Tweed Editing's BlogTips, Strategies, and Updates for Academic Writers
For everyone teaching, learning, working, and writing from home! A set of printable door tags that let everyone else know that you, for one, are trying to focus.
To reinforce, print on card stock or mount on a manila folder.
Stay safe, be well, take care.
I’ve been floored by the positive response to my academic valentines this week. Honestly, that you are finding them amusing makes me pleased as punch.
Thanks for making this Valentine’s Day exceptionally tweedy!
I often say that as an editor, I try to inhabit the perspective of an intelligent nonexpert. Yes, by training I’m a specialist in the field of religion, but even when I’m editing books and articles in religious studies, I’m never an expert in the specific subject matter being analyzed.
That’s because my religion PhD is the product of a lot of choices that aren’t written in fancy display type on my degree. There’s some breadth to the degree, certainly, but within religion, I focused my studies on scriptures. Within scriptures, I focused on the Bible, and the New Testament, and the letters of Paul, and his Letter to the Romans in particular. And of course I don’t just approach that material from any old perspective: I employ a signifying-on-scriptures hermeneutic, identify myself as a feminist interpreter, and draw on ideological criticism. My religion PhD is not your neighbor’s religion PhD.
So virtually all the manuscripts I edit are not really in my precise area of research expertise. Sure, some projects overlap with my training more than others, but for an editor that matters less than a commitment to adopting the role of intelligent, interested nonexpert. Only in that mindset can I effectively advocate for the proverbial reader, which, when you get right down to it, may be the most meaningful aspect of my work. Alas, even though audience advocacy is a significant part of editing, nobody hires me expressly to be a readership stand-in. And presumably my clients care more about my PhD and postgraduate editing training than they do my ability to be a generalist.
But thinking like a generalist is exactly what authors must do in order to reach any reading markets, even scholarly markets.
If you have ever pitched a manuscript to a university press, you know well that you have to envision an audience beyond your circle of likeminded, like-interested scholars. And you have to make the case, both in the proposal and in the book itself, that your research has significance outside a narrow subfield. To break even, a university press has to sell several hundred copies of your book—even more if you have a commercial publisher. Even journal articles have to demonstrate an awareness of the world outside a specialty, and even the most technical reference volume will be couched in an understanding of what it has to offer a relatively broad audience.
With these real publishing demands in mind, we should all be hungry for real-world feedback that elucidates or underscores this need for scholarly writing to appeal to the nonspecialist reading public.
So I sat up and took notice when I came across David Carr’s recent New York Times review of a new Yale University Press book. If you saw the Page One documentary film, which I highly recommend, then you’re familiar with Carr, the film’s de facto star, and his entertaining way of being candid, critical, and big hearted all at once. True to form, the review that caught my eye is layered—highly readable, pretty incisive, and very instructive.
Besides managing all that in the space of less than 1,200 words, Carr also presents us with some clear directives for writing scholarship—specifically historical analyses—that meets the high standards of the discerning nonspecialist reader. (Oh yes, writing research for an audience wider than one’s own tranche of the academy means meeting more demanding, not more lax, standards.)
The book under review, St. Andrews professor Andrew Pettegree’s The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know about Itself, is no doubt really excellent research on a wonderful topic—the history of the news industry itself.
In academic book reviews, we’re used to seeing critiques that amount to paroxysms of “but what about my pet interest?” We might expect that Carr, a print-news stalwart, would have specific expectations of a history of the information business. Carr does take categorical issue with some of the phenomena that Pettegree presents as precursors to the information industry (pamphleteering, students’ letters home from residential schools, Roman Catholic indulgences).
Setting historical content aside, though, Carr has lessons for history writers of all stripes, and I suggest humanists take note:
- “As a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, [Pettegree] evokes the past with real gravitas. That’s the good part. It’s also the bad part.”
- “History may be written by the victors, but it is rarely written well by completists. The best accounts know what to leave out to keep the narrative bouncing along.”
- “The amount of trumpet heralding before signal events can be tiresome—I wanted him to get on with it more than once.”
- “To-ing and fro-ing—this tendency to stop in time even as the book moves forward—may be good scholarship, but it can be mighty tough on the reader.”
- “Strict chronology is a false hierarchy, but there has to be some respect for the passage of time, to give the reader a sense that events are building toward a meaningful end.”
Recounting events, Carr reminds us, is only the lowest common denominator of history writing. The best historians are set apart by how well they decide what material stays in and what doesn’t warrant inclusion. Beyond that, ordering the historical substance to achieve some measure of narrative artistry and readability is paramount. Imagining readers unlike ourselves helps us manage the implicit demands that they will place on our writing.
To be sure, the feedback that Carr gives Pettegree, a first-rate scholar and a well-published author, is not faultfinding for the sake of contrarianism. This review is not controversy inspiring or anything juicy enough to singlehandedly goose NYT sales. These little pearls of wisdom that I’ve excerpted amount to generalizable, applicable advice for the rest of us who are involved in the production of knowledge.
I think we’d all do well to ask ourselves whether the manuscripts we’re working on are running afoul of any of the best practices that Carr implies. In academic work, we should be on a mission to minimize all of these tendencies:
- including anything and everything pertinent to the topic—but not necessarily relevant to the concept of the manuscript or its thesis
- writing without attention to best practices pertaining to narrative and plot
- expanding on something’s significance without first explaining the evidence for that something
- defaulting to a chronological structure without having at least explored other presentation options
Remember, it’s totally possible that the people reviewing your work won’t have quite the unquestioning reverence for scholarly writing crutches (er, conventions) that academic insiders do. So let’s invoke the spirit of those outsiders early and often in the writing process.
