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Learning the Craft of Academic Writing

Learning the Craft of Academic Writing

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Published by Vampire
John Forester
Cornell University
October 1984
(Only slightly revised 1999)

John Forester
Cornell University
October 1984
(Only slightly revised 1999)

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Published by: Vampire on Mar 21, 2009
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Learning the Craft of Academic Writing:Notes On Writing In and After Graduate SchoolJohn ForesterCornell UniversityOctober 1984(Only slightly revised 1999)Although the following notes are autobiographical, they seem to have been helpful to others equallyperplexed by the craft of academic writing. Part One examines my attempts to learn to write in, and after,graduate school. Part Two presents a series of cautions and suggestions, lessons I never expected tolearn.I. Trying to Learn to WriteEvery day I sat at the Underwood manual typewriter I used, and after eighteen months I had made nodiscernible progress on my dissertation. I was not pleased. Then another personal crisis took me awayfrom “the writing” for a few months. At last, having lost all patience as well as guidance from any faculty, Isat down desperately to do nothing each day but write.I began with the second chapter because I thought I could write that. I produced thirty pages of sixsections so thin that they each needed real work. For the next six months I wrote, and that secondchapter became my dissertation. It included much of what I’d abstractly envisioned and roughly outlined,but in a wholly different order and emphasis than I’d outlined time and time again. (Had I honored myoutline, I might still, many years later, be getting nowhere on it.)I felt sick about the product. Only when I looked at it for the first time again, five full years later atCornell, was I surprised to find that only one chapter was really pretty embarrassing. The writing “experience” had not been a good one. If the dissertation was anything like downing too many stiff drinksfor medicinal purposes, the writing experience persisted as an enormous hangover. At best, having mydissertation done meant that I was free to do further work; at worst, the prospects of further writing werebewildering, almost nauseating.I had known to talk to people, but it hadn’t helped. I groped along, writing each day. Here and there weresigns that someone knew what was going on. One day my wife-to-be returned from a party where she’dbeen working at the School of Public Health in Berkeley. She told me that one of the Public Health facultyhad asked about me. She said, “When I told him that you were writing your dissertation, he asked, ‘Is heat the three-year-old or the six-year-old stage yet?’” I had a friend doing doctoral work in Planning atBerkeley after he’d spent five years at the National Institute for Mental Health. He once called hisdissertation writing, “the most infantalizing experience of my life.” Now I knew what he meant, but I didn’thave a clue what to do about it. Still, one friend, Shimon, did help enormously, and I have more to sayabout him below.As I was three quarters of the way along, with six rough chapters in hand but no clear sense of coherentconclusion, I was asked by one of my professors, Jack Dyckman, to cover for him in his “Planning Theory” class while he had to be out of town. He’d assigned Habermas’s Legitimation Crisis, a book that we’d readtogether in a discussion group the year before.1 As I started to prepare for the class, I started writing:Habermas’s strategy of analysis, not any particular argument, suggested a possible solution to theproblem of concluding my dissertation. I had been stumped. But here came thirty pages from mytypewriter a few days before that class—and those pages became the guts of the last two chapters of mythesis.More had happened too: finishing my thesis, for the first time I had an insight into what Habermas wasactually trying to do. I had read several of his books and essays, but they hadn’t figured into mydissertation at all—until the very end. Now many pieces promised to fit together—not least into a hunch
