Polishing Your Prose

“Writing is hard” is a truism, but these three words conceal a more complicated reality. Simple word generation, though looking for the right words is rarely simple, is comparatively simple. Taking words found on the first pass and polishing them until they shine––until they dance and sing when someone takes their time to read them––is hard. In short: writing is easy; editing is hard.

Fortunately, editing is a learned skill, and there is no shortage of guidebooks on the subject, each offering a series of rules, tips, and tricks. Polishing Your Prose, written by the brothers Stephen and Victor Cahn, belongs to this genre.

The first section of Polishing Your Prose, “strategies,” presents ten key concepts for clear and concise writing. They eschew the idea that these are “rules,” but go on to largely repeat commonly-held rules for writing such as eliminating empty constructions, redundancy, and jargon, minimizing adverbs and adjectives, and making sure that pronouns have clear antecedents. Other strategies are equally straightforward but more subtle, such varying sentence structure, using parallel structures for coordinating elements, using transitions to link ideas, and placing the most dramatic material at the end of the sentence thereby allowing sentences and paragraphs to build toward a crescendo.

The Cahns present each strategy simply, as though it is common sense, with the occasional gem of observational wisdom, such as “if you can’t find an appropriate transition, your ideas may not be as coherent as your presume.”

The second section puts these words into action with three paragraphs from an early draft of an essay on teaching math that eventually saw the light of publication. Word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph, the Cahns work through these passages and talk about their thought process to polish the text. They suggest that the reader edit the paragraphs before reading on, but without an easy way to do this I skipped the step. Nevertheless, there is a lot to be gleaned from reading their thought-process, such as noting that paragraphs need to maintain unified themes and that careful use of a thesaurus is a writer’s friend. Most of all, as the conclusion reminds us, this section demonstrates that editing is not a straightforward process, but one that requires constant tinkering, reworking, and reconsideration choices, because editing, like writing, is a matter of choice.

Polishing Your Prose shares much of its advice with other books in this genre, in large part because there is no grand secret to writing well. What I appreciated about this one is its emphasis on process. The Cahns assume everyone has their own voice, and Polishing Your Prose is designed to draw attention to the choices an author in the hopes that that voice can sing.

Before wrapping this up, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the epilogue. I appreciated the rest of the book and can see using a variation of part two in a classroom, but the epilogue, which consisted of an autobiographical piece from each author, stole the show. The one detailed a class in graduate school where the professor demanded that the students resolve a philosophical problem by thinking for themselves rather than referring to a body of literature that as a first year student he knew nothing about––and in so doing this professor forced the students to learn. The other was a comic tale of youthful male hubris that I ate up. Both essays amounted to the authors flexing, mature authors offering ample evidence why one ought to pay attention to their advice.

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#PhDSkills is a collaborative project created by Naomi Rendina and Greg Wiker where graduate students and early-career academics volunteer to read and review on Twitter books on teaching and writing. Polishing Your Prose is my third contribution, the final one scheduled to date. I am happy to talk about the book further in the comments or on Twitter.

Form and Content: a note on writing

“Do I have to write in paragraphs?”

I used to receive variations of this question every semester, and I’m sure that I will hear it again from students, often first years, who are deeply concerned about the expectations of an academic essay.

“Yes,” I answer, not because I’m against creative presentation, but because giving the option of using a bullet-point list undermines the hard work of stitching a series of thoughts into a single argument.

Echoes of this frantic question have come back to me in recent weeks, first while reading John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write, and then again when I saw a lament on Twitter about the encroaching tyranny of the listicle as a medium of discourse.

Every format has strengths and weaknesses.

The essay, a medium for which I have a great deal of affection, lays out an argument or tells a story by leading the reader from one point to the next. In the hands of a master the essay is a lyrical medium, but it is not only hard, but also unsuited to all tasks.

A list, for instance, conveys information simply and concisely in the face of tumult and complexity. There is comfort in lists, but they belie fluidity. An example: I have kept one of my favorite novels for years, but between the fogginess of memory and whims of a given day the novel that belongs in the ninth spot of the list changes.

An outline gives the structure of an argument, even if the actual order, at least in my experience, is liable to change in the execution.

