The third post in a series of tips and strategies around academic writing.
It is the last day of my regular, blissful writing retreat. It is finally like summer, warm but windy. The scent of roses (and chocolate) fills our writing room. Last night, we had our regular reading aloud session, when one member nominates an article for us to read, paragraph by paragraph, in a circle.
When did we lose the familiarity and joy of reading and being read to? It is something I love, but seldom do so now. In fact the last time I read aloud to someone was when I was reading the bravura opening chapter of the historical novel The Luminaries by @Eleanor Catton. Her chapter just begged to be voiced, with its beautifully constructed sentences and paragraphs. And that was to my partner lying next to me in bed!
Yet writing advice, academic and otherwise, consistently urges us to read our faltering sentences and paragraphs out loud so that we can hear what is right and wrong, where we have run out of breath because our sentences are too long, what doesn’t link up, where gaps in logic and argument are, or in Pat Thomson’s words: ‘klutzy syntax, missing and misplaced words’. Our groups editing of paragraphs the first night of the retreat are designed to do exactly this. I always come away thinking: ‘Why didn’t I see/think of that!’
But the reading aloud of a chosen article is also very useful. It provides one model of what can be achieved. Our reading is always broken off by admiring discussion of just how an author achieved the desired effect or why we thought a passage was particularly persuasive and illuminating. Of course we do the opposite as well. We have had the odd failure, or at least, an article that wasn’t particularly compelling or praiseworthy. I really believe in reading what you think is good in order to use it as a model or something to aspire to.
This time at Tauhara I joined the group reading a piece by Sarah Ahmed, author of the blog feminist killjoys. It was a posting called ‘White Men’. What a tour de force. After nearly every paragraph we were giving her high praise not only for the content but for the rhythms of her prose. It is a very sophisticated piece of writing and lends itself well to reading out loud.
Ahmed argues that
When we talk of “white men” we are describing an institution. “White men” is an institution. By saying this, what I am saying? An institution typically refers to a persistent structure or mechanism of social order governing the behaviour of a set of individuals within a given community. So when I am saying that “white men” is an institution I am referring not only to what has already been instituted or built but the mechanisms that ensure the persistence of that structure. A building is shaped by a series of regulative norms. “White men” refers also to conduct; it is not simply who is there, who is here, who is given a place at the table, but how bodies are occupied once they have arrived; behaviour as bond.
She uses a lot of word play and alliteration and one word sentences (oh!) spaced out on the page. I urge you to read the rest and the very funny vignette with which she begins this powerful post.
So it is not just what she writes, compelling as it is, but it is the way she writes it. How do we incorporate this practice of reading aloud to find models and exemplars into our daily writing practice? I left Tauhara determined to find a way to read aloud as part of my academic life, not just as a wonderful ritual for writing retreats. I am always telling my post-graduate students to read and study models of writing that they admire, so once again, it is time I followed my own advice!
What pieces of superb writing would you nominate and why?