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In the first post on this topic, I wrote about a lesson I had learned from William Germano. I focused on the word “writer” and argued that professional scholarly writers care about their writing skills and the skills of others. Now, I want to talk about a lesson I’ve learned from Gabriela Ruhmann, a German writing coach.

When we write, we come across many small and big challenges. We constantly need to make decisions and thereby solve problems: What is the audience of this text and how do we address it? What is the function of the text genre? What conventions do we have to follow? How should we formulate a thesis or question? How do we plan the writing process? And should we use this particular word or another? These and many other questions emerge during writing and we answer them as best we can. However, we rarely deal with them on a conscious level. Now, you might wonder, what does this have to do with professional writers?

Contrary to what we might think, professional writers face the same questions and problems that everybody else does. Questions and problems are an inevitable part of the writing process. Professional writers, however, know about the challenges that emerge during the different stages of the process. They know how to deal with them. Their knowledge doesn’t mean that they won’t struggle at times when solving problems (see Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write, 1995, and The Writer’s Book of Hope, 2003). Instead of despairing and quitting, professional writers have the tools to overcome obstacles and find an appropriate solution. They’ve honed their craft and are able to deal with the challenges that writing poses.

If professional writers are aware of their own skills they are more likely to be aware of the skills of other writers (such as students). Professional writers, then, can help others to understand the questions and challenges of the writing process. They provide an understanding of the craft and help others to become professional writers in their own right.

Professional scholarly writers, or any other kind of writer, aren’t the ones without problems; they are the ones who master them.

This was the last post for this year. I’ll continue to write about writing in the third week of the next year.

Recently I organized a seminar with William Germano for PhD students and Postdocs. He talked about the Anglophone publishing culture and what it takes to get an editor’s attention. Although I could only attend the first seminar day, I learned a lesson or two. In his lively talk, William dissected the publishing process for dissertations. He worked in the publishing industry for almost thirty years (he wrote From Dissertation to Book, 2005, and Getting It Published, 2001). Here, I want to talk about one of his main take home messages: consider yourself a “professional scholarly writer”. Since William freely shared his knowledge with us, I guess I won’t disclose any secrets.

It’s a very simple phrase: professional scholarly writer. William explained the three words individually. First, professional means to make a living with what one does. Second, scholarly refers to the kind of work produced. Scholars do research and write about it. Based on methods, theories, and a wish to better understand a particular part of the world, they produce articles and books. Together with other scholars in the same field or neighbouring (sub-)disciplines, they enter a scholarly conversation to produce and refine knowledge. And third – well, here it gets tricky. According to William, many scholars don’t consider themselves writers. They see themselves as researchers (or maybe teachers), but not writers. They might say that only novelists, poets, or journalists are (professional) writers. So, why would that be a problem? I would like to give an answer.

To be a professional scholarly writer, as any other professional writer, means to take seriously that professional identity or role. If scholars see themselves as writers (among their other roles), they will strive to be good writers. They will improve their writing skills during graduate school to be able to master what they do for a living. Today, most scholars (have to) publish, which takes a lot of time and energy. If they want to be hired or promoted, they need to have many publications in prestigious journals and with well-known presses. There’s no way around it if someone wants to stay in academia (see e.g. Michael Billig’s discussion in Learn to Write Badly, 2013). So, if scholars have to write and publish as part of their daily work, there is nothing wrong with considering themselves professional scholarly writers. There’s also nothing wrong at all about improving their writing skills. There’s no shame in admitting that you need professional help to be a better professional scholarly writer. On the contrary, to me it is worse if scholars pretend not to be writers and therefore do not care about their writing – and yet they publish a lot.

There might also be another dimension to this issue. If scholars don’t consider themselves to be professional scholarly writers and don’t mind, how can they possibly teach writing to their students? If you care about your own writing – and that’s what I would like to emphasize – you also care about the writing of others, especially the development of your students’ skills. But if you don’t, then don’t expect your students to master the tough business of writing on their own. Ultimately, the phrase “professional scholarly writer” not only says something about you, it also says something about your relationship to writing and your interest in the skills of others.

Next week, I start with yet another post series. It’s called “What if…?”.

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