The listicle, by contrast, is a cross between the list and the essay. It takes the argument and points of an essay and meshes it with the order and structure of a list. Meatier than a list and more easily digested than an essay, it is perfect for consumption on a mobile device, matched for a fast-paced world.

Good writing is good writing, and the same holds here, but the very efficiency of the listicle also contributes to its forgettability. Where I can rattle off a dozen or more essays that I recommend to people, there is not a single listicle I can say the same about unless I thought to do so while reading it. But I’m also busy, and therefore generally happy to skim through a listicle on any number of topics where I might decide that reading and processing an essay is too much of a commitment.

In the classroom there are any number of ways to cut corners and grade more quickly, but my objective is not speed. Outlines are a nice tool, whether to help students organize their thoughts, prepare a long written piece, or (my preference) part of the revision process, but it is not the same thing as learning how to pull together a complete piece of writing.

Hewing to John Warner’s mantra that writing is thinking, the ability to lead your reader from one point to another is a learned skill that requires repetition, feedback, and revision. In this sense, the very trepidation that my students exhibit about writing is validation for having them write fully-formed essays.

Why They Can’t Write

I just wrapped up my second read for the #PhDSkills project, John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write. Much like I did for The Writer’s Diet, I want to provide some summary thoughts here to supplement the lengthy Twitter thread.

In Why They Can’t Write, John Warner has written a two-pronged manifesto. On one level his target is a system starved of funds, weighed down by folklore, wracked by misguided fads, and ruined by rounds of reformers without experience. It is a bleak picture, and Warner does not shy away from it. Teachers are expected to work miracles, while being expected to take a vow of poverty and to work with inadequate resources. Meanwhile, student performance has remained roughly constant. There are no easy solutions outside a large-scale re-commitment to education, but Warner articulates how these failures undermine his ability to teach writing at the college level.

In other words, it isn’t their fault.

I found this argument compelling, but, as I tweeted at one point in the thread, I am the choir for Warner’s preaching.

In this post I want to reflect on the second prong, lessons from years in the classroom. At its heart, Warner’s advice consists of key ways to reconsider assignments and assessments to bring them closer in line with what we claim to be teaching.

  1. Avoid teaching writing through a list of rules of dos and donts. Rules only work if the students understand why the rules exist.Deprogram students from thinking about writing as mere word-generation designed to pass superficial examination, encouraging them to think about writings as thinking.
  2. Give students agency over what they write.
  3. Find ways to make writing meaningful. For instance, encourage students to write for an audience that is greater than the professor.
  4. Give students the agency to fail, to learn from failure, and to try again.
  5. Don’t require students to write about topics they do not know about.
  6. Approach assignments as activities and unpack the process students need to go through.
  7. Frame assessment in terms of improvement and the next opportunity, not simply justifying a grade.
  8. Remember: writing is hard and students need opportunities to develop expertise

This advice emerges from the comp classroom and some of the specific tips such as to teach “writing experiences” struck me as most useful in that context. Yet, these underlying lessons are broadly applicable across disciplines and Warner includes an oblique indictment of professors in other fields who lament their students’ inability to write, namely that they, too, bear some of the responsibility.

I teach history at a college level and since entering graduate school I have heard history professors bluntly declare that they don’t teach writing. They explain this position by falling back on the claim that history is too big (true) and that students learn those skills in English classes (stretching the truth, particularly since lit professors could similarly pass the baton). The silo approach to academic disciplines is backward on a number of levels; in this case it sets overworked composition teachers up to take the blame for failing an impossible task.

Since I want to put my words into action, I have my students write as much as I can feasibly give feedback on. The methods I use, however, have changed over time and will continue to change.

I particularly have an issue with the pedagogy of the “bluebook” in-class exam, which I see as a concession to scale. As a TA I probably graded a couple thousand of these exams, which usually consisted of an essay (sometimes with the prompt given in advance) and short answer questions from an ID bank. The students came to class stressed and sleep deprived (few people ever took my advice to get a full night’s sleep before an exam) and then dumped anything and everything they knew onto the page as quickly as possible.

On occasion students wrote brilliant essays in this format. These essays received all the validation of a dozen check marks, a high grade and a “Great job!.” More frequently these exams were objectively a mess as the students tried to prove that they had learned, at least for those fifty minutes, the content of the class.

The truth is that I am not interested in what a student can memorize and write down under those conditions. When I got my own classes I resolved that I would not give bluebook exams unless absolutely necessary and I have kept that resolution.

