I’ve received a lot of criticism in my life, but no one has ever accused me of having writer’s block. I do it all the time. On this blog, in my academic writing, in Amazon book reviews… I write write write. I wasn’t always a good writer or a fluent writer, and it took me years to get to the point where I could wake up every morning and feel that I could write five thousand words a day if I had to, and couldn’t sleep at night if I’d written less than a thousand. Many of my greatest teachers were role models, people who wrote comfortably and fluently and loved to do it. But I’ve also benefitted tremendously from good books on writing. Since we are doing the Savage Minds writing group this year, I thought I would share my favorite tips for books on writing. As an anthropologist, actually, when I say ‘books’ I really mean the conversations behind (and within) the books. And behind the the conversations I see the concrete networks of scholars. When it comes to books about how to write, there are two key figures who anchor two different (but related) literatures: Robert Boice and Joseph Williams.
Robert Boice is a professor at Stony Brook whose work combines psychology, rhetoric, and English. He’s had a long career studying writer’s block and faculty productivity. He’s written well-known books like Professors as Writers. His focus is really on what makes people successful, happy writers. The title of his masterpiece book pretty much tells you what he studies: How Writers Journey To Comfort And Fluency. It’s a mammoth, reflexive piece on how writers write that describes the writing workshops he used to run for people suffering writer’s block. Apparently the first stage was them often demanding that he (a psychologist) just hypnotize them out of writer’s block, which he then proceeded to do. They ran around for a day or two telling people they’d been cured but the writer’s block didn’t go away. Then, he says, he could finally get around to teaching them.
So how do writers journey to comfort and fluency? Boice’s answer is, like most profoundly right answers, very simple: most fluent writers enjoy writing, they do it regularly, and they make it a routine. Boice stresses that it is much better to write for twenty minutes three times a day than three hours a day twice a week. I am actually a big believer in this — I rarely write for hours at a time, but I do chip away at pieces here and there over the course of the day. And I never, as Boice advises, worry about ‘getting into’ writing mode. Twenty minutes before class is plenty of time to write. Boice has inspired many loyal students in his time. Key among them is Peg Boyle Single, whose book Demystifying Dissertation Writing is my top recommendation for a Boice-style book on writing dissertations.
Overall, Boice’s goal is really to get you thinking about writing as part of a healthy life, which includes an ongoing intellectual project. For him ‘prewriting’ is key: thinking about what you are going to say, or letting ideas knock around in your head. In writing you let yourself be led along by your ideas, of course, but it is important to see writing as the last stage of a long process of thinking and reflection, not the first stage of that process.
For Boice, most writing is prewriting. For Joseph Williams, most writing was rewriting. Boice focused on the life process that surrounded the act of writing. Joseph Williams figured out how to write clearly in English. He’s the second major figure I want to talk about.
To be fair, Williams is just part of a larger network of scholars who have made major advances to our understanding of how to write and think clearly. This is the University of Chicago school (‘sly Aristotelians’ is how one person referred to them) of thinking that includes Joseph Williams, Wayne Booth, Gregory Columb, and (a bit more peripherally) Gerald Graff. These people produced a series of books like The Craft of Research and The Craft of Argument that present a whole way to conceptualize what it means to think critically. It is less focused on the psychologically, big picture aspects of the writing process and more on mechanics of doing research, convincing others, and writing clearly – something we see clearly in books like Graff’s They Say/I Say and Thomas and Turner’s Clear and Simple as the Truth.
Williams’s part in this was to discover what, psychologically and linguistically, counted as clear prose in English, but to create a method of teaching it to others. This is what his book Style does. Its been through many editions and been (imho) ruined the more textbook companies have inflated it. So I’d recommend the peerless 1995 edition, Style: Towards Clarity and Grace. I don’t know what else to say: Williams’s method works. Its that simple. Everyone should do it. Like Boice’s work, it is simply correct and deserves a much wider audience.
William’s method is very concrete and works very well: The hero of your story should be the grammatical subject of the sentence. The subject should occur towards the beginning of the sentence. Nominalizations should be avoided. Paragraphs will cohere if there is a consistent topic string in them. Old information should come at the start of a sentence, and new information at the end. Trust me: it works.
The nice thing about the Williams school is that they publish with the Chicago Guides to Writing Editing, and Publishing which produce very affordable ebooks. In particular, the latest version of Turabian’s famous Manual for Writers is actually written by them (Turabian died in 1987), so investing in a cheap digital copy of that book will also get you a good summary statement of what used to be in Craft of Research and other books that they’ve written. There are also other books that use the Williams method, such as The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing. Its also very inexpensive as an ebook.
Finally, I will mention one more book: Tara Grey’s Publish and Flourish. Grey runs workshops that developed out of her exposure to both Williams and Boice. The book version of the workshop is not super available now, but I love its small size and boiled-down message. If you don’t want to spring for a new copy, its definitely one to ILL.
There are a million books on how to write out there — especially if count the books on writing fiction! — and as a result the signal gets lost in the noise. But Boice and Williams and their colleagues have written books which describe methods that completely and totally work, and that everybody should follow. Including you.
(there, you see: 1135 words. Now to move on to the rest of my writing for the day)