Friday, March 23, 2007

Learning to write

I'm currently working on three papers. On one, I'm second author. I'm mentoring the junior first-author on writing research papers. It's been a long process, but we've got a working draft, and I'm seeing the reward of mentoring.

I've noticed that my first author suffers from the "Cheever Fever" that Ethan Canin describes in his essay, "Smallness and Invention." He wants to make great, poetic conclusions, but does so without giving his reader any concrete details. Canin points out the following passage from Cheever's "The Pot of Gold,"

... Alice strode to the door, opened it, and went out. A woman came in, a stranger looking for the toilet. Laura lighted a cigarette and waited in the bedroom for about ten minutes before she went back to the party. The Holinsheads had gone. She got a drink and sat down and tried to talk, but she couldn't keep her mind on what she was saying.

The hunt, the search for money that had seemed to her natural, amiable, and fair when they first committed themselves to it, now seemed like a hazardous and piratical voyage. She had thought, earlier in the evening, of the missing. She thought