(I also have a few ideas how to modify bluebook exams when the logistics of a large class overwhelm my principles, but I will cross that bridge when I come to it.)

What I do instead is assign a variety of writing assignments. Some have not worked: a book review proved too challenging because students didn’t have adequate context and I am still tweaking how to best have students write source analyses.

Others have been smashing successes in my opinion. I assign take-home exams where my students write essays on big questions in the field. The assignment guide the students receive gives them several sets of prompts (it changes, but usually a set of two and a set of three prompts) and they are expected to use at least one primary and one secondary source to answer the question. I also add some additional advice: these are big questions of the sort that you could write a comprehensive exam answer in graduate school or a book; you ARE NOT expected to address the entirety of the topic, but need to narrow the focus and make an argument on the topic.

When I return the assignments covered in marks about a week later, I summarize the common problems. Students tried to do too much; there wasn’t a clear argument; that sort of thing. I tell them that the notes focus on how to improve on future assignments because the final is the same format. Then I say that if they are not satisfied with the grade, they have an opportunity to revise the assignment, on the condition that they meet with me.

About 20% of my students take me up on the chance to revise. When they come to my office, I usually skim their papers briefly, hand the exam back, and open with the question “how would you improve this essay?” What follows is a 15-20 minute conference where the students and I reflect on their essays and talk about how to improve the next draft.

Some students come back to conference more than once, but students write significantly improved essays after revision across the board. Even more encouraging is that these experiences carry through to the final so while most students improve from the midterm, the ones who revised their midterms improve more.

I also work in additional ways to help students think, write, and reflect throughout the semester, but this exam format is my favorite. Thinking about the points enumerated from Why They Can’t Write, this assignment fits in the genre of historical essay, but in a class where students are developing the necessary subject knowledge. Further, my emphasis is on writing as thinking, not word-generation. Students receive the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and reflect on their process, and my feedback is on how to improve on their writing for next time.

This is by no means a perfect assignment; I particularly want to find ways to give students more agency, other assignments could scaffold to this one better, and, ultimately, students are still only writing for me. But it is a start.

Why They Can’t Write has given me a lot to chew on as I design my syllabuses for the coming semester. I am particularly giving closer thought to unpacking the assignments as activities where “writing the paper” comes only at the end of the process.

And so this choirboy sings, teaching students to students to write is a project that professors across disciplines need to own (see also: the writing across the curriculum movement) and whether this sentiment appeals to you or you remain a skeptic, you should read Why They Can’t Write.

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#PhDSkills is a collaborative project created by Naomi Rendina and Greg Wiker where graduate students and early-career academics volunteer to read and review on Twitter books on teaching and writing. Why They Can’t Write is my second contribution and I am happy to talk about the book further here or on Twitter. I will be back with another review in early February when I tackle Steven and Victor Cahn’s Polishing Your Prose.

#AcWriMo 2018: Liking and Writing

This is another #AcWriMo reflection post, adjacent, but not directly in response to the reflections designed by Scholarshape.

My father asked me a tough question a few months back. He asked me if I like to write. I hedged, if I recall correctly, first saying that I liked having written, before answering affirmative. 

And yet, when I told my partner that I was writing this, she laughed at me, saying that I obviously do.

The reason why this is a difficult question for me is that I don’t like my writing, much as I don’t like my handwriting. While there are individual pieces that I like well enough in retrospect, there has never been a time that I have actually liked my prose. Since the process of writing is, in effect, being forced to sit and look prose for extended periods of time, it can be painful when your opinion of that text is that it is clumsy and labored.

On the flip side, I have written quite a lot over the past ten years. I wrote an MA thesis (c.130 pages in MS Word), a PhD dissertation (c.500 pages), three articles (c.5, 25, and 40 pages), a book proposal (c.25 pages), three published book reviews, a dozen conference presentations of varying lengths, a few hundred thousand words of blog posts, as well as seminar papers, assorted scribblings and thoughts in other venues and physical journals. If you subscribe to the idea of words as a zero-sum game such that writing one place limits your ability to write elsewhere, there is a critique here about where my words are going and I should try to find more outlets that are not self-published, as much for the purpose of having an editor as for any other reason. Other people write more and other people write better, but this is a considerable output that indicates that, at the very least, I don’t hate writing.

