Monday, June 14, 2010

"Writing for Scholarly Publication" by Anne Sigismund Huff

Just finished this book by Huff, professor of strategic management at the University of Colorado - Boulder. Well written, chatty and mind focusing. I do not intend to summarize the whole work or even promise to mention its most salient or provocative points (you will need to read it to determine those for yourself). But it did provoke some thoughts in me about the composition of academic scholarship, such as these:

* Huff's theme: Scholarly publication is a conversation. She gives great advice to find related articles in the journals of the field and says to imagine your work as a conversation with those pieces and their authors, a discussion around which many people at the party might gather. Most academic articles, frankly, are those boring small talks, in which someone drones (maybe even you), and you eventually want to stab the skewers into your ears. This reminds me of the sick attraction journalists have with the inverted pyramid. Formulaic writing has its place, of course, and every piece can't break the formula every time. Yet creativity within the formula should be possible, or the formula should be abandoned, especially in articles of this length and with this much time and energy put into them. Think about the traditional approach of telling readers what you are going to tell them, telling them and the telling them what you told them. I could understand that approach in some cases, like with elementary school students. But I don't think that's the academic market. Instead, as Huff rightly suggests, get to the point and then if you feel the desire to circle back around again, at least say something new in the second passing.

* Ideas are cheap (p. 14). Execution of ideas is where the capital is formed. This is becoming a new media creed, and I think this is where the people who argue that technology is making us "dumber" are walking around with bags on their heads. Information sharing has changed so dramatically that it is like learning the world is not flat. It probably always has been this way, that execution of ideas trumped ideas themselves, but now, the access to collective intelligence has destroyed our cognitive measuring tools. We always have measured how smart we are on an individual scale, yet now, tapping the collective effectively and efficiently (think media literacy, or calculators) creates a different sort of intelligence, and it's not the idea generation that is the issue, it's who can do something with the ideas. Hmmm, this is not coming out like I imagined. I'll try again. Ideas and even the first few levels of execution of ideas are so cheap now that they have virtually no cost to the producer (think about the cost of this now rambling blog post). Yet some people are able to turn ideas into something that's clearly worthwhile, and that does have value. Is the intelligence, then, in generating the idea, executing the idea or monetizing the idea? I can see this is getting way too fuzzy and long, so I'll work more on the ideas later. It won't cost me anything.

* Quit thinking about it and write it. And finish it. Again, completion of an idea doesn't cost anything. But, if nothing else, it has high value to me, or at least much higher value than the great American novel in my head, or the half-finished journal articles in my drawers or the letter to the editor that I never sent, etc. And someone else also might find the work valuable.

* Huff said, "keep the pipeline full," with individual articles, co-authored articles, mainstream pieces, niche pieces, efficiently getting work through your system without hitting dry patches. I think that is a highly beneficial strategy. As a staff writer for daily newspapers, I always kept literally hundreds of ideas at hand, maybe a few dozen that I had thought about to some extent and then another dozen at least that were in various stages of development, from background reading to interviews having been done to drafts completed. This kept productivity high for me but never made producing feel like a burden, because I almost always was working on what I wanted to do. If I felt inspired to write, I did. If I didn't feel like writing, I would make an interview call, or read some background, or whatever I felt like doing (or the least painful thing), and because something in my pipeline always was near completion, or ripened to the point of submission, the editors generally didn't hassle me much. That approach also is a great way to avoid "writer's block," since when I have felt blocked as a writer, I never felt blocked as a reader, or as an interviewer. In those ways, something related to publication always has been flowing for me.

* Be interesting (p. 47). Do we really have to tell writers this? If you have read many academic journals or newspapers, you know the answer. This probably should be the first filter applied. If you can't say something interesting, ...

* Make assertions about earlier work that reflects your judgement and agenda. And define key terms and new terms (p. 90). These both are critical writing techniques rarely used to full potential. If you are going to comment on someone else's scholarship, it seems much more interesting to actually comment on it, rather than just note it exists. Sometimes, a list of other scholars doing work on a particular line of inquiry can be enough, I suppose, or maybe it's a tip of the hat. But it might be richer to present an entry point into the exemplar, like a hyperlink made out of words. And terminology is significantly underrated in writing of all sorts. If you don't establish the key terms, master terms, whatever you want to call them, then it will be difficult to follow your lines of thought as you envision them.

Because the writing is so smooth, Huff's book is easy to read quickly. It also is helpful in a variety of ways. If nothing else, it offers clarity. All of those little details, nuances, tangents that actually muddle and distract the writing process, especially early in the iterations, slough off under Huff's straightforward approach with the end in mind.

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