I want to write like Edward Said

On Late Style by Edward Said

I just talked to a group of PhD students about style. The reading had been from On Late Style.  “Don’t try to write like Edward Said,” I said. “A thesis is ugly but functional,” I said.

But I left thinking, “Fuck this. I want to try to write like Edward Said. I want to write beautiful prose. I want to inspire, not footnote.”

I am not for a moment arguing that people can’t inspire through meticulously crafted qualitative research; nor that footnotes and stylish academic writing need to be antithetical (Chris Bigum @cj13 reminded me of Helen Sword’s “delightful book on stylish academic writing‘).  Instead I’m thinking about writing for research outputs vs writing belles lettres

I love reading Edward Said’s writing. I don’t think he’s always right, but his thinking always spurs my own. His writing, therefore, is both inspiring and generative.

That’s what I want to do. I want to think in new ways about Proust and Britten and Strauss and Adorno. I want to share those thoughts with others. I want to change the way other people think and write. I want to do it in prose that is readable, exciting, pleasurable.

I want to write work that depends on other thinkers, that reflects on other writers. But I want to do that through extended (but perhaps tangential) reflection; not through a citation.

I know how to write good academic prose. I know prose that conforms to the scholarly conventions, that clearly sets out an argument, provides evidence, that is well edited and fits within the field.

But today, and many days, that is not what I want to write. I feel I ought to. For my career it would make sense for me to. But I’d rather blog, or write poetry, or reflect on Beethoven and Said and human beings. The human beings I meet who are not research subjects. The conversations I have that are not interviews. The things I intuit, which are not known nor knowable, not quantifiable or qualitable, but are often true, or helpful, or right.

Again, there are reasons, important ethical reasons, why this is problematic. There are structural reasons why this is problematic. There are institutional and disciplinary reasons why this is problematic. I know. But I also know what my heart wants.

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2 Comments

  1. Refreshing! I have the same dilemma, except that I want to write like Judith Butler 🙂 I’m wondering if it’s such a bad thing to follow your heart.

    So much advice on academic writing focuses on the ‘write, write, write’ approach, which I’ve often found alienating: what, you mean write drivel? And then spend time excavating a couple of useful sentences from the drivel?

    I’m happy to explore practices that help with organizing information, making research notes more effective, and improving writing style, but dammit! (Janet!) I’m a planner! I couldn’t imagine writing a whole thesis using the drafting method recommended on so many PhD-related blogs…all that rewriting. Unthinkable.

    1. Judith Butler is a great role model! I’m glad you also found the Perfect Sentence Vortex of Doom post–so you found that drafting is not about producing drivel and excavating… But rather about thinking, producing, structuring/signposting and polishing.

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