But not hating writing and liking writing are two different things, in much the same way that there is a small, but significant difference between responding to the questions “how are you doing” with “not bad” and “well.” It is also inadequate to say that I like having written because it distills writing to its completed form, boiling away both process and the work that goes into writing. I had the thrill of seeing my words in print this weekend when an editor sent me a digital copy of my article due out this month, but this payoff is just the tip of the iceberg of the rounds of research, writing, feedback, and revision that went into the publication. Reducing the pleasure of writing to the pleasure of having written fits well in an age of instant gratification, but the implication that writing is painful is suggestive of an artiste suffering for his art.

I may never like my prose. I can see obvious improvement in hindsight, but still find it wanting, particularly contrasted with stylists whose prose conveys depth, erudition, and wit. The pain of working with my writing is thus the pain of frustration and envy. I may never be the sort who writes the perfect sentence, but there is beauty even in a plain style and every sentence I write gets me closer to finding it.

There are days that no words come, but writing is thinking. Writing is a means of organizing thoughts and making sense of what I read. So, yes, I like writing.

#AcWriMo: Identity

I am intermittently participating in Scholarshapes’ “reflective” #AcWriMo for 2018, not necessarily in-step with the prompts. I previously wrote a post on the topic “about”; today’s post is on identity categories, the prompt for day 14.

In some ways my scholarship seems to have almost nothing to do with my identity. Being entirely superficial about it, I am not, for instance, primarily interested in questions of gender, sexuality, religion, or rural, small-town identity. In each case, I recognize the importance of and like reading about these issues to incorporate into my teaching, but they are not the questions that comes first to my mind when I sit down to research. Nor do I research books, games, sports, or food, my other hobbies and interests, though I hope to research food as part of a future project. In fact, the questions that come first to me as a student and now an early-career scholar tend to look like those of someone who grew up reading old-school political histories and fantasy novels—probably because I was.

This does not, however, mean that my identity is absent from the types of questions that influence my research. It just took a while to figure out what linked the questions I kept coming back to in classes and, eventually my dissertation.

There are outliers, but unifying threads to most of my research is the tension between the center and periphery and a dissatisfaction with histories that normalize the political, cultural and economic centers. This manifests in a number of forms, including an interest in how the Macedonian court of Philip and Alexander incorporated newcomers into their court, interest in the Roman provinces, and an interest in parts of Greece outside Athens and Sparta. In particular, it manifests in my main research project that reinterprets the position of Ionia in the Aegean. The question is how any of this a reflection of my identity.

I grew up in small town Vermont, far enough north that I’ve had people tell me that it might as well have been Canada. Fads and trends came almost stereotypically late before the arrival of fast internet, like in Pawnee from Parks and Rec. In fact, Woodbury, which is where I went to elementary school, was peripheral to the larger town of Hardwick, where I went to high school, meaning that this peripherality operated on two levels. Adding to all of this was that my parents had moved to Vermont from the midwest. I recall that the integration to high school was harder coming from Woodbury than anything about my parents’ backgrounds, but these factors are all woven together into my background.

I don’t consciously think in these terms when I choose what I research, but in retrospect these factors absolutely shape my approach to history as much as they shape my exasperation with New York or Los Angeles as normal for America.***

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***This is not exclusively an urban-rural distinction, or a coastal-flyover one, but a complaint about using a funhouse mirror version of two of the largest metro areas in the United States as shorthand for “American” in cultural representation.

What my academic writing is about

I have never formally participated in #AcWriMo, an academic equivalent for #NaNoWriMo, but some of its tenets about accountability and tracking have shaped how I write. This year, Margy Thomas, the founder of Scholarshape proposed something a little different: an #AcWriMo with prompts for people to reflect on their writing process. The proposed format was short 2–3 minute videos, but she encouraged people to participate through whatever medium they want. I like the idea for a month of reflective writing, but, as my Twitter bio grumpily proclaims, I am eagerly awaiting the pivot past video, so I thought I’d pop in with a few thoughts here when I have a spare moment and the prompt fits.

The theme for day five is “about,” in the sense that periodically asking yourself what your project is about is a way to clarify its purpose, scope, and importance.

