The Writer’s Diet

Over on Twitter I signed up to participate in a Teaching and Writing project where members sign up to read and tweet about books using #PhDSkills. I completed my first book, Helen Sword’s The Writer’s Diet, with a lengthy thread. Here I want to jot down some thoughts, most of which is reflected in the linked thread.

Sword pitches The Writer’s Diet as a fitness routine for writing, meant to inspire long-term change through straight-forward advice and exercises. She divides the book into five chapters that tackle five common flaws in (academic) writing: “zombie nouns” (nouns made from adjectives or verbs), “be” verbs, excessive preposition use, excessive adjectives and adverbs, and using “it,” “this,” “there,” and “that” indiscriminately without attention to referents or precision. Each chapter comes with a series of exercises to draw the reader’s attention to these mistakes, to expand his or her vocabulary, and to otherwise improve writing. Similarly, each chapter comes with both positive and negative examples, making it clear that while these are pitched as rules there are exceptions when an author breaks the rules with a specific effect in mind. Shakespeare comes up a lot in these examples.

Reading The Writer’s Diet gave me flashbacks to high school English, but also improved my writing. The advice is not complicated, but it is hard to execute. It works here, though, because you read the book because you want to improve your writing and reading the book forces you to write more mindfully. Certainly as I tweeted about the book I noticed that I paid more attention to my syntax and word choice than usual.

The accompanying test is a useful diagnostic tool that I had some fun with over the past week. I ran a portion of my own writing through the test each day, including two articles published in 2018, my book proposal, a conference paper, and the chapter I’m revising right now. The test is a blunt instrument and every day I found some words that the algorithm swept up that I would have forgiven for one reason or another, but on the whole it provides a snapshot of the words you are using in a given piece of writing.

The elephant in the room about The Writer’s Diet is the overarching metaphor. Sword has fun with her writing and like in Air & Light & Time & Space, she creates an overarching metaphor for the book. In the other book it was a house. Here it is fitness and the body. The fitness part of the metaphor is fine, as is the diet, but when it comes to the test in particular there is a sense of body-shaming your writing. The best writing is lean, the second best is fit and trim, then needs toning, flabby, and heart-attack. Fits the theme, yes. Unnecessary, also probably yes.

The Writer’s Diet is a short, cheap, and effective writing guide, but my lingering sense upon completion is that there are others, including her Stylish Academic Writing, which I have not yet read, that provide as much or more without this glaring flaw.


The Writer’s Diet is the first book I tweeted about for this Teaching and Writing Group, but is not the last. I signed up for at least one more book, John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write, in mid-January.

I must admit that I have only intermittently been following along with the hashtag, but the founders of the group Naomi Rendina and Gregg Wiker have done yeoman’s work putting the thing together. The main cause of my inattention (other than Twitter and being busy) is that a number of the books have been about dissertation writing—an experience behind me and not to the point where I am advising anyone on the process.

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.


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.

Process Stories

There is an episode in Season Four of the West Wing by the same title as this post. President Bartlet has just won reelection and the staff is celebrating, but the press is pushing for stories from the campaign, to get the behind the scenes version of what the campaign did to win. While the West Wing as a show was, to an extent, an idealized version of an extended process story, one of the themes of the show is that they do not want the media to cover the process because it detracts from the issues–and in this episode, it allows for some know-nothing to claim a role that he had not played.

It seems to me that when it comes to some things, people are excited to see a dramatized version of that process story, but, much of the time, people have a vested interest in presenting just the final product, whether because the process will reveal weakness or uncertainty or just detract from the overall product. But the emphasis on the final product is a disservice to the process, or to the idea that education itself is a process, whether what is being learned is algebra or essay or story writing or a language or pedagogy itself. My comment here is hardly novel, but students and even dedicated teachers sometimes manage to skip the process in favor of results, or at least a particular emphasis one what the successful end product looks like without establishing the process by which those products are achieved. A parable about fish comes to mind.

