From Joan Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes A Day:

Because I was able to write quick, nearly finished first drafts, I had never found out how good a writer I might be. Revising my writing would mean exploring my limits, perhaps deciding to push them; but I would probably also have to give up my fantasy that by working hard enough, I could write like Virginia Woolf. The other terror, of making myself clear, was even greater. I responded by writing in a private language. When readers said they couldn't understand what I was talking about, I was both distressed and secretly relieved. As I grew older I found I had some things I wanted to say and have heard. At that point it became necessary for me to speak in the common tongue, and to revise.

To make your writing really clear is also to make yourself very vulnerable. If someone can find out from your writing what you believe, or how you feel, or where you stand, then you may be liked or disliked, agreed or disagreed with, congratulated or criticized for what you've written. As long as you stay hidden in opaque or obscure writing, you're safe. Don Graves put this dilemma succinctly: "You have to be willing to be a professional nudist if you're going to write." If you are having some trouble making yourself clear in writing, consider whether you really want to.

For real, though. My writing has been criticized for a number of reasons, but opacity is not one of them. In fact, over the years I've been praised for the clarity of my writing. For example, in my dissertation practicum last semester, one night when we were workshopping a draft of mine a student in the seminar began her remarks by saying, "First of all, I just have to say: Your writing is excruciatingly clear." :-) I still, however, like this passage and agree with it, but I also wonder if some people are afraid that if they do write clearly, they'll be accused of coming across as having a simple mind, not because of the thoughts they're expressing, rather because they're afraid their method of expression will read as unsophisticated dross lacking the appropriate complexity. I know I've had that fear.


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Great Book

This book really helped me finish the dissertation, and do much of my writing now. And you're right. I've been told I'm "too clear" in my writing. Ah, well.

I know that, Andie. I'm not nine.

Another thing that makes me nervous about clarity in writing is the possibility that readers will think I'm insulting their intelligence.

Still another fear: that my writing won't be perceived as academic. Bell hooks' style often isn't, for example, though that really hasn't hurt her career, thank Maude.

I love this book too. It was

I love this book too. It was so great to read it and find out that in fact, I shouldn't expect to be able to do more than 2-3 solid hours of dedicated writing a day, because at the time I was expecting that I should be able to sit down and write for 8 hours a day and beating myself up when I didn't.

About the writing style thing - I had a student last semester express exactly the same fear of not sounding academic. I think I'm lucky that history tends to place a premium on being clear (not that all historians achieve this, of course, and a lot of it comes from a kind of anti-theory/anti-jargon kind of attitude that I don't actually agree with, but at least it values clear writing). An oldie but goodie on this subject is Howard Becker's Writing for the Social Sciences (or it might be Social Scientists - something like that) - he's a sociologist and mounts a crusade against the idea that writing has to be complicated and opaque to be academic or intelligent. There's a great chapter by one of his students about what makes writing sound "classy" and why she wanted to try to make her writing sound like that.

So anyway, I'm lucky that I've never had to worry about making my writing sound "academic" enough, but just about how to make it as clear as possible. Now, I worry that it's bad writing, or stupid, but not that it's not academic. (Then again, it's hard not to sound academic just by virtue of writing about obscure fifteenth-century texts - no one's going to accuse me of popularizing or pandering...).

Only in grad school

would clear writing be characterized as "excruciating."

One of my grad students is having trouble with this issue, not with her writing but with her in-class persona. Her problem? She is not afraid to sound stupid and so she asks the questions that everyone else is thinking.

A compliment?

The person who said that about my writing is very good-natured, and she was trying to make her writing, which was already quite accessible, clearer. I worried at the time that it was a backhanded compliment, but the tone of her voice and expression on her face assured me that she was using the alternate meaning of "excruciating." From the OED: "b. hyperbolically, in humorous use." Knowing her as I do, I really think she was being sincere.

"The Elements of Style"

... by Strunk and White. Remember that sweet little book from high school? "Omit needless words." "Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity." Is this book too elementary to be used as a resource for graduate level work?

I find the writing of bell hooks refreshing and authentic, and I prefer that my students write clearly.

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