Thursday, May 10, 2007

Writing in Biblical Studies

It might come as a surprise while we're writing a course paper, preparing a manuscript so that we can get tenure, or just sitting alone in our studies, typing away, but we don't write just for the sake of it. These are all good goals. But, ultimately, writing is about communicating ideas we think are important to other people so they might change the way they think or how they live their lives. In other words, writing matters. That is, assuming we want our work to make an impact on people. Good grammar is important. So is clarity. But so are things like grace, elegance, beauty, wit, humor, suspense. Yes, even in academic writing. These elements, which we may associate more with fictional genres, are what engage our readers' interest and make our ideas pack a lasting punch. Here I review a few works on writing that I find immensely helpful and that have changed the way I think about the task. They've helped me get better at making reading and learning an easier, more enjoyable experience. But, more importantly, they have and continue to help me learn to communicate ideas more effectively both to those within and outside of the discipline of biblical studies.

Academic Research and Writing
  • Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. The Craft of Research. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Need a companion to walk you through the steps of doing a research project? Whether you're writing your first graduate school paper or publishing your seventeenth article, here’s your best friend. I've used this volume as a help for multiple projects and each time assimilate a new idea or hone a new skill by revisiting it. The authors walk you through the process, from understanding your role vis-à-vis your readers and finding and honing a topic to constructing an argument, drafting, and revising. It’s in-depth, detailed, and deals with subjects not commonly treated in writing manuals, such as the role of claims, evidence, and warrants in constructing an argument and organizing your piece. Plus, it’s written by some of the best writers in the business, and their own prose is a beautiful example of the principles they aim to teach.
  • Williams, Joseph M. Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 2005.
This volume is an important companion to The Craft of Research. Style focuses on the smaller-scale task of constructing coherent and effective sentences and paragraphs. Williams does not just state the principles, but illustrates how they work with myriad examples of good and bad writing—so you can see what not to do as well. This can be very helpful in diagnosing and fixing problems in your own writing. He also discusses usage and how to employ elements of balance, rhythm, and metaphor to create not just effective, but also elegant prose.

Thinking Outside the Box: Non-Academic Resources
  • Hale, Constance. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.
Never will you have so much fun reading a book about, of all things—grammar! Believe it or not, this book will have you absolutely howling. It makes great bedtime or bathroom reading. Hale teaches you all the necessary grammar and usage rules about everything from parts of speech to how to write sentences. Perhaps most importantly, she helps you create a voice for yourself as a writer. There are useful sections on what not to do, and how to use (and break) the rules to create really stunning prose. She also has a great list of some other standard and not-so-standard writing references you can tap into. This book is not written specifically for academics, but academic prose does not have to (indeed, shouldn’t) be boring, and there are many ideas in here that can be very effectively applied.
  • Mosley, Walter. This Year You Write Your Novel. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2007.
My husband saw me reading this book and said, "Please tell me you're not thinking of writing a novel..." After a moment's reflection on the fun to be had by letting him think I was, I explained why I was taking this little detour into the world of fiction. (The book is only 100 pages long and a very quick read. The guy knows brevity. A lesson I could stand to learn...) Mosley reflects on how important it is for fiction writers to know something about poetry because the precision and creativity of word-use demanded by poetry can improve their fiction. I suggest that it may be important for academic writers to know a little something about fiction writing, as we can pick up tips that will vastly improve our prose. Here are a few I picked up:
  1. Mosley speaks of the limitations created by "false aesthetics," which he defines as misplaced or out-of-date things we learned either in school or by imitating other writers—even the past masters—too closely. No matter how great these things are or how well they worked for others, this approach to writing is not fresh and denies you your own voice. It's a good way to get your readers to tune out.
  2. Mosely emphasizes the importance of engaging your reader, making her care about and become invested in the characters and the plot. The same goes for an article on the Dead Sea Scrolls, a monograph on Pentateuchal composition, or even a short note on an obscure point of Akkadian lexicography or a text-critical problem in Isaiah. Even if our readers come with a pre-packaged interest in what we're writing about, hooking them is a good way to get them to remember and assimilate what they've read. Mosely talks about creating a narrative voice as a key way to do this. A good way to grasp the importance of voice is to think about a conversation with the most boring person you've ever met, and then with the most interesting person you've ever met. The latter could make a conversation about a postage stamp interesting and memorable. Other than narrative voice, showing your subject matter rather than telling it is also incredibly helpful.
  3. I was also intrigued by his thoughts on dialogue. On the surface of it, this seems the least applicable to academic writing, because we don't have characters in our prose. Ah, but wait... yes we do. Every time we represent another scholar's views or, better yet, quote another scholar, we're inviting voices other than our own into our prose. Often we do this without thinking about why, what we gain from allowing conversations to happen in academic prose. I haven't fully thought this out, but my sense is there's a lot to be gained by using quotes more deliberately, both to tap into the benefits of another voice (who perhaps worded something very elegantly) and to move our "plot" along.
A lot of these thoughts dovetail with what Williams, et. al., have to say about academic prose in the two books I discussed above. While we in academia can't apply the techniques used by fiction writers in the same way we can use Williams' books (i.e., like a manual), they can help us think about our writing in a new way. I'm thinking about these things now as I write, and I hope you will, too. Let me know if you have ideas about how to apply them.

