Thursday, August 3
Hi everyone! I'm pleased to be creating my first post on academicsecret. My post is actually somewhat related to Mahogany's, in the sense that it's about writing style/voice -- but rather than being about detecting an advisor's voice, it's about an advisor detecting mine.

I got the rather daunting news about a month or so ago that the style of my first dissertation chapter is not up to snuff, that it needs to be more exciting, punchy, vivacious; in short, my style needs to be more... stylish. (I'm in literary criticism, so this matters, especially given the increased difficulty in getting literary studies published these days.) In the past I've been told, by my advisor as well as others, that my work is well-written, so this hurt. But upon re-reading the chapter, I realized it was indeed rather boring. I was doing the thing I really hate when published critics do it: my topic sounded cool at first, but I wasn't engaging the reader.

Here's my secret fear: what if I don't have a style? This might sound ridiculous, but I really don't know if there's anything distinctive about my critical writing, and I have a lot of doubts about being able to develop a style at this stage in the game. At first I was upset with my advisor for not giving me any specific tips on how to develop a style, but then I thought about my own teaching and how difficult it is to help students develop a writing style. You can show them what defines other writers' styles, and you can help them find topics that might tap into their voice, but it's very difficult to teach style. Is style one of those "either you have it or you don't" things? And what if I just don't have it?

7 comments:

dawn said...

Poppy Red, everyone has a style. It just may not be the style you want or the one that will get you where you'd like to go.

Try reading other papers by people you admire. Pay attention to how they use language and how they create nuances with the language. This may help you in the way you fine-tune your own style.

Turquoise Stuff said...

I know nothing about this area (what is a "writing style" anyway?) so this may be a really stupid or just impossible suggestion, but here it goes anyway.

How much material does it take for a style to be recognizable, for a style to surface? If it's possible in a few paragraphs then would it work for you to take some material (an idea or argument you were discussing in your chapter) and try to write it out in various styles? That is, practice with one bounded topic with different types of styles to see what might work for you, what may be your voice. Do you have favorite authors or favorite styles even detached from authors? Can you try to recreate those in a few paragraphs?

Clear said...

I'm in a quite different field, and was told with my dissertation that I needed to make it less stylish. Or, "less intellectual," to be more precise.

Chartreuse Circe said...

Oh, Clear, that hurts. I get 'less arcane' and 'less formal' a lot (I can spend hours just reading the OED, and I love the old style of science writing).

From the papers in my field, I begin to wonder if what we really need to discuss is how to present things clearly and logically. There was an interesting discussion of this over on Crooked Timber awhile back.

I was amazed when I really began to understand how much of my job was writing -- well over 75%, I'd say. And yet, my science major and graduate work didn't focus on these things.

And we, for the most part, really fail to teach this (to grad and undergrad) students in science. My very first course, and upper-division undergraduate science course, I required a research paper rather than a final exam. None -- none -- of the students had ever had to write one, nor had they ever used the primary literature. I was never so appalled in my life. In defense of my department, the students were non-majors. We've revised the curriculum so that this can never happen with our students again, but still. And this is basic writing, we're not even talking about style. How on earth are we going to teach a writer to grab the audience stylistically if we never even teach them to write?

Chartreuse Circe said...

Oh, um, and:
Hi, Poppy Red!

fraud, in denim said...

I'm in a completely different field and after years of having people tell me that I was a fabulous writer I was told that I couldn't write appropriately for my field. With a little help from my advisor we found a happy medium, but I still hear her in the back of my head when I'm writing something and I have to ask "Is this too engaging for -my field-?

Mahogany said...

Poppy, Of course you have a style! You would not have come this far without one. What I remember from my dissertation-writting days was that fear repressed it, and deadlines made it entirely unrecognizeable. After receiving death-threats from my advisors (not really), I started turning in big stacks of crap. Now for the fairy dust.

Where's the @*^%*$^! fairy dust!...

I do think there's a magic ballance in there somewhere. We all need to find a way to proceed with confidence or it just won't work--for any of us. But figuring out what's wrong with your confidence isn't always easy. It might be something in your relationship with your advisor, it might be time pressures, it might be the presence of other (competitive?) graduate students. You have to find a safe comfortable "space" to find your voice. If someone is crowding you or threatening you, it won't work. That's my take on it, anyway.

Re-read your paper, and write it "from" the parts that turn you on.

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