Friday, January 18, 2008

Writing Pitfalls

I've been working on a book chapter, which means in fact revising previous writing I've done. There's nothing to make you aware of your limitations as a writer faster than confront stuff you wrote a year or two years ago, particularly writing which has not yet had a stylistic fine-tooth comb go over it. Anyway, as I write the book manuscript, I have a few goals:

No first person. I keep telling my students that while "I" and an occasional "we" is not wrong per se in formal academic writing, 90 percent of the time, the sentence would be stronger rewritten to avoid 1st person. I'm now trying to practice what I preach. In the process, I realize that writers in our field frequently overuse the 1st person.

A very minimum of process-oriented statements: "in this book," "below," "I will argue," etc. These are particularly part of the convention of the introduction, with its description of what each chapter will do. My goal for the intro is to give much of what is expected from an introduction (i.e. orient the reader to the argument) without merely listing what is to come.

Reduce my reliance on transitional crutches... "still"... "nonetheless"... "on one hand." Obviously these aren't bad in themselves, but my paragraphs start to feel pro forma after a while.

Reduce the number of ordered lists and ordinal adverbs. Reading Habermas and Claus Offe in grad school helped put me in a phase where I strung one numbered list after another. Eventually I realized that what's acceptable in German prose is not in English.

Cut down on repeated metaphors. I have been working on reducing jargon already (though sublation is a really, really handy word!), but what I still indulge in are jargony metaphorical constructions: mechanisms, pulls, transformations, and the like.

No bipartite titles. Well, I'm breaking that rule for one chapter title but so far am clear on the rest.

I don't know how absolute I can be with these goals, but they seem worth keeping.

William Germano, meanwhile, has railed against the evils of two-independent-clause/semicolon constructions. I'm not sure I'm ready to give up that vice.

2 comments:

Jason Mittell said...

My one quibble to this otherwise good list of tips would be to defend the first person - while it can be overused, the depersonalized alternative often devolves into passive voice or anthropomorphized prose. In general, I think writing should aim for clarity first - if avoiding first person forces convoluted construction (which it often does), then embrace the I.

Chris Cagle said...

You're right that clarity takes precedence over a more specific rule. It depends of course on how the 1st person is revised into a 3rd person statement. Say you have a sentence like, "I noticed that three of the four uses of voiceover contradicted the image..." If one rewrites it as "Much reviewing of the show will reveal that three of the four uses..." then yes, the 1st person is clearer. But a more direct statement of the claim is better: "Three of the four uses of voiceover contradict the image." The difference is pretty striking not at the beginning level but among writers who are more advanced but still rely on locutions like "I will argue"... Going ahead and stating the claim being argued is stronger than making a sentence about the argument. Unless of course, the argument is about the person making it: e.g. Janice Radway's discussion of her own relation to book of the month club.