Teaching
  • Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.
This volume is full of a wide variety of fantastic ideas for how to incorporate writing into the classroom. Bean describes writing as both the process and product of critical thinking. He advocates a problem-based approach that encourages students to actively engage in critical thinking by learning to question assumptions and come up with alternative ways of approaching a problem. Writing and critical thinking are, in a sense, communal activities: "Good writing," he notes, "grows out of good talking—either talking with classmates or talking dialogically with oneself through exploratory writing" (Bean, Engaging Ideas, 7). I think this is just as true for scholars and professors as for students, and it encourages me to think more deeply about collegial activities. Perhaps most importantly, he asks us to draw on our own experiences with writing and revising as we consider how to incorporate writing into a syllabus. This is wonderful because it is bound to improve our own writing process and product as well.

Publishing
  • Germano, William. From Dissertation to Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
  • Germano, William. Getting it Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
While I have worked in academic publishing, I myself have not (yet) published a book, so my thoughts on these two books do not come from experience, per se. But these two books beautifully illustrate good non-fiction writing. That alone makes them worth the read. In both volumes, Germano masterfully creates a narrative voice and shows (not tells) us about his subject matter. I had fun reading his books. I learned important things and remembered them. And, perhaps most importantly, I trust his knowledge and experience. Not because of his credentials on the back cover, but because his mastery of the subject matter and the skill with which he gives it expression inspire my confidence. Here's an example:
Some passives we're glad we haven't had to see:
  • In the beginning the heavens and earth were created by God.
  • Arms and the man are being sung by me.
  • Ishmael is what I'm called.
The passive is a buffer, not only between the reader and the writer, but between the writer and her own ideas. I wonder if anyone experiences the world as a series of passive engagements. ("Yesterday, as the garden path was being trod by my feet, a beautiful butterfly was seen by my eye." Which sounds like a case for Dr. Oliver Sacks.) Academic writing often places the reader in just such a world, one where no feet cross any paths, no eye sees any butterfly. If your dissertation was worth writing, it's because you found a path you had to follow, and on the way you came upon something you want to tell others about. Do that. (Germano, From Dissertation to Book, 115)
Germano doesn't give us a staid rule for whether or not we ought to use the passive, but shows us why to do so is often ineffective by asking us to draw on our literary and life experience, making us laugh in the process (and surreptitiously helping us see how ridiculous such expressions sound), and then bringing the lesson right home with a frankness that makes you say, "Oh yeah... That's so obvious!" From Dissertation to Book has a lot of great concrete things you can do to revise your prose. I recommend reading it early on in the dissertation process so you can absorb it as you write. It can also be helpful when revising projects beyond the dissertation. Getting it Published gave me a great insight into the academic publishing industry, everything from what publishers do, to book contracts, to preparing a manuscript. As a result, perhaps I won't feel and sound like too much of a naif when I try to publish that first book.
  • Luey, Beth. Handbook for Academic Authors. 4th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
This is a pretty comprehensive look at academic publishing. Some of it overlaps with Germano's two books, which I think are better and more engaging, especially where manuscript revision is concerned. But Luey provides a lot of "things you ought to know but no one ever told you." About publishing journal articles, for example, she notes that you shouldn't put your name on pages other than the title page so that your manuscript is easy to send out for blind reviews. Duh. But who would have thought of that? She also has extremely valuable information about timelines for publishing both journal articles and books and the etiquette for handling delays. It costs money to produce journals and books, and Luey shows how some knowledge of the financial aspect of the business on the part of authors can improve the process and relationships with editors. The revised edition also has great information on electronic publication.