about how to use this abstract and ambitious work empirically in research assessing planning practice. Noone had done that.So I had survived the dissertation. Hardy emerging unscathed, I nevertheless glimpsed the outline of apotentially large research program I might explore—if the opportunity and skill were available. I was lucky,at least, to have had the opportunity.At U.C. Santa Cruz, a year of part-time teaching and full-time searching for an academic job fueled thefire for me to write. The kindling had been lit. Since my dissertation had been unconventional to say theleast, I knew I had to write. In Berkeley, another of my professors had been candid: “With what you’redoing, you have to write it clearly and get it out, or you can just forget it.” In Santa Cruz, I had said to afriend, obsessively and melodramatically, “Writing is like climbing a ladder out of hell.” She raised adubious eyebrow. The problem was that I was serious: I was writing and writing, waiting for journaleditors to respond, hoping to publish. But then came the good fortune of coming to Cornell. My newcolleagues expected me now to teach and to write. But how was I to do that?The experience of my dissertation did little for my confidence—the serendipity of Jack Dyckman’s havingassigned Habermas and asking me to fill in for him notwithstanding. In Berkeley, true to form, friendShimon agreed with me only about how little I knew—though now I would learn to write, in particular bysending him “just one simple fifteen page paper,” “that gets it clear,” “that just says what you really wantto say.” That proved quite difficult to do—so difficult that even six years later, Shimon was still asking forthat paper, though he’d shredded and edited virtually everything else I’d written in the meantime.I did have to write, but I felt ill-prepared to do it. I’d learned a lot in graduate school from my professors,but not how to write in any sustained way. My advisor insisted upon clarity and chastised my constanthyphenations; so I came to split sentences with dashes instead of linking words with hyphens—was thatprogress? The Berkeley faculty’s own writing varied enormously, of course, and though in the slowmoments of my dissertation I sought advice, the idiosyncratic anecdotes I heard didn’t seem ultimately todo much for me. How could they? One prolific sociologist wrote on different projects in different places andat different times. Another distinguished sociologist told me something about trying to write ten pages aday, but I was too stunned to ask, “Ten?!” A planning professor had fifteen projects “in the pipeline” at anygiven time, and out came whatever he needed to respond to outside demands as they came along. Buthow, I wondered, did he write his books? Still another professor ruminated one May day, “Boy, how manyBic pens I’m going to go through this summer!” If I was prepared to write or knew anything about it, Iwas the last one to know it.I had read C. Wright Mills’s wonderful “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” and re-read it too.2 Yes, I too foundnew things when I reorganized my files; I found too much. Even so, this appendix to The SociologicalImagination was the only thing I’d read that seemed to speak to the writing problems I faced. Anotherdissertation survivor had given me the writing chapter of Jacques Barzun’s and Henry Graff’s The ModernResearcher.3 How right their stress on rewriting seemed, but what did I know about rewriting when Iwondered what I’d ever have to rewrite? I was ready to rewrite, but a step was missing: the writing, whatI’d now call the drafting, laying it out, or even as I say to others at times, the “thinking with your fingers.” Many years later I found political science professor Aaron Wildavsky to be an astute student of academicwork habits. Describing me perfectly, he noted how inefficient so many academics are, and he mentioneda piece he had once written on his own graduate and subsequent professional writing. Entitled “Things INever Knew,” this remarkable essay provided variations on the theme, “Common knowledge in theUniversity said you couldn’t . . . (combine teaching and research, and thrive at both) but I didn’t knowthat, so I did (teach X, Y, and Z, and write a book about Z).”4 The spirit of the essay combines homage tohis teachers and an irrepressible sense of what’s possible to do with steady work, reading, research,writing a bit each day.Wildavsky’s essay gave me such a shot in the arm, if not a kick someplace else, that in the three daysafter I read it I wrote an essay that I’d been meaning to write for at least a year. “Poof”-- there it was,and accepted four months later for publication with only slight revisions necessary. “Poof”? Hardly. The