The issue of process versus product has been on my mind recently as I have struggled to pick up steam on my dissertation. I have been obsessed with the process of writing it, both in a sort of intellectual curiosity and in terms of establishing good work habits that will hopefully serve me well in years to come. Along these same lines, I have long been interested in hearing academics talk about their intellectual development, again as a form of my own intellectual curiosity and also as a motivational, self-help tool. It is sometimes more depressing than helpful to hear the stories, but it usually helps remind me that nobody emerged from the uterus as a fully-formed intellectual titan and that everyone has to cover up or otherwise cope with their own insecurities. What people know they have had to work at at some point in their lives and, almost more importantly, there are always going to be times when they don’t know something–a situation that can be met with intimidation or curiosity.

One of my failings is that when I am overworked (so, always) I have a tendency to get discouraged in situations when I don’t know something. While I try to learn at least a little something about the topic for the next time I run into it. Here I do not mean the specifics of an argument or a case, but knowing so little about the topic at large that I can not really interact with it at any level. Being able to admit ignorance and move back into that role of learner would save me quite a bit of angst. Of course, having this ingrained compulsion to know things before they are taught to me quite defeats the purpose of an education.

I have also witnessed other people ruminate about related problems in the classroom and how they can be coped with. Most obviously and necessarily, these issues focus on grades, which are a product that the students want but is mostly divorced from the actual processes of learning. I have not yet heard any ideal solutions, but it is the right idea.

I do not know that I have any particular process, at least not one that bears out under scrutiny. Ideally, I have time to balance out my desires and hobbies–the reason that I am making a legitimate effort to keep reading literature through the dissertation, as well as exercise, baking, doing a bit of socializing, writing here, and doing a little bit of gaming, is that I am a happier person when I do these things and a happier me is a me who is better equipped both to think well and write well. But this is general life philosophy that, again, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny because I am exhausted all the time and somnolent me is not a particularly eloquent or thoughtful writer (note my current battle to keep my head from rolling to one side as I type this). “I read stuff and I write stuff,” while true in principle also fails to capture any sort of process.

So a few general process thoughts about my own slow slog towards the various plateaus that substitute for actual completion:

  1. Coffee. Lots of coffee. If I cross a certain threshold, tea. I have spoken to some people who swear by various teas as fluids of choice while writing and I agree with the principle. Nevertheless, I am a coffee junkie who likes tea as a change of pace, but only after the system reaches a sufficient saturation level.
  2. A corollary is that I do a lot of my writing in coffee shops, even now that I am without a laptop. As much as I might wish it were so, I am not dreaming of imitating Hemingway in the cafes of Paris, but rather that my office is far too warm for me to concentrate in and there are always chores to do when I am at home. The environment limits the number of sources I can have with me at any given moment, but this handicap is recovered by actually working.
  3. I also change formats. A lot. I will alternate between hand-writing, typing at a computer, and, at moments of panic, writing on paper that is upside down. I used to believe that I think at about the same speed that I write–this is still true, but I have also come to appreciate the momentum provided by the speedy, rhythmic spew that typing can engender. The latter requires extensive revision, but at least there is something on the page. Recently, I have taken to printing out whatever I have typed for the day, editing somewhat, and then adding about another page of material by hand, which I then type up the next day and from which I can launch into another day (or half day, with another round of editing and writing over lunch) of typing.
  4. In terms of time, I have been fighting a battle to reclaim my mornings, since I am a matutinal being these days, working best first thing in the morning and wind down about one in the afternoon–I can, and do, work after that time, but I am best at grading or other low-intensity tasks unless I have another hefty infusion of caffeine. Of course, reclaiming and defending my time has been one of the most difficult steps in this process.
  5. I have been learning to maximize available time, but if I have twenty minutes I am much more adept at grading an exam or two rather than writing a few sentences. I tend to write with my sources at hand rather than from notes and in all my writing, from this post to my journal to my dissertation, I prefer to clear time and work at a deliberate pace rather than feeling pressed by imminent appointments. If I had to pick a single one of these steps to build and improve upon, it would be this one, even if it was just toward writing here more often and save the time I can truly dedicate to the dissertation.
  6. I read as much as I can, particularly novels. I have a hard time reading non-fiction in my “free” time simply because that is what I spend the majority of my work time doing, too. There are exceptions to that rule, too, particularly because I have been making an effort to start knocking books off my academic to-read list, an ambition that meshes “fun” and my goal of being a well-rounded scholar. But I am also reading novels, slowly, but surely. First, I enjoy reading novels and, as stated above, if I can indulge myself just a little, I stay saner. But, second, I also do this because it makes me a better writer and I want to be both a good scholar and a good writer (though this also slows down the whole writing process).
  7. For similar reasons, I listen to other writers, historians and otherwise, talk about their writing. One of the more intriguing discussions has been the difference between discovery and outline writers and I suspect there is an academic parallel to that literary dichotomy, but as I am at far more words than I intended, that may be a topic for another post.

