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Flourish: An Electronic Newsletter for Scholarly Writers December 2008

vol. 4, no. 8

Why is it that so much of the research on writing productivity shows that we are better at fooling ourselves than understanding ourselves?

Over twenty years ago, a study showed that there was little correlation between the methods that authors thought helped them write more and those that actually did. The study examined the strategies of over a hundred science and engineering faculty and found that their most common strategies had little effect. Specifically, productivity was not enhanced by “the cognitive strategy of mentally planning large units of text structure” or “selecting a pen or pencil” as a writing implement. Rather, productivity was enhanced by strategies few deployed: “using a dictation machine, preparing detailed written outlines before beginning a first draft, and the ritual of exercising vigorously before or during a writing session.” The only common practice that was correlated with high productivity was “selecting a quiet work environment.”

I would write more about this finding, but I think I need to go out and get some exercise!

Ronald T. Kellogg, “Writing method and productivity of science and engineering faculty” Research in Higher Education 25, no. 2 (June 1986).

Article Structure

I recently reread Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons (1993) and was much struck with her description of how an article by de Man, the famous deconstructionist and critic of romanticism, worked. His articles had what I call a “synaptic structure,” in which the argument is suggested rather than stated. Kaplan wrote of this structure:

I remember the feeling of reading a de Man article. The beginning was lucid, too lucid. He would go on for five, ten, fifteen pages. It was literary history, chronology, as plain and reassuring as can be. He would start with a cliché of romanticism, a received idea about allegory, a distinction—allegory versus symbol, or metonymy versus metaphor—the kind of distinction that critics rely upon to do their job. He showed how much he knew, casually. Thrilling, this first part, because you knew it was a mask. The world, the text, weren’t transparent. Enjoy being lulled because the mask is going to come off. In the first fifteen pages of the article would come the Passage from the Text. In de Man articles the quotation that was going to serve as the kernel for a deconstructive reading was big, it was generous, a text that you could get your teeth into. Being a critic meant reading: the article really started here. You would read through the passage six or seven times to see if you could anticipate the blind spot he was going to find. Like reading through a hospital mortality report to see if you could figure out what the patient died from before you got to the end. My memory of the body of de Man’s text gets hazy, right here where the important part begins. The point in the article where he zeroes in on the blind spot. It usually has to do with rhetoric, with the promise of the rhetorical figure to be just that, with its failure to be only that. With its manipulativeness, its unexpected something elseness. There’s always a trick at work. The critic has to show why a metaphor is believable, and how it transforms what it describes. (Kaplan 1993, 154-155).

Workbook Due Out Soon

I have completed all the final tasks of publishing the workbook, reading through several sets of proofs and approving the front and back cover. You can see the cover here. The folks at Sage have been working hard to get everything perfect, which I very much appreciate! The book will be out in late January or early February.

Joan Bolker, the author of Write Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, gave me a wonderful blurb for the back cover: “A comprehensive, well-written and beautifully organized book on publishing articles in the humanities and social sciences that will help its readers write forward with a first-rate guide as good company.” I am very much in her debt, as her book was the first to address the emotional work of scholarly writing. She blazed the way.

I have posted a full table of contents online at my website, which is the first time that it has been available. It’s quite detailed, so it gives a real sense for what the book provides.

News from the Editor

Princeton offers freshman a chance to take seminars with faculty on topics of general interest. I had a chance to teach one my first term and decided to offer a course that would attract those who, like me, had grown up around the world. Growing Up Global: Novels and Memoirs of Transnational Childhoods has been successful, with a lovely article appearing in the Princeton Weekly and on the Princeton home page. Meanwhile, I am glad that my work on the writing workbook is done and I can focus on getting some other writing done!

I have migrated the list from the UCLA listserv to the Princeton listserv; I hope you have no problem receiving it.