Category Archives: Week 6

Week 6 – Writing

While considering the question that Prof. Gaily proposed this week, I came to the realization that I was not fond of many of the research works I had to read throughout my academic career. There are new forms of knowledge distribution that I have enjoyed, TEDTalks, RSA (and RSA animate) videos, speeches made by Sir. Ken Robinson, but I could not think of an example in written form.

If I had to list one author who’s research works I admired, it would have to be Michael Crichton. I was, and still am, an avid fan of his novels, all of which come complete with an impressive reference section at the end. I enjoyed his work because it was interesting and fun to read. One moment I’m taken into a story about interdimensional travel, the next he would use the double slit experiment to explain the properties of electrons, in a way that I (as a 15 year old at the time) could understand. I think with a lot of academic writing there is limited consideration for the audience. Yes many of these works are created for academics already well versed in the subject matter, but as students we too find ourselves needing to access these works. I am not saying that academic writing should be dumbed down to a grade 5 reading level, such as newspapers, but I do feel that choice of language being used is done so to force readers to slow down and invest their attention rather than conveying information concisely. When information is made easily accessible, it is more likely to be consumed by a greater audience (see, Malcolm Gladwell, Brian Greene).

Liz (and others) have pointed out that to be a good writer, you should also spend time reading. This reminded me of another influence of mine, Groucho Marx, who as a child would lock himself in the bathroom so that he could read. It was through his practice of reading that he was able to develop his brilliant wit. “Well I thought my razor was dull until I heard his speech, and that reminds me of a story that’s so dirty I’m ashamed to think of it myself.” (McLeod, 1932)

Conte, C., Leaf, D., Merwald, F., White, D.[Producer] & Leaf, D., Scheinfeld, J. [Director]. (2002) Unknown Marx Bros. [Motion Picture]. USA. Paradox.

Crichton, M. (1999). Timeline. USA: Fredrick

McLeod, N. [Director]. (1932) Horse Feathers. [Motion Picture]. USA. Paramount Pictures.

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Good Writing!

In terms of research writing, Serge Durflinger’s Fighting from Home: The Second World War in Verdun Quebec is an example of clear writing used to express ideas succinctly. His choice of vocabulary also contributes to my positive opinion of his writing. He uses appropriate words that express his ideas plainly, but also maintain a scholarly tone. The clarity of his writing can be seen in this passage:

Ottawa recognized early that the war eventually would cause a housing shortage and social distress. Federal authorities quickly began regulating the distribution of building material and the labour supply allotted to housing construction. Since the expanding defence industries received first priority, fewer residential structures were built and fewer still were of an adequate size and quality to meet market demands (Durflinger, 2006, 137).

Here, Durflinger manages to keep his prose tight without making his writing sound too clinical or stilted. He also avoids falling into that old trap of using language in a way that obscures what the writing is trying to express. The simplicity is truly admirable and something I aspire to since my writing tends towards the awkward and wordy.

Ernest Hemmingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” and William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” are two short stories that I think have something to contribute to research writing. I am a huge fan of well written short stories since it truly is an art form that requires an author to have a firm grasp of their craft. Writing short stories requires efficient use of effective language, which is something that both Hemmingway and Faulkner do in my chosen examples.

In Hemmingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” the dialogue is short, clipped and abundantly clear. The way he forms these sentences creates the perfect atmosphere for the piece and is a stunning example of the power of subtext and metaphors. His language is used to great effect to create a rich world that he allows us a glimpse into.

William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” also makes an incredible use of language. His ordinary choice in words and accessible writing is powerful and speaks directly to the reader, subtly effecting the way that they feel about the characters and events in the short story. Faulkner, like Hemmingway, is a writer that can express what he wants very quickly, clearly and subtly, in a way that conveys meaning to the reader exceptionally well and with no need of wordy, lengthy passages.

References

Durflinger, S. (2006) Fighting from Home: The Second World War in Verdun Quebec.       Vancouver: UBC Press. 312.

Faulkner, W. (1993) “Barn Burning.” Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner. New York: The Modern Library.1-25.

Hemmingway, E. (1987) “Hills Like White Elephants.” The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemmingway: The Finca Vigia Edition. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 129-131.

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Week 6 – Investigating Writing

Most of my reading preferences actually depend on my mood. Therefore, I have a rather eclectic preference in terms of non-fiction writing styles. To be honest, I have preferences along two opposite ends of the spectrum. When I have the time and desire something more in-depth, I am a big fan of narrative nonfiction. One of my favorite examples is David Starkey’s “Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne.” Narrative stories are interspersed throughout the information that details the life of Elizabeth I. It keeps the writing moving smoothly and helps me become more invested in absorbing the information by having something to which I can relate in narrative form. Along the same lines of “Elizabeth” with narrative stories strategically places within the straightforward research and information is “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families” by Philip Gourevitch. It is an amazing yet heartbreaking story about the Rwandan genocide.

On the other side of things, I sometimes feel a bit scatterbrained. If I need more straightforward information about a topic that can be easily picked out as needed (“berrypicking”), I prefer those small pocket guides with plenty of bullets, bold phrases, and separate boxes of information. The lists and ability to browse a page for information is great when I cannot make myself buckle down and read straight through something. One of my favorite books in this stream is actually a required text for my undergraduate anthropology classes. It is “Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction” by John Monaghan and Peter Just. The book itself is almost like a kid’s book in size since it is rather thin and rather small. It is actually about the size of my hand.

With these two extremes, I think my own personal writing style for a project would probably try to combine the two. I would involve narrative and storytelling with interspersed lists of specific, need-to-know information.

References:

Monaghan, J. and Just, P. (2000). Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gourevitch, P. (1999). We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. London: Picador.

Starkey, D. (2007). Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne. New York: Harper Perennial.

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Conversations through writing

I have come to understand writing as an extension of a conversation. Good writing should not be a burden to the reader.  When a writer is able to take a complex issue and explain it in a way that the reader is able to clearly understand the point and its examples, well, the writer has done a good job. Here is the kicker, good writing does not necessarily need to be easy writing.

Whatever the author is trying to get across should come naturally, but that in no way means that the author needs to sacrifice style or grammar. Conversations would be hardly worth the effort if all conversations consisted only of Orwellian “newspeak” (I am very glad for his rule to break rules). To this end I believe that authors such as O’Brien, Orwell, Tolkien, Joyce, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Bulgakov are all able to write (granted fictional stories) in fairly complex language but have their meaning and intention develop naturally to their audience. Put plainly, they make up the best examples of writing that I have had the chance to read.

This is all to say that the best academic writing I have ever read does not feel like academic writing. It presents the facts in a way that makes them easily recognizable and digestible. It is also a writing style that interacts with other authors as though they are having a conversation, or formulating arguments based upon older conversations, incorporating all the necessary information into the body of the text. I also prefer it when the author is able to maintain a minimal number of voices in the overall work (being that they are able to engage with other authors in a way that does not distort the flow of the work).

 

I do believe that is all for now.

 

Cheers.

Ben S.

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