So in this post, “How to Write a Sophisticated, Dynamic Scholarly Argument,” I focus on a faulty argumentative structure I’ve seen time and again: the list.
However much I might sympathize with the impulse to rattle off an inventory of features when describing a phenomenon (and I do sympathize), a list does not a persuasive case make! And a list-like argumentative structure can be sneaky: a list may not look like a list, but it’s still less effective than a full-fledged, complex argument.
My full meditation on this topic can be found on the TAA blog, but here are some teasers and takeaways:
A list arranges elements without nuanced interrelationships and often without priority, effectively stripping an argument of crescendo.
Engaging narrators . . . reveal their objects of study as complex systems—as machinery whose gears, springs, and ratchets interact with dynamism, torque, and teeth.
An argument that presents a long list of proportionate elements sacrifices the opportunity to relate research components in complex and instructive ways.
I hope you’ll join me over at the Text and Academic Authors Association. The blog is full of rich content for scholarly writers, and you cannot beat the archive of workshops and webinars available there.
It’s a pity when surface problems scuttle otherwise strong scholarship. As an editor, I’ve noticed that poorly handled quotations are particularly damning. Inelegant use of prior scholarship can give the impression that a writer is unsophisticated, or even amateur.
Naturally, research does involve mining books and articles to inform our own arguments, which are ideally novel and substantial but still reference that prior work. So of course there’s a temptation to repurpose existing literature that seems to say exactly what needs to be said in order to get to ideas that are original. It can certainly be difficult to think around the particular ways in which influential scholars have formulated cornerstone concepts.
Because quoting prior scholarship is so integral to most academic disciplines, it pervades the research process. Material recorded verbatim in the information-gathering stage can find its way into manuscripts. Heck, drafting sometimes even starts with a skeleton of quotes germane to a topic; new writing is then added as connective tissue pulling it all together. Here’s what that method looks like:
“quotation” + enough original material to get to the next point + “another quotation”
And then there’s the quote-sandwich technique we all learned in college (or even high school):
short introduction + “quotation” + brief explanation
(quickly followed by another quote sandwich)
I’ve noticed that these “quote quilt” approaches are favored by graduate students and scholars writing their first manuscripts, which tend to grow out of their dissertations.
But despite its associations with student work, I wouldn’t say that stitching quotations together is a strictly verboten scholarly drafting method. I’ve used it myself. Using quotations to anchor an argument can be an expeditious way of putting research together.
The risk of leaving that structure intact through subsequent revisions, however, is ceding command of the material to the sources. Quotation after quotation will start to eat away at what editors call the authorial voice. Readers’ trust in the author as an expert will be squandered.
But when writers trust themselves, they can express the knowledge their fields accrete without heavy reliance on quotations. In doing so, they optimize both the integrity of the writing and the reader’s experience. In many respects, these two concerns are one and the same.
Justify Every Quotation
When editing, I tend to flag underwhelming quotations and instruct my clients to paraphrase them. But what I really should say—and have started saying—is that the writers have to be ready to justify every quotation that remains in their manuscripts.
That’s the litmus test. If an author can’t speak to why the material in question has to be replicated verbatim, my professional opinion is that it should be paraphrased instead. (Or, if paraphrasing feels like too much energy for too little return, the quotation should likely be removed entirely.)
How Do We Know Whether It’s a Justifiable Quotation?
I’ve come up with a handful of questions that scholars can ask themselves as they revise their drafts and scrutinize their use of sources:
- Is the passage a statement of fact?
- Is the excerpt from a secondary source but not exceedingly well phrased?
- Do I just not feel like saying something myself?
- Honestly, am I hoping that the source’s aura of credibility will rub off on my work?
My advice to you, dear reader, is to quote only when (a) you answered no to all the questions above and (b) one of the following conditions is satisfied:
- The selection is from a primary source and is parsed in a critical (as in text-critical) way.
- The snippet is from a secondary source and is so erudite, so jaw-droppingly well said, that you would be remiss to convey the idea in any other way.
It should go without saying that 99 percent of quotations need to be unpacked. (The remaining 1 percent are those inserted for punchy rhetorical effect, where explanation would take away from their impact.) Don’t let quotations transition for you, and don’t let them speak for you. Corral them; marshal them; deploy them in service of your argument.
I’m not saying that you should masticate other authors’ arguments and pass them off as your own. All I mean is that you should be putting other thinkers into conversation with one another in a way that’s entirely yours.
Why Do All This?
The advantages of using this method to justify the quotations that remain in your writing are several:
- You, the author, remain in control of the argument.
- In forcing yourself to justify salient passages from other literature, you improve your own grasp of the material.
- The writing is tighter, with fewer tangents and better focus.
- The work is more readable and has improved flow.
- The manuscript is likely shorter.
- Your readers will assume you are more senior in your field, since an overreliance on quoted material is a tic commonly (and often intuitively) associated with student writing.
Being rigorously discerning in your use of quotations benefits your readers, enhances your field, and boosts your professional standing. Any habit that can do all that and also make the work more fulfilling for the writer is worthwhile.