I don't mean to sound like an advertisement, but I highly recommend owning all of these volumes. I've read them all cover-to-cover, but I find myself turning to them again and again in the midst of a snag or while doing revisions for both solutions and inspiration. Learning to write is an ongoing process. I find that each new project brings not only new intellectual challenges, but new compositional challenges as well. These works have helped me stretch myself to meet both. I hope you find something helpful here, too. I'll leave you with a great quote on writing to challenge and inspire you, from a wonderful little book about teaching called Spitwad Sutras, by Robert Inchausti:
Consciousness does not exist inside us but persists all around us. Ideas are as numerous and as present to hand as the leaves on the trees. To think clearly, one needs to be less self-conscious, not more so. And finding your voice, as a writer, is really just finding your authority as a person. Knowing what you can say in all honesty from where you stand. Writing is, in effect, the soul seeking its context, and in finding its context, discovering itself. ...What we are seeking as teachers and writers too is our place in the scheme of things—our true authority. If we assume too much, we are sentimental and bombastic. If we assume too little, we are academic and thin. But if we can grasp our context with perfect honesty—and it sometimes happens that we do—then our writing becomes the perfect expression of who we are, and as such it has to be beautiful. Most students think writing has more to do with grammar than the search for reality. But learning to write—like learning to teach—is as much an act of courage as it is an act of linguistic skill.

5 comments:

avigail said...

I love what you have to say about taking a lesson from other genres of writing. (Mosley, Walter. This Year You Write Your Novel.) Knowing your audience, whether it be a reader or an actual group of people, is very important. I am always reminded of this when I go to academic confrences and hear dry paper after dry paper being read. Spice it up a bit, throw in a story, make the listener imagine with you, recite a related standa of poetry.
We can all benefit from
thinking about how we write and not just what we write.

Judy Redman said...

A book that makes punctuation fun and is a wonderful reference at the same time is "Eats, Shoots and Leaves - the zero tolerance approach to punctuation" by Lynne Truss (see
http://eatsshootsandleaves.com/esl.html
for an explanation of the title). It takes the British approach to punctuation, which is a little different to the US one, and provides very, very funny examples of poor punctuation (and grammar) together with ways of fixing them. The UK paperback edition provides you with a set of punctuation stickers so that you can correct signs that drive you crazy.

Angela Roskop Erisman said...

Thanks, Judy! That sounds like a fun book. I've already requested a copy from the library.

Chris Hays said...

You wrote: "writing is about communicating ideas we think are important to other people so they might change the way they think or how they live their lives."

Ideally, yes. But the fact that publishing is also the only way to tenure (in most cases) explains a certain amount of the bad, forced writing out there.

Also, the "tyranny" of the few foremost experts who are going to review an academic book prevents most young scholars from writing for the masses. But it's not the end of the world. Enough scholars grow up and write well that there are plenty of books for everyone. And then some.

I remember a prof at my college had a photocopied headline outside his office door: "On Writing: Let There Be Less." I don't know what it was from, but he may have had a point.

Angela Roskop Erisman said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

The issue of tenure is a toughie. Rather than get into the complicated issues here, I would just say this: Poorly written publications, which are often poorly thought through (since good writing and good thinking are connected to one another), don't serve anyone--publishers, faculties, students, and lay readers alike. If one part or another of the system settles for substandard quality, the whole system is dragged down. I don't think that's in anyone's best interest.

As I see it, it's not about "writing for the masses" or producing bestsellers. It's about putting clearly conceived, clearly articulated ideas in the marketplace. I've read far too many books lately where I reach the end and have little idea of what the author's point is. (I wish I were joking.) That's not good.