Four Thoughts for Academic Writers (Or Maybe All Writers) — Eric Hayot

The Elements of Academic StyleThe following advice on writing comes from Eric Hayot, author of The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities

1. Listen first

Part of being a good writer is having a sense of what good writing feels like. That’s hard to do if you’ve never read academic writing for the writing. You probably already know whose writing you like and whose you don’t. Start, then, by rereading the work of people whose writing you admire, and try to figure out what makes it especially good. I strongly strongly recommend writing a two- or three-page imitation of that person’s style. In the long run, the goal is not to ventriloquize them, but simply to use the exercise as a form of deep engagement with another writer, and to feel what it feels like to inhabit a style. (Like imitations of voices, the first thing you have to know when you imitate a style is what makes something imitable in the first place—is it in the rhythm, the diction, the flow, the paragraphing, the relation between exemplification and idea, the style of argument, the figurative or rhetorical tropes? All of these, of course, and more, but differently each time.)

You should make listening to the writing of others part of a lifelong practice as a writer. But don’t forget, also, to listen to your own work! You have a style (you’ve been speaking in prose all along!), so you should know what it is, how it works, what you like and don’t like about it.

2. Know your genre

All writing takes place in a genre. This is true generally for academic writers—you write in a genre called “literary criticism” or “cultural studies” or “philosophy”—but it is also true in particular—you write in a subfield called Victorian Studies, or epistemology, and even within those subfields you write for specific journals or specific groups of peers. In order to be a successful writer, then, you need to know quite a bit about the discourse you’re attempting to join. You probably already do know quite a bit, implicitly. But you and a friend might agree, for instance, to read all the articles from two or three issues of the same journal, to see if you can begin to theorize a house style; or you can read four or five articles from a random journal in random year in the not-so-distant past (1983, say) and then some from the present to get a sense of the stylistic changes that have taken place. The point is simply that you need to know your genre, and you need to write within its framework.

Once you know this, of course, you can probe the edges of the genre, where the interesting outliers are, to see if you can change it. And you can also draw strength from other genres (including nonacademic genres like fiction, poetry, or essayistic prose), using ideas you gain there to breach the conventions of the genre you’re working in. That’s a good, easy way to generate stylistic force—taking something that works elsewhere and grafting it onto the genre you’re writing makes for engaging, interesting writing.

3. You write with a community

Even if you mostly write alone (and most people do), all writing is nonetheless oriented towards and takes place within a community of others. “Oriented towards,” because all good writing takes place for a set of ideal and actual readers, and manages itself in relation to what the writer knows of them, and what the writer would like to do to or with them in the process of reading. And “takes place within,” because all writing happens within the framework of one or more institutions that shape it and help make it possible.

Most writers don’t take enough advantage of these communal forms. They forget, that is, to orient their writing towards one or more potential readers, deciding instead that they are “getting ideas out.” You are not getting ideas “out”; you are getting them “across.” That means you are responsible for knowing the pathways that will take your ideas from you to your reader. And that in turn means knowing what moves that reader, what forms of rhetoric appeal to her, what debates or conversations she finds meaningful.

Among other things the injunction to write “across” to your readers gives you a good reason to more actively engage your institutional and personal communities. Your colleagues, teachers, and students are, after all, some of the very same people who might end up reading your work. Learning to expose your vulnerability as a writer to them, to share your work, to helpfully work with someone else on their work: these are ways of engaging and writing with your community. They will make your writing better, but they will also make the work of writing feel less terrifying, and less alone.

4. Follow what you think is beautiful

No one got into this field (whatever field that is for you) who has never been moved by a piece of work in it. Of course later on in life some sociologists come to hate sociology, and some literary critics to develop a bitter contempt for literary criticism. But even they once loved something about what they do.

My own work has been deeply influenced by four styles that left their mark on me in graduate school—those of my teachers Jane Gallop and Herb Blau, and those of Rey Chow and Roland Barthes. They were the folks through whom I found what I wanted to be as a thinker and writer. The choice of these four is idiosyncratic, an effect of the years during which I earned my PhD, and of where I did my training. The point is not that you should reproduce them but that you too have gone to graduate school in a time and place, that you too have a formation that belongs more or less to you.

Let this formation, and the beauty and power in it, be the foundation of your style. You don’t have to reproduce it exactly; nor do you have to equal the qualities of the work that most moved you. But eventually, someday; this is a goal to write toward. And because what you think is beautiful is not necessarily what anyone else thinks is beautiful (or great, or amazing) you will find that an orientation towards your personal history with the field helps bring out the qualities of your style, of the style, that is, that belongs particularly to you, that makes your work and your thought recognizable as coming from a particular person, at a particular time, in a particular way. That is what style is, in the end: signature on the work, one that asserts the work in the work, the long line of its inheritance, the maker’s fierce pride, and joy in its creation. Adamo me fecit.

1 Response

  1. Dear Professor Hayot. I am considering this book for an MA in English graduate seminar that I will teach in the Fall 2017. Do you know if it can be packaged with the new MLA 2016 guidelines? I have had no luck contacting Columbia UP. Thanks.
    –Emily Griesinger
    Azusa Pacific University

    The course is a seminar in Literature and Medicine.

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