How a Professional Writer Improved My Academic Writing

[Savage Minds  is pleased to publish this essay by Annie Claus as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Annie  is assistant professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C. specializing in the social ecology of marine and coastal environments and diverse environmentalisms. She has published work on the impacts of environmental policies on coastal communities, the political ecology of disasters, and conservation social science. Her most recent work analyzes the relationship of Okinawa to Japan through the lens of coral reef conservation.]

I weaseled my way into a writing class as I was finishing my dissertation. Others had advised against taking the course (“just finish your dissertation and worry about its readability later”). But I had been convinced that clear writing reflects clear thinking. If clear thinking emerges through writing with clarity, shouldn’t we all be required to take at least one class about the craft of writing before we inflict our thinking on others?

The professor had taught writing for years and was on the editorial board of The New York Times—a real professional! His (The Pro’s) over-enrolled class was pitched to future journalists but that seemed insignificant to me. I pleaded with The Pro for a spot:

“Anthropologists are also writers, without training or hope. Isn’t it important to make academia a better, more accessible place?”

I argued and implored and won.

The Pro’s task was enormous. We students were formidable, with our ingrained use of dull verbs that arrange and present, our anxious prose with its superfluous connective tissue, our obfuscating descriptions of abstractions. He started small, with sentences. A third of the way into the class we progressed to paragraphs and then finally, to thousand-word pieces.

I wish the whole blogosphere could luxuriate in a writing class! I’m certainly not a pro but if you’re reading this we conceivably share a set of literary aspirations. Perhaps the lessons I learned from The Pro will be useful for your anthropological compositions too?

WRITING TIPS FROM A (REAL) PRO:

Covering less ground.

Ask yourself, what will make my sentence as simple and clear as it can be? Be economical and efficient. Your sentences are most likely too long, too crowded. Revisit each sentence—are your ideas moving too quickly in the space you have given them? Look for the incomplete thought and clarify. Rephrase, reword, recast. Oftentimes this will open up a new pathway for writing and thinking.

Every single sentence should captivate. The weight of your sentence does not make it more valuable. Allow each sentence to do a tiny part of what you want it to do. Believe that a slow build over time will convey your message.

Resist the semi-colon, it will tempt you to overstuff your sentence with ideas.

On language.

How many consecutive lackluster words can the reader tolerate? Avoid any turn of phrase or cliché that is used thoughtlessly or out of habit. Someone else’s phrases will rot in your sentence. (The Pro was passionate about this. He said they were gangrenous.) Writing is a series of choices and it shouldn’t just flow or come easily. If it does we ought to be suspicious. Are we submitting to rhetorical convention, and therefore relinquishing our freedom of choice?

When you’re submerged in theoretical explications, try to make just one sentence shorter, clearer. Is the subject of your sentence capable of performing the action that you’re attributing to it? Move away from abstractions by adding a sentence about actual actors performing actual actions.

Please don’t replace real, live action with noun phrases (i.e., don’t participate in the replacement of real, live action with noun phrases).

On dull subjects.

Occasionally our writing must address tedious content. For me, writing about the policy context of coral conservation can be boring but necessary. In that case, isn’t it better to just lay down the details as quickly and succinctly as possible?

When tedium sets in I turn to John McPhee. Where a less skilled writer might depend on a personal anecdote or a vignette to seduce the reader, McPhee creates structural variety. Even when writing about policies, McPhee’s prose is energetic—it’s as if he’s trying to make his subject interesting for himself. He does this by changing the patterns of his sentences. Or he upends his prose, introducing a pulse. And each sentence is different from the previous and following sentences. McPhee changes the rhythm and sustains the reader’s attention.

Trusting your reader.

This lesson is the hardest to implement and it requires a bit more discretion than the others. Though it may seem that academic writing is different from other writing we do—letters, emails, blog posts—it isn’t. Set the cap and gown aside when you sit down to write. Writing that sounds oratorical, stiff, and formal is unclear and opaque and difficult to understand, whoever the audience is. Introduce some levity—throw in a contraction or two! Because we take our writing seriously and hope that others do too, our prose conveys anxiety. Our citations betray us here (“Look, these other people agree with me”) but alongside these attributions that academic convention requires, we fill our paragraphs with unnecessary navigational markers. We clarify, we indicate, we argue, we summarize.

You aren’t responsible for your readers’ ignorance or inattentiveness. You do have to tenderly bring their attention along. This should not include using terms like while, therefore, as, when, since—terms that illustrate that we think the reader is dull. But, nevertheless, yet, however. Convey negation through luminous prose and forego those insipid grammatical markers.

Joan Didion does this well. She is quietly assured about the information she presents. Instead of hierarchical sentences, she builds a rhythm by lengthening her sentences one fragment at a time. By the end of her paragraphs we have followed along without feeling like we’ve been led to a predetermined conclusion. She structures her paragraphs so they build cumulative power.

Final thoughts.

Clearly The Pro’s tips are impossible to implement all the time. How many of them did I eschew in this short piece? Fewer here than in the draft! The Pro constantly reminded us that clear writing emerges from careful editing. The initial work of making words appear on your screen is the most frustrating and tortuous. Spend more time revising. This is where your ideas are shaped and refined. Even incremental changes will inject clarity and liveliness into your ethnographic prose.

Anthropologists identify as fieldworkers, archivists, researchers, and teachers, but seldom as writers. Would we be more likely to do so if we explicitly studied the craft of writing, if we were more confident about our technical skills? Taking a writing class will likely sharpen your thinking and make your writing more vivid and accessible to others. I advocate sneaking into one of your own.

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

3 thoughts on “How a Professional Writer Improved My Academic Writing

  1. I quite enjoyed this piece, and mostly agree with the advice. I differ with Claus, however, in cautioning against any particular set of words. At the risk of being labeled a positivist, I’ve compared the frequency of “insipid grammatical markers” in American Anthropologist, the Corpus of Contemporary American English, and the work of Joan Didion. American Anthropologist does seem to over-use ‘however’ and ‘nevertheless’, but Joan Didion seems quite fond of ‘when’ and ‘yet’. All the tiresome details at:
    http://linguisticanthropology.org/blog/2015/02/20/however-anthropologists-do-over-use-some-words/

  2. Wonderful! I feel like I’m always giving this feedback on student papers: “Is the subject of your sentence capable of performing the action that you’re attributing to it?”

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