I describe my current research project as:

A substantial revision to the scholarly interpretation of Ionia, a network of twelve Greek cities on and near the coast of Asia Minor, at the intersection of ancient imperial systems in the Classical and early Hellenistic Aegean. My work confronts the scholarly consensus that the region was unimportant during this period along three threads: political and diplomatic history, cultural memory, and historiography. My 2018 article in Ancient History Bulletin weaves these elements together in a reevaluation of the traditions surrounding sanctuary of Didyma at Miletus that credit Alexander the Great with restoring the oracle after 334 BCE. I show instead how the citizens of Miletus and Hellenistic kings used Alexander’s memory as a means to legitimize the new oracle and thereby sell its rebirth. The first phase of this research project will conclude with a monograph, Accustomed to Obedience?: Ionia and Ionians 494–294 BCE, but I plan to continue it through a second book project, a history of Ephesus examining the city’s changing, but ever-present dual identities.

This paragraph is a slightly emended version of the recent project description in my job application letters. Brevity is critical in those documents and I am trying to show a publishing trajectory within an overall research agenda. I add to this elsewhere in the document where some of the significances of this project come in, including that I am interested in issues of imperialism, marginalization, and issues of how we remember the past, both through historiography and cultural memory.

But the framing of projects like this doesn’t come easily for me, and, to borrow from the #NaNoWriMo side, I tend to be more of an exploratory writer than a planner. This definition of what my project is “about” is at least the fourth iteration of trying to encapsulate what this project actually is, and to even envision this as part of a larger research project instead of “just” a dissertation or “just” a book.

Something similar happened in trying to describe the first book project. From the proposal:

This book, the first dedicated study of Classical Ionia, challenges the current scholarly opinion by reevaluating Ionia’s role in the Aegean world rather than seeing it as simply a marginal area located between Greece and Persia. Although most of the cities in Ionia were politically subordinate to Lydia since probably the seventh century, the advent of Persia in 545 BCE is nevertheless treated as a dividing line marking the end of their freedom. The conclusion to the Persian Wars is thus couched in terms of liberating Ionia and yet, in histories of the Classical period, the cities of Ionia are usually presented as prizes for the winner of imperial competitions between larger powers in the Aegean world. This situation became more extreme in the early Hellenistic period with an evolution in political posturing over Ionia and other Greek cities. Kings such as Antigonus and Ptolemy made dramatic gestures of granting Greek autonomy, but by a radically rewritten definition. By the early second century, the Ionians were not even afforded that nicety.

The central thesis of my book is that the Ionians were anything but obedient. Ionia did indeed become a game board for imperial competition in the Classical period and the Ionian cities pieces for the players to capture. In the fifth century, this competition was primarily between Athens and Persia, but then Sparta joined first against Athens, then Persia. In the fourth century, Thebes, the Hecatomnid dynasts, Persian satraps in revolt, and finally Macedonia joined the game. Alexander’s invasion of Persia swept clean the board, but the game began anew upon his death.

But what happens to the game when the pieces are not only conscious, but also capable of influencing player decisions? There were times, such as in the negotiations surrounding the King’s Peace of 386, when the Ionians were excluded from the decision making process and therefore forced into a passive acceptance of imperial politics, but these were the exceptions. Far more frequently, the Ionians were actively involved in negotiating their position not only between competing imperial powers in the eastern Aegean, but also with respect to their regional peer polities.

The story begins and ends with liberation from Persia. In both cases, the promises of autonomy proved hollow and the Ionians would suffer the consequences of the changing political landscape, but neither was their history determined by imperial fiat. Instead, I show the fundamental importance of both domestic political agency and regional competition, while adding to the body of scholarship that demonstrates the interconnectedness of the ancient world.

This book fills a clear gap in the scholarly literature, but its focus on the region at the intersection of imperial politics has wider significance for understanding Classical Greece. Classical Ionia is usually positioned on the margins because Athens staked claim to being the cultural center of the Greek world. The result is that the picture of Ionia is always focalized from the point of view of the West. But what happens if we center the history of the Classical Greek world from the vantage of Ionia? The rise and fall of imperial systems still took place, with Athens, Persia, and eventually Macedonia continuing to loom large in terms of cultural and economic impact, but we gain a renewed appreciation for the decentralization of Classical Greece and thus Greek history as the product of the relationships between Greek poleis and Greeks and non-Greeks.