The writing phase feels as though I am in an interminable process, shoe-horned in between other responsibilities. I am dwelling on the process because there doesn’t ever seem to be an end–above and beyond the idea that maybe now, finally, I will learn one or two good study skills. The destination, or, at least, a destination is out there somewhere, but all I have right now is a journey.

I may return to this topic or something similar, but, for now, I would be interested to hear anything other writers or creative types have to say about their own process or reflections on process versus product more generally.

Thoughts on Orthodoxy in the classroom

Orthodoxy is believing the correct things as demonstrated by adhering to the correct creeds, saying the right things, and otherwise demonstrably proving that you are not heretical in your belief.

Orthopraxy is performing the correct actions and conducting yourself in the right way.

These two concepts are most often applied to matters of religion with the idea that one begets the other, but with different emphases on how to best preserve society. I would like to apply them to education–partly based on a frustrated tangent I went on in the classroom this past semester.

Freshmen in college seem either to know or to crave “the right answer” in history classes, depending on the question. If the question is about racial or gender issues but does not require much prolonged thought, students can regurgitate a politically correct answer that they learned in high school. Slavery is bad; Europeans have treated Native Americans badly and are never sympathetic people as a result; of course women should be allowed to have jobs and vote–to give a few simplistic examples. The problem is that when the students prepare essay answers or write papers they sometimes say shocking and bigoted things, sometimes because they are trying to say something else entirely, and sometimes because while they know the politically correct answer, they are grappling with the issues presented only in a superficial way while holding onto beliefs that they have been trained to hide.1

Somehow schools and society are teaching students that they need to have the correct, rote answers on political issues ready at hand. If they can repeat those answers for the teacher, then everything will be fine. Thus, students go into a class like mine trying to rummage around and provide me with the right answer that I am looking for on any given week. If they don’t have that answer or can’t find it in their tea leaves, they stay silent for fear of being wrong.

I teach discussion sections for the survey of American history. Beyond answer questions about the lecture each week, my goal is to foster an extended discussion of the readings and topical issues going on in the world related to the readings. There are inaccurate facts–and I am a stickler on that count–but, assuming the facts are correct, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion and I am looking for them to talk about the issues, talk about the reading, and otherwise engage with the world around them. I am interested in the process by which they come to answers and beliefs and less about the beliefs. This emphasis on orthodoxy only serves to get people to mask potentially politically incorrect beliefs, which actually does nothing toward creating a more understanding society. If students are forced to follow the process, then, even if they are not persuaded to be more caring, understanding, and respectful, then at least the beliefs will be laid bare.

The issue at hand is that education is a process, not a test, not a series of facts, and certainly not a series of answers. In fact, education is about the absence of answers–and the journey to find them.2 The is an uncomfortable truth that many people do not like to deal with and why there seems to be a rush to escape school. But education–whether in kindergarten, elementary school, high school, college, graduate school, or your spare time on weekends–is a process by which we learn about the world around us and thereby interact with the world around us. Any active antipathy toward the process combined with the fear of failure turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now I just need a better way to convey this to my students.

1 For instance, in a paper about the American myth and the war in Vietnam, one student wrote: “The soldiers however were not met with open arms from the natives, most were not even looking to be freed.”
2 As Martin Schwartz points out in a discussion of the importance of stupidity in scientific research.