On March 7, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an advice piece by Rachel Toor, assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. In “Think of Yourself as a Writer,” Toor draws from her experience in scholarly publishing to urge that academics consider their readers. Imagine that!
The first part of the article sets the stage of her time at Oxford University Press, populated by professionals with various, and often competing, concerns: for ideas, for style, for basic readability.
Toward the end of the piece, Toor has delivered several concrete and powerful tips for writers. At the risk of compromising the integrity the article as a whole, I’m pulling out the action items that she shares. To co-opt her term, I’m signposting them for you. These points are too important, too insightful to miss.
- many and long quotations, which are easy to spot because they’re usually extracted (blocked)
- lots of obscure words, especially at the very beginning of a manuscript or section
- extra-long sentences
- overuse of semicolons
- glib discussion of sophisticated ideas
- Get an aerial view of your document by scrolling through it at a view setting of 50 percent. Do you have a good mix of short, medium, and long paragraphs? Are you quoting too many sources at length?
- Make your argument clear as close to the beginning of the manuscript as possible. Editors focus on the first 50 pages—at most.
- Plant sentences and paragraphs encapsulating your ideas so that editors can extract them for use in presenting your work to the press.
- Push your ideas past the obvious.
- Notice your attempts at being snappy, punny, quippy, and informal. Do they actually succeed in conveying your complex ideas?
- Focus on your book’s argument, not its topic.
Do go to The Chronicle and read the whole article. Toor’s piece is chock-full of broader, but no less potent, advice. Her observations about the state of academic writing as a wider phenomenon will help you understand the importance of the suggestions I’ve summarized.
So think of yourself as a researcher, a teacher, and a writer. That’s Toor’s message, and I can’t echo it loudly enough.