Like many academics, I write alot. Books, book chapters, articles, book reviews, lectures and lesson plans, manuscript reviews, letters of recommendation, my blogs (this one less than my Gun Culture 2.0 blog), emails, and more.
Like some academics, I enjoy writing. Although I enjoy writing, it is hard. Or perhaps, I enjoy writing because it is hard. The most rewarding things in life aren’t easy.
As legendary writing teacher William Zinsser puts it, “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
Unlike most academics, I sometimes actually think of myself as a writer. That is, I try to think of myself not as someone who is just reporting research findings, but someone who is trying to present ideas in an clear, interesting, and compelling way.
To that end, I try to read and think about not just the substance of what I am saying but the writing itself. Zinsser’s On Writing Well is a book I return to often.
Among his advice is to write what you think you want to say, then cut it in half (or something like that). There are so many wasted words in writing, some due to poor mechanics, some due to poor thinking.
Here’s an example I came across recently in my work on concealed carry laws:
BEFORE: What permits are called can sometimes be meaningful.
AFTER: Permit names are sometimes meaningful.
In this case, I am clear about what I want to say but I just say it poorly. Poor mechanics. My work is replete with such problems.
My writing accountability partner recently recommended Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing to me.
In the “Things to Try” section of her chapter on “Smart Sentencing,” Sword recommends a free diagnostic tool available on a web site she has created called The Writer’s Diet. You cut and paste a section of your writing into the tool and it tells you how “flabby or fit” your writing is.
I put some of the sections of the introduction to my book on Gun Culture 2.0 through the test and here is what I found.
The catchy story that begins the chapter: FIT AND TRIM!!!!
The analytical framework, mid-section of the chapter: NEEDS TONING!
The descriptive final section of the chapter: FIT AND TRIM!!!!! But needs some work with the prepositions.
This is not to say that I am a good writer, but it is a reflection of the fact that I take writing seriously and try to put in the work to make my writing better. It is an ongoing process.