to do so they must proceed and do so with confidence in their capacities. In truth, like Zinsser, I most often find myself encouraging students to believe in themselves and to make the effort to develop their writing capabilities. There is no substitute for either if they are finally to attain their own writing style and voice. That is, no “tip” can make either superfluous. But as the old saying goes, developed when homes were lit by candle light and parlor games could not proceed in the evening without their relatively expensive illumination, the “sport is worth the candle.”