The easy part was identifying an under-served field of research from Greek history; the hard part was determining why anyone should care beyond that nobody had done it. Despite the enormity of this topic, it was even larger—significantly, unmanageably larger—when I started it six years ago. I scrapped the first “chapter” chapter I ever wrote, and while there is a part of me that loves thinking in big terms and harbors ambitions of writing a throwback magnum opus in the manner of Rostovtzeff, my work right now is better when I keep it focused. Narrowing took time, and between the evolving emphasis of a research agenda and always being on the lookout for new ways to pitch a topic in order to communicate its relevance, this process is never complete. Even now rereading some of those paragraphs I would consider tweaking some of how I describe the project. What I like about the way the project is currently framed is that it gives room for flexibility within the umbrella to craft research talks and articles that focus in on one small story that has broader ramifications.

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Writing that on Monday morning, it took more time than I had hoped, but less than I feared. I fully support reflective writing practice, though, and time permitting will be checking in a few more times this month, perhaps even with fewer block quotes.

Programming Update, June 2018

Summer 2018 has set in, making this a good time to update what is going on here. The spring semester concluded a few weeks ago and I promptly left on a whirlwind road trip that included Savannah, Washington DC, New York City and Vermont, before returning to a 94-degree day in Central Missouri. It was a good trip, but a busy one that left little time for reading, let alone writing.

I am resolved to spend time recuperating this summer after a busy semester that included some medical issues that were probably related to stress and/or anxiety. At the same time, though, I have been hired to teach a three-week World History course in June and am trying to submit a book proposal by the end of the summer. The proposal itself is essentially set, but I am still editing the accompanying sample chapters. (My current worry is that that the chapters are weaker than the proposal.) These are my two concrete projects, but I also have ambitions to rewrite my application materials, rethink the structure of my Greek history class, and work on some of my other academic projects—before considering any of my non-academic projects, including some work to expand and develop some of the pages on this site.

Suffice to say that I have my work cut out for me this summer. I will be writing here this summer as topics come up, much as I have in this past and hopefully without lengthy lulls. To that end, I have two book write-ups planned and will probably write about writing, historical topics, and other varia. This space remains adjacent to my professional identity, but not limited to it, more John Scalzi’s Whatever than Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s Classics at the Intersections or Joel Christensen’s Sententiae Antiquae. I admire people who run dedicated professional blogs and have found myself writing about professional issues with more regularity in the past few years, but still like to have a space to write about other topics.

A Metaphorical Wall

I like metaphors, sometimes. A metaphor can be a non-sequitur, overly-wrought, or otherwise distracting, but sometimes they are simply good to think with.

A few years ago, I got caught up comparing my academic progress to my basketball jump shot At the time my jump shot wasn’t falling and, at the same time my academic progress felt stuck in neutral Literally and figuratively, I couldn’t put the ball through the hoop. I thought about this connection every time I played basketball, particularly as practice began to pay off with my shot. Little by little, I worked on balance, grip, form, release point, as well as making each of these pieces work together and repeating the whole process the same way each time. My shot never became perfect, and never will, but I developed into one of the better shooters at my regular game. The obvious question was how this related to my academic progress, and I came to realize that, much like my shot, this progress consisted of multiple moving pieces that required a) harmonization and b) consistency. An imperfect metaphor, to be sure, and an academic career is more akin to a basketball game on a team where you are the star, but this comparison helped settle down some of my anxiety and uncertainty and gave me the sense that I knew how I could go about bringing the discrete pieces into a coherent whole.

I have been thinking about a different metaphor recently. Writing is constructive, in a fundamental way. Every piece of writing is building an edifice out of words and ideas in order to convey some piece of information, argument, or entertainment. The blocks consist of evidence and ideas, fused together by word choice and turns of phrase. Well-built, the edifice will be able to withstand weight, but if the walls are assembled in an incoherent manner, they will fall at the slightest touch.

Enter peer review. I’ve had a mixed history with this process, as a lot of people have. “REVIEWER 2” might as well be an academic boogeyman, a harsh, anonymous critic who exists to tear down articles everywhere. Reading criticism of one’s own work is often uncomfortable, and even careful and astute reviewers can come across as cruel judges shining a spotlight on inadequacies. And tone is just the tip of the iceberg, with stories of reviewers who don’t understand what the article is trying to do, whether out of obliviousness, willful ignorance, or lack of clarity on the part of the author, and submissions that go unacknowledged for years.

