Vivid, Enjoyable Prose

Reading Gail A. Hornstein’s Chronicle Review article, “Prune that Prose: Learning to Write for Readers Beyond Acadme,” made me sad.

I wanted, as Hornstein suggests, for someone to say about my dissertation “It was riveting.” Can you imagine? Riveting? I have read precious, precious few books in grad school that I would call riveting. She asserts that simplicity can be a virtue in academic writing, rejecting the assumption that complex sentences and multi-syllabic words are needed to express smart ideas.

Hornstein also quotes our old friend Gerald Graff as saying “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.”

Shortly after reading this article, I got an e-mail from an advisor asking for “more footnotes” in a chapter draft. I don’t want to distort his advice, so let me say that what he really is asking for is more conversation with other scholars. I don’t think conversing/referencing other scholars necessarily prevents my work from being riveting.

But recent versions of the diss that have been footnote-heavy and employed more jargon have been received much better by my committee. When non-academic people ask me what I’m writing about, I get a lump in my throat. I really wanted to write a dissertation with no footnotes and no “vocabulary.” I worry that all the changes I’ve made are narrowing my potential audience further and further.

And yet, and yet, this draft of the dissertation is definitely better than it was before. How much did I need those footnotes and that vocabulary to form my ideas? And, now that I’ve improved the draft, can I take the jargon out without weakening it?

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5 responses to “Vivid, Enjoyable Prose

  1. Alleluia and Amen!!! I am so with you on this one!!! I applaud you for wanting to write something that is riveting, jargon-free, and foot-note free. I pray that you can achieve your goal and still satisfy your committee.

    There was a study … I can’t remember where I read this … where people rated two writing samples. One was clear and concise, the other was full of jargon and obsfucation (sp??). Most people believed that the jargon-laden, “complex” writing sample was “more intelligent.”

    But it takes a lot more effort to write something that is clear and easy to understand. I think Malcolm Gladwell does this very successfully.

    Considering how much information we have to wade through in our culture, and especially in grad school, you’d think advisory committees would realize that the more clearly written something is, the more likely it is to actually be read.

    Oh! I can’t remember where I read this either–but to write like the reader would rather eat dinner, go dancing, watch a movie, whatever. Write in a way that you can imagine them wanting to continue to read what you’ve written even though they have a million other things they thought they’d rather be doing.

  2. becomingdoctorjones

    I like that last bit — because, as I scholarly reader, I can testify that I *would* rather be watching a movie! ;)

  3. You make me laugh!! I realized after I posted that my post wasn’t quite right. Maybe you have to have some footnotes and jargon in there to satisfy the committee. So I shouldn’t have said I hope that you can write a diss that is footnote and jargon-free. I should have said I hope you can write one that is riveting and satisfying to you even while meeting their requirements!

    I was thinking about the footnote thing… maybe instead of thinking about the footnotes as a boring encumberance/formality, you could think of them like a … treasure hunt for the determined reader. Or like a hyperlink. A little spicy bonus of where to get more info or a tasty tidbit of extra juicyness for the extra-interested. I was reading “Wheels of Life” and I realized I really liked the info in the footnotes for those reasons. Just a thought!!

  4. becomingdoctorjones

    Oh, I like that idea!

  5. I stumbled across this and thought of you… It’s from “Flow: The psychology of optimal experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He describes how he handles his end notes in his book:

    “In order to make the book as direct and user friendly as possible, I have avoided footnotes, references, and other tools scholars usually employ in their technical writing. … However, for those readers who are curious enough to pursue the scholarly sources on which my conclusions are based, I have included extensive notes at the end of the volume. They are not keyed to specific references, but to the page number in teh text where a given issue is discussed. For example, happiness is mentioend on the very first page. The reader interested in knowing what works I base my assertions on can turn to the notes section beginning on page 241 and, by looking under the reference to page 1, find a lead to Aristotle’s view of happiness as well as to contemporary research on this topic, with the appropriate citations. The notes can be read as a second, highly compressed, and more technical shadow version of the original text.”

    It’s the last sentence that really struck me. I’m sure you’ve already done the work of having a more technical shadow version of the text you want to present to the reader. So from that point of view it would just be a question of using material you already have.

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