On writing: assume you’ve won

I was asked by a colleague who assigned some of my work to say something useful about the writing process for her grad students.  Here’s the request:

my charge is to invite you to jot down in one paragraph any helpful thoughts you can offer about any aspect of the writing process–choosing a topic, figuring out the structure of a paper, strengthening an argument, structuring sentences, revising and fine-tuning, etc.  

It’s kind of impossible not knowing them, but this is my attempt:

The piece of writing advice I’ve found myself giving lately, more than anything else, is: “assume you’ve won.”  So much writing in the humanities and critical social sciences is defensive–making sure an argument is protected from all comers.  I understand that some aspects of both graduate school and journal reviewing lead to this way of doing things.  But it’s not generally fun to read or write and it’s an impossible task.  My teacher John Lie always said “even the best argument is full of holes.”  What is fun is learning how to think differently about an old topic, or learning to think at all about a new one.  That’s why most of us get into being academics in the first place.  Often when we are working through drafting new material we are still figuring out what we think as we are writing it (this is not true for everyone, but for a large portion of authors, including me).  But in revision we get to both commit to a line of reasoning and to building out its implications.  So at that point, I try to write pedagogically and invitationally rather than defensively.  I imagine that my audience is ready to hear what I have to say, now I have to take them through it.  Of course this presupposes that one understands writing is a process, and that revision is where the magic happens.  Revision isn’t really taught much in graduate school, but it should be.

I hope this helps!

PS–this entry was heavily revised (and I am resisting the urge to do more).

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