But the familiarity of bad academic writing raises a puzzle. Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand? - "Why Academics' Writing Stinks" Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2014.
I turned in the second draft of my book on creativity Teaching Outside the Lines to my editor at Corwin Press a couple weeks ago. Commercial book publishing is a long and involved process of which actually writing the first draft is perhaps the easiest and most enjoyable part. (See "So you want to write a book" Blue Skunk, 12/29/11).
I wrote the second draft with an eye to comments made by six or seven reviewers to whom the manuscript had been sent. While I would love to say that each and every reviewer had nothing but praise for the brilliance of my work, I'd be a big fat liar. Seeing faults in our writing (as with our grandchildren) is difficult, if not impossible. That's why everyone needs the outside, critical eye.
While many of the suggestions for improvement dealt with content (more stories, more examples, see this work by ______, clarify this idea, etc.), this book's criticisms, more than any of the other eight I've written, dealt with its tone.
While my writing style has always been purposely informal (to avoid the pitfalls of academic writing in the opening quote), I intentionally worked on a more conversational voice in this book on creativity. What I did not realize until some lines were singled out by several reviewers, was that some of my off-hand remarks were taken as sarcastic. Ouch!
As the Spanish proverb states, if three people call you an ass, look for a saddle. I re-wrote, eliminating the side comments that could be viewed as mean or dismissive while still keeping the narrative voice and personal tone of the work.
After writing for professional publication for 20+ years, I am still not sure exactly what it takes to get one's writing read...
- Compelling topic and an original treatment of it.
- Userfulness and WIIFM (What's in it for me) clearly stated, upfront.
Personally, I always like a bit of humor and humility in my non-fiction reading. Serious topics do not always demand serious writing styles; difficult topics don't always require difficult language.
It's always seemed to me that the best ideas in the world if trapped in incomprehensible writing, might just as well stay in the mind of the originator.
What do you, as a reader, like in your professional writing?
Oh, here is the rest of the schedule for my book...
A brief outline of the upcoming production process for your book follows, and the items in bold are stages that will directly involve you:
- Copyediting — November
- Typesetting — December
- Proofreading and Indexing — January
- Corrections — February
- To Press — March
- Publication! — April