It was a tough winter (again) here in Illinois. The cold drives most graduate students indoors, and I find myself taking up study habits reminiscent of my music conservatory days. Aside from developing some sustainable writing habits and taking a bite out of my dissertation, I also read several books on academic writing which I think aided the process. From this reading, a couple recommendations—all of which are blessedly pocketable:
- Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis (1998): While the market and expectations have changed drastically for the PhD, Bolker’s book stands the test of time. It is a useful first book to read because it outlines the process of writing a dissertation, the major moves, and is filled with practical mantras that get you through the day-to-day. I turned here when gripped by writers’ block, and the comforting, supportive authorial voice, paired with real advice, pushed me through. My personal mantra: “write first.”
- Paul J. Silvia’s How To Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing (2007): This little book comes from the social sciences and uses actual work in cognitive psychology to make the claim that writing is behavior-oriented, and because it is, deliberate practice breeds skill. It seems obvious but the most inspiring claims the book makes is that keeping a regular, daily schedule matters: “Productive writers don’t have special gifts or special traits—they just spend more time writing and use this time more efficiently.” Or as my band teachers always told me: perfect practice makes perfect. His observations about writing or “agraphia” groups reinforced my own weekly ablutions with a small cohort of peers. Powerful too is the detailed approach the book takes to the article composition and submission process, which seems to have been expanded into a new book, Write It Up: Practical Strategies for Writing and Publishing Journal Articles, I have yet to peruse.
- Eric Hayot’s The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities (2014) has blown up in recent months and was even sold out on Amazon for a bit when I was recommending it to friends. Echoing Strunk and White (which I also revisited this past month, and found it helpful to do so), the book operates like a primer for professional rhetoric. It is less about habit-formation, as most other guides stress, and more about structure, convention, and style. At the core of the book is his theory of the “Uneven U,” a paragraph structure we all use that can be extended to think about structuring sections, articles, chapters, and books. Clever, thoughtful, and rhetorically precise, this is certainly been my favorite as I could see my writing immediately improve on some conference-papers-in-progress after reading.
- I am midway through Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing (2012), which is more a reflection on trends in ten major fields—heavily weighted towards the humanities—and analyzes trends in our actual writing habits as contrasted with writing academics perceive to be stylish and persuasive. The book works like a primer, with each short chapter identifying an element, discussing what two or three general trends research indicated, spotlighting 2-3 examples of authors considered exceptionally effective and clear in their prose, and a few things to try at the end. For me the “Spotlight on Style” examples have been the most useful rather than her meditations. It serves a useful collection of organized examples that pairs nicely with Hayot’s explanations of praxis.
While not on writing per se, as my first go on the job market approaches and the links between my writing production and odds of employment become all the more important, a new book due out this summer seems of interest to this conversation. Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job (2015) is due out this summer just ahead of the next academic job market hustle. She has exploded on the internet, though Facebook, her webinars, workshops, and personal consulting as the person to turn to get an edge on the market. Her testimonials speak to her harsh criticism but also devastating effectiveness. And her services are not cheap (certainly out of my price range), spotlighting the uncomfortable issue of class divides and professional access systemic in higher education employment. She does make a lot of material available for free on her website (her CV advice is amazing), and this new book seems to also be egalitarian in its efforts. We shall see.