Writing non-ethnographic non-fiction

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Matthew Timothy Bradley.

I began graduate coursework at the Indiana University (not the University of Indiana!) Department of Anthropology in August of 2004. I learned an enormous amount about anthropology while I lived in Bloomington. The majority of that learning ended up taking place outside of anthropology courses. Because I was on IU’s anthropological linguistics track I actually took more courses from within the Department of Linguistics than from within the Department of Anthropology. I never once felt deprived of what I had come to the Midwest for, though. Two of my linguistic’s professors had done more fieldwork than 99% of cultural anthropologists you will meet, and any content I might have missed in the classroom was more than made up for by the time I spent hanging around at my advisor’s wonderful research institute.

Despite the fact that I kept learning more and more quickly during my time in Bloomington—maybe because of it, actually—I started struggling more and more to write. Writing has always been a slow and trying process for me. But as graduate school wore on and then afterwards, the relationship between understanding better and writing worse held true. A movie could be made about the special kind of frustration that is gaining ever more esoteric knowledge in conjunction with loosing the ability to express it. Such a film would be, to paraphrase my friend Jon Marcoux, of interest to tens of people. But I digress.


So between August of 2004 and November of 2012 I had resigned myself to a life of writing nothing longer than an e-mail. Then last November the editor of a website I frequent put out a call for new contributing writers. It so happened that the subject of the website—snowshoes—was possibly the only topic in the world that would have lead me to screw up enough courage to respond to the call. Since moving to the Northeast five years ago I have become so enamored of snowshoeing that I spend April–November impatient for winter in the way that most people spend December–March impatient for spring. So my response was based on the hope that the store of minutiae about la raquette à neige I had accumulated over the past half decade would allow me to produce a couple of 1,000 word pieces. And also upon the fact that I really needed money.

The editor took the two pitches that I did not yet know were called pitches I made to him, one about dressing for exertion in the cold and the other about caring for wood and babiche snowshoes. I had proposed those two because writing the pieces amounted to little more than reducing background knowledge floating around in my head to text. As I had hoped, writing that down was not so bad. I had never used WordPress before so there was a tiny bit of frustration futzing around with it, but even so, I was like, “Yay! It’s not all text! Photos count, too!”

After submitting those two pieces my editor sent me an e-mail to say that the next deadline was two weeks away and that he would enjoy receiving another pitch from me. I suggested a piece about snowshoe typology, which he again accepted.

Creating the piece proved a much more difficult task than did the first two. In fact, it took me quite a bit more time to put it together than did the other two combined. In the process I pared down the scope of the piece from snowshoe typology to snowshoe shape. I won’t go so far as to say that I produced a piece of technical writing, but I had to reduce longer and jargony into shorter and less jargony. A lot of notecards were involved and I felt like rocks were rolling around in my head a few times on my way to the finished piece, but I managed to get it out.

After finishing my first two pieces I had felt like I hadn’t done much at all except transcribe some things I already knew. But within a couple of days of finishing my third piece it was beginning to occur to me that I had not in fact been without the ability to write during the previous few years. I want to be clear that I didn’t have a sensation of writer’s block receding. Rather, I had the sensation of having stumbled upon a type of writing I didn’t know existed. I had some sense that my ability to produce the piece had something to do with its comparatively short length and lean scholarly apparatus as opposed to the writing I had been progressively bogging down in for the past decade. Just today, almost seven months later, I’ve encounter the term ‘short-form writing’ for the first time in Ryan and Kristina’s interview. Things can seem quite different after they have a name!

I still feel a little foolish that I felt miserable a lot for ten years of my life because I didn’t realize that there was more than one type of writing in the world. But I’ve been trying to make up for lost time since, including casting a wider net in my reading selections. More on that in my next post.

6 thoughts on “Writing non-ethnographic non-fiction

  1. I want to be clear that I didn’t have a sensation of writer’s block receding. Rather, I had the sensation of having stumbled upon a type of writing I didn’t know existed.

