I’ve taken a long time to come up with this post because (I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit) the more I wrack my brain for an example of research writing that has impressed me, the less I can remember anything I’ve read at all, good or bad. (It’s like I’ve been asked to name my favourite band and now I can’t think of a single one.) I suspect that the way I’ve been reading in the last seven weeks has made me unlikely to notice good writing. Recently, I’ve been approaching research writing in a very utilitarian way, like a lumberjack walking through a forest, not appreciating the trees but cataloging them by species and looking for a good one to fell: “what here can be useful to me?”
The sheer volume of what I’ve needed to digest has led me to adopt this strategy – but then this week’s question has me thinking that I need to make a conscious choice to resist reading like a lumberjack. If I want to improve my academic writing, I need to pay much closer attention to the ways other academics write, not just what they’re trying to say.
As for an example of writing I admire that isn’t research writing, Richard P. Feynman’s popular works jumps to mind, and his Lectures on Physics (1963). His style is always clear and full of good humour, and when he’s talking to non-specialists (such as I) he is as conscientious in constructing his analogies as he is in explaining those analogies’ defects and limitations.
I think that even when writing with specialists in mind, it is important to use clear, plain language when such language will do. When more complex language is necessary to communicate an idea, the writer needs to explain unusual or new terms clearly and precisely – it doesn’t have to break up the flow of the tex – footnotes will do. I’m a big fan of footnotes. (But not of endnotes: I do not enjoy flipping back and forth in a book or scrolling up and down every few paragraphs in case I might find some clarifying detail or reference of interest.)
I think it is important to be kind to the reader
I know some writers intend for their work to be dense and slow-going – the brilliant Judith Butler is of this camp. But then I wonder if her tactics have backfired – that the stature of her work is testament to the quality and utter brilliance of her ideas, and stands in spite of her writing. One of the most lucid bits of her writing that I have ever read (and I wish I could find the citation for it! I read it for a class in undergrad, and it is buried somewhere on my old laptop’s hard drive) was an article on performativity that Butler wrote in response to other people misunderstanding her ideas.
As an aside, Jenna Hartel’s lecture on ethnography got me thinking about ways of bringing the scene to life for the reader in non-fiction, and I was reminded of Epileptic by David B. which is a graphic novel about his brother, who lived with epilepsy in the mid 20th century, when there was very little of medical merit that could be done to help people with epilepsy. This book is one of the most emotionally evocative works of non-fiction that I have ever read, and it makes me wonder whether there could be a place for the graphic novel within ethnography?
The matter of research writing that I enjoy/admire as writing is something I need to be keeping in the back of my mind. Poor writing practically reaches out and slaps me – but good writing often does its job so well that if I’m not looking for it, I don’t notice it at all. What I mean is, I need to start looking for good writing, and making a note of it when I find it. Now to start a new folder in zotero!