How to Write

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Every year, my friend Jenny Shanahan and I lead a week-long writing workshop for faculty at Stevenson University, outside Baltimore. This summer will be the ninth time we’ve done it—it’s a lot of fun, and seems to be productive for them as well.

We put together a booklet of writing ideas and writing practices for each year’s attendees, and every year, we add a little to it, to reflect the stuff we’ve learned or are currently thinking about. Here’s what I added for this year.

Notes for Qualitative or Humanistic Writing

When we write in the qualitative social sciences or in the humanities, we often don’t have the luxury of lock-solid proof. One of my friends is writing about Southern regions that remained allied with the Union during the Civil War, and she’s discovered a remarkable and surprising factor that nobody’s written about before. (She’s doing her dissertation, and I’m not going to spoil her surprise.) She isn’t going to argue that her newly discovered phenomenon is “the cause” of these areas not aligning with the Confederacy; instead, she’s going to argue that you can’t understand their decision fully without recognizing this new set of facts.

When we’re not in the land of A—B causality, we’re not likely to have irrefutable proof[1]; we have to make an argument. Every bit of evidence we find is located within a network, in which all elements are connected to all other elements. We breathe in confusion, and breathe out a story.

So here’s what I’ve drawn from my own experience of writing in both the qualitative social sciences and in the humanities, and from talking with and reading about the processes of others. These are intended as a sequence; don’t jump ahead. Trust me, you’ll want to. Don’t.

  1. Embrace the misery. You will be confused, for a long time. You have to be confused. You’re drawing in evidence from dozens of other writers, from messy field experiences, from hundreds of interviews. It absolutely ought to feel like William James’ “blooming, buzzing confusion.” I can’t make that feel better, but I can tell you it’s normal, and productive. Connections are forming that you can’t yet perceive.
  2. Write your fieldnotes. Keep a folder full of Word documents, a pile of notecards, your Moleskine journal, and fill them up. No one will ever read them. They are the Cuisinart that blends your thinking. They are the years of practicing scales that make the performance look easy. They are the dye packs that will change your color.
  3. Find the metaphor. As you let all of those ideas churn around, you may discover that they remind you of some dissimilar thing. Take those metaphors seriously, and push your ideas into that mold to see what looks like a fit and what squishes out the sides. In my current book about contingent scholars, I knew that I didn’t want to write the common combat narrative of evil administrators and beleaguered, innocent faculty. I rejected the metaphor of fighting, of “the noble struggle,” altogether. I wanted to write about how the changing ecology of higher ed has made contingency normal. And once I thought about ecosystem collapse, I thought of Rachel Carson: What does it mean when there are no birds? And now the book is writing itself, because the story is waiting to be filled in.
  4. Write before you’re ready. Write without citations. Write without fully fleshing out whole sections. Write what you think is plausible, even if you can’t fully defend it yet. Let a sentence or two stand for ten paragraphs. If you start writing what you think the story is, you’ll discover where you’re wrong. You’ll discover where your argument is too general, and you can think of four examples that make a broad statement too easy. And on the good side, you’ll think of things to add that make the story richer and the connections more enlightening. You’ll see the place where that one nice quote will fit, like a gemstone in its setting.
  5. Write the introduction. Once you get that indefensible first pass on paper, don’t revise it, don’t tweak it. Just go through it, and imagine how you’d describe your thinking to someone in a few pages. Write those pages, with as much care and craft as you can muster. That will become your road map for the rebuilding of the whole document.
  6. Give the introduction to a good reader. By “good reader,” I mean someone who thinks you’re an intelligent thinker already and is willing to give you some leash, but also someone who is responsible enough to keep you from running out into traffic. You want someone who’s on your side, but who won’t let you be lazy. When you find that reader, treasure them. Celebrate their birthday. Marry them if you can.
  7. Rewrite the introduction, and give it to them again. Once you both agree on that condensed version of the story, it becomes the theme that you can touch upon and return to throughout the work as you rebuild it.
  8. Be true to your introduction. Now that you’re going back into the weeds, ask yourself about every piece of data, “does this help me tell the story that I promised in the intro?” If yes, it belongs in the writing. If not, you have another interesting anecdote for a dinner party.
  9. Now’s the time for the hardware. As you’re building this edition, now’s the time to include your footnotes and citations; now’s the time to re-check your data set to see if that Federal agency has published the new 2017 numbers yet; now’s the time to use the highlighter tool in Word to mark index terms. This is the place where doing the detail work on the run will make everything fit tighter later on.

Does this all sound like it takes a long time? Well, it takes longer than that. The good news is that the first two steps, the confusion and the field notes, should take about two-thirds of the total. Let’s summarize those nine steps:

  • Steps one and two are manual labor with no visible end, the labors of Sisyphus.
  • Steps four through nine are craft.
  • Step three is the miracle, the evidence of grace, the undeserved moment of clarity.

You need all three of those components, in that order. You can’t just bull your way forward out of brute will. If you can live comfortably within the misery, grace will ultimately arrive.

 

 

[1] We can certainly have irrefutable evidence, but that’s different.