    Matt, nicely observed. I recall the day when Kazuhiko Kimoto, the Japanese creative director who hired me to work at Japan’s second largest advertising agency was shouting, in a totally pissed off voice, that he would never, ever hire an academic again. I was writing too long, including too much, being too neutral: I didn’t know how to write an ad. It wasn’t so much that I was unaware of writing as part of advertising. Because I had never imagined doing that kind of writing, I had never closely examined how that kind of writing is done. Thanks to Kimoto, I learned — rapidly.

    I had some sense that my ability to produce the piece had something to do with its comparatively short length and lean scholarly apparatus

    Writing short may seem easier. I suspect, however, that when our colleagues say “short-form,” they are really referring to what I would call “editorial length,” a few paragraphs designed to tell a story or make and support a point without belaboring it. Try saying all and only what needs to be said in the 20-seconds allowed for speech in a 30-second TV commercial or, if that turns you off, writing a haiku about it.

    This occurs to me because recently I received email about medium.com, a new social medium being tried out by one of the creators of Twitter. Its designed, the publicity says, for people who don’t want the trouble of having to provide a steady stream of content for a blog, but occasionally have things to say that need more than 140 characters. You might want to check it out.

  2. Writing short may seem easier. I suspect, however, that when our colleagues say “short-form,” they are really referring to what I would call “editorial length,” a few paragraphs designed to tell a story or make and support a point without belaboring it. Try saying all and only what needs to be said in the 20-seconds allowed for speech in a 30-second TV commercial or, if that turns you off, writing a haiku about it.

    Writing short is just one of the things going on there, of course. Deciding what is the only part of what only needs to be said depends on genre. Then there are structural expectations to meet. I expect that you have had the experience of trying to explain to English speakers/writers that syllables are not what are counted in Japanese haiku.

    A local newspaper put out a call for stringers this winter which I answered. I made a submission on spec. The submission came back bleeding red ink. Most of the comments were variations on “Keep your sentences to 5–7 words” and “Keep your graphs to 1–3 sentences.” (There was also a misspelled word highlighted and labeled MISPELLED.) The conventions seemed, um, limiting to me. But realizing how it might perhaps look cheeky for a non-journalist to try and barge into the club, I tried to stay humble. I rewrote the piece and resubmitted. I never heard back. Probably for the best for both parties.

  3. This post makes me think of some of the very, very short bits and pieces written by Franz Kafka that are included in some of the volumes of his collected works. Some of the best writing I have ever read.

    I like this conversation you have started here–looking forward to more.

    “But as graduate school wore on and then afterwards, the relationship between understanding better and writing worse held true.”

    I hear that. Sometimes I look at the ways I used to write before grad school and I wonder what happened. I find myself get caught in certain conventions when I write papers, as if that’s the only way things can be written. Right now I am framing out and writing up my dissertation–it’s a battle sometimes because I think the story I have gets a bit muddled with the usual “I am writing a dissertation” sort of thinking. But a lot of that is in my head–in part from writing a lot of seminar papers that required 1) proving I read something via too many citations; and 2) lots of references or allusions to this or that jargon, theorist, etc. Sometimes I try to keep reading a lot of other stuff–journalism, fiction, etc–because I feel like it helps pull me away from some of the habits I have developed.

  4. But a lot of that is in my head–in part from writing a lot of seminar papers that required 1) proving I read something via too many citations

    I don’t even think that anthropological over-citation is really meant to convince readers that the citer has read the cited works. I think it is meant to demonstrate to readers that the citer knows the cited works and their authors exist and is therefore worthy of being taken seriously. I don’t think it’s even inside baseball. It seems more like knowing the secret knock.

  5. I think it is meant to demonstrate to readers that the citer knows the cited works and their authors exist and is therefore worthy of being taken seriously. I don’t think it’s even inside baseball. It seems more like knowing the secret knock.

    And it has nothing to do, of course, with playing in a professional field where publishing and being cited are the sine qua non of promotion and tenure? This anthropologist wonders why discussions of this type tend to be framed in the “It’s all about me” free market individualism box instead of attending to the wider social field.

  6. I’m not sure how what the two of us are asserting is in any way mutually exclusive, John. Knowing the secret knock is a necessary but not sufficient condition for getting published in American Anthropologist, I would contend.

    Also worth attending to the fact that an ideology of free market individualism is a substantial driver in the wider social field!

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