In the metaphor of the wall, peer-reviewers are fellow architects come to inspect the layout and construction. Some look at the wall as just that, finding the flaws and push it over to let the pieces fall where they may. There is really no way around the fact that those reviewers suck. But there are also inspectors who draw attention to weaknesses and contradictions, not to be mean, but because they want the edifice to withstand pressure. Instead of surveying the wreckage wondering where to even start again or whether to work on something else, the editing process involves pulling out braces and rearranging pieces to create the strongest final product.

I have had the good fortune to have had a fantastic experience with peer-review in all of my recent submissions, but that has only caused me to reflect further about this metaphor. My editing, it seems, involves inserting dowels, applying braces, and rearranging the blocks until they fit just right, not out of a sense of vanity, though I hope the final product looks nice, too, but so that it can withstand as much pressure as needed.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process – John McPhee

If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you “just love to write,” you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?

What counts is a finished piece, and how you get there is idiosyncratic.

Over the past year I have developed an interest in books on writing, academic and otherwise. This is part pretension, part aspiration, and part curiosity as to how books, objects that I have spent my entire life around, come into being. It was around the time this started in 2017 that John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 came out, to general praise. McPhee is a longtime New Yorker staff writer and creative non-fiction teacher at Princeton, experiences which he distills into under two hundred pages of institutional and professional memoir and commentary on the writing process.

Draft No. 4 was born from eight previously published essays on the writing process, though one of its lessons is that there is a difference between articles that appear abridged in pages of a magazine and chapters that appear in a book. Piece by piece, McPhee works through the stages of writing from developing a topic to relationships with editors and publishers, and from the victories of publication to the weeks and months of painful gestation before the first draft is completed. The eponymous “Draft No. 4,” which McPhee describes as the fun part, is final pass where he plays with the choice of words and phrases. Along the way, he offers reflection on the characters at the New Yorker and Time magazine. Writing might be a solo endeavor, but publishing is not.

Each chapter is well-crafted, with a subtle humor and ample examples pulled from McPhee’s career, but the advice was not particularly novel. Writing is hard, copy-editors are your friend, it is better to use a common, concrete word rather than using a thesaurus to sound smart. This last is the sort of advice one would get from Orwell or Hemingway on writing, for instance, but McPhee makes his points not only as a long-time writer, but as someone who teaches writing. The result is masterful, a clever combination of direct explanation, artful example, and epideictic display piece.

My personal favorite chapter was the final chapter “Omission.” The primary lesson here is that while writing is fundamentally a generative process, it is more appropriately one of omission. Writing involves choice: of words most basically, but also subject, point of view, structure. Writing is not a universal medium designed to capture everything, and any attempt to do so will result in fetid muck.

Draft No. 4 is not for everyone, but anyone interested in writing or in some small insight into how the New Yorker works could do worse with this book.

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I read Draft No. 4 as a break from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which I am about 60% of the way through. I’m hoping to finish it soon because I’m excited about a lot of the other books currently sitting on my shelf.

Best* Posts of 2017

It is that time of year. Once again I want to highlight some of the favorite things I wrote this year (last year’s list). I will probably publish a few more posts before the end of the year, including starting my end of year reflection posts. These are not necessarily the best or the best-trafficked, but rather things I wrote that I look back on fondly and think are worth revisiting.

First, I wrote more about the ancient world than I have in past years. A few highlights:

Person and People: Herodotus

Mass Persuasion (Again)

Class Warfare in fifth century Ionia

Isocrates, on the importance of history and oratory

Herodotus on rejecting the expertise of physicians

More Political Wisdom from Ancient Greece

Isocrates, on Corrupt Politicians

Alternate Colors

The Fate of Oratory

Did Alexander the Great suffer from CTE?

Second, three posts about contemporary events:

Re-evaluating Antisemitism

Write to your Senator

Privilege and Deportation

Finally, two posts about books:

EQ in fantasy literature

A Review of Infinite Jest

Between this blog and my academic projects, 2017 was good year for my writing. I would still like to engage more with current events, but the problem with this goal is that it would require writing on demand which, at least in the past, has not been my strong suit.