This advice that “The only way to learn to write is to write, so write every day!” is not new to me at this point in my PhD career. My colleagues and I discuss it all the time. But, it’s hard advice to follow sometimes. And often people just say this but don’t show their examples of the unedited, unfiltered, stuff they say they write when they write something everyday.
A recent post by Ken Plummer on the Writing Across Boundaries series provides such an example. The example is a nice short paragraph he says he wrote between 7 and 7:30 am one Sunday morning while visiting a friend. The point of the paragraph is that maybe social scientists should try to write more like poets do. He acknowledges poets’ own “world of pretense” (to match social scientists’ “puffed up pretense,” but then goes on to say that the lesson from poetry is that they make every word, every syllable, count. I like this view of what my writing should aspire to, though I don’t think–and I don’t think Plummer thinks–that our research papers should aspire to be poetry:
Sociology spends as many words as it can possibly use (as many as it takes for a Ph.D., a journal article or a book) – long, complicated, incomprehensible, often neologistic words – in searching for its truth. The poet by contrast elects not to waste a syllable or sound. Think of the words you use and make every word matter.
Nevertheless, as I write this blog post, I can’t help but wonder if choosing poetry as a comparison adds more confusion than it’s worth. After all, there may be more about poetry that we should try to avoid in our papers than what we should choose to copy. Poets, it seems to me, obsesses over the visual and aural properties of words and phrases in ways that we may not want to even come near to.
(However, Ray McDermott‘s recent talk at the American Anthropological Association meetings in San Francisco gives me pause here. Essentially, he performed a spoken word analysis of John Dewey and Paul Radin that was quite powerful. Hard to say more… you had to be there. Which might be the reason why it’s not a “paper”. Though both are pragmatists and Plummer’s short post is partially titled “pragmatics”….hmmmm… I’m losing everyone here.)
When I started to write this post, I thought that while it was nice to see one of these examples of “what you write at 7 in the morning before giving me advice to write every day” was helpful, it might have been a particularly intimidating example because it’s so well put and so profound. But, maybe (maybe! I haven’t done the analysis either) Plummer’s point about poetry is a little off and that’s what makes it an even better example than I thought.