essay had been presented as a lecture several times, and it had “cooked” for well over a year. I felt luckyto get it out of the oven at all.Would I show Wildavsky’s essay to graduate students? I was careful, afraid that Wildavsky’s bravado, tosay nothing of his productivity, might only bury someone’s last shred of self-confidence. If I had read thepiece in the middle of the desert of my dissertation, I might have packed my bags. If Wildavsky was SaulBellow’s Henderson the Rain King among the tribes of political scientists, I was closer to Woody Allen.About death, Henderson knew little, only how much he had yet to do; in contrast Woody Allen, of course,packs underwear for the afterlife. Wildavsky writes in a major key; I write, obviously, in minor. There’sprobably a decent test to take here. Read Wildavsky’s “Things I Never Knew” when you’re not completelyswamped with work. If it makes you want to write, fine. If not, why worry? But I still wondered as a newassistant professor: How could I learn to write?I had drafted several articles at Santa Cruz. First, I re-worked the third chapter of my dissertation into anarticle; accepted provisionally by a Journal that then folded, this piece has still never been published. Iwrote a second article as a synopsis of my dissertation. After several journals had rejected it and I’d madesome revisions, it was finally published three years later. I revised a third article from the appendix to apaper I’d done years before in graduate school. The other students in a graduate political theory seminarhad liked the appendix better than my paper. I took what I could get. Searching for life after thedissertation, I revised that essay on “Listening” but only published it two years after leaving Santa Cruz,five years after first writing it. I drafted a fourth piece over one long weekend after Polly Marshall, astudent at Santa Cruz, had asked me how Ivan Illich’s Medical Nemesis related to Habermas’s work, if itdid at all, and I found the answer interesting and striking enough to fill thirty pages. With some luck andnot too many surprises, that essay was finally published nearly seven years after it was written. So muchfor immediate gratification! Finally I prepared a fifth short essay for a Public Administration conference inthe Spring, thanks to a friend’s invitation and encouragement. I sent that piece off to the PublicAdministration Review. Editor Gawthorp was interested, thoughtful, firm, and negative. I was onlybeginning to learn about the human qualities of editors and their judgments about style, audience, and fit—in addition to content. That essay was published in a smaller journal two years later. So nothing—and Ifelt it as exactly that, nothing—was published quickly in the years following my dissertation.During my first year at Cornell I tried to keep up with classes and the usually fruitless letters to JournalEditors. One editor said of one piece, “Too narrow”; another said of a second essay, “Too broad.” One VeryImportant Person solicited essays for a book project, so I dutifully worked up an article I hoped to publishas a chapter; I didn’t hear anything from him for fifteen months but “still working on it,” until I finallylearned that the whole project had been scrapped. So much for publishing with VIPs. At the end of thatfirst year I talked to Terry Terauchi, an old friend practicing poverty law in San Francisco. I told him that itlooked like I’d never publish anything, and if that were true, then I might as well move back to sunnyCalifornia and pump gasoline. He thought that I should keep at it awhile. He voted with friend Shimon whowas no less persistently and provocatively demanding, “just one clear fifteen page paper that says whatyou really want to say!” I was ready to keep at it, but if this was what writing in the University was like, Iwasn’t going to be making any long range plans.Writing my dissertation had been the most isolating experience of an otherwise wonderfully collegialgraduate school existence. Would the work of my dissertation really be, in retrospect, as unique as manypeople assured me, or would all scholarly writing be like that? The first year at Cornell was so full that Ionly had more questions, not answers. There was indeed life after the dissertation; that was a discoverysecond only to my glimpse of a promising new research program. So I still had to learn to write—butabout a literature, critical social theory, that might as well have been in Greek as far as my colleagues andstudents in Planning were concerned. I’d put “Hermeneutics and Critical Theory in Practice” in the subtitleof my “Listening” paper, and a senior colleague quipped, “Herman who?” I was too new, and too junior, tobe amused.Joining the faculty at Cornell, I soon found myself trying to advise graduate students working on their ownmaster’s and doctoral theses. How was I to do that? I had found very little socially redeeming value in myexperience to “share” (as people from California put it). The worst of the writing experience I wanted tosuppress; my students had enough troubles already. Getting a long list of warnings from me was notgoing to help. I encouraged clarity and regularity, so I was lucky that no one asked if I wasn’t confusing aprescription of clear chicken soup for upset stomachs with the demands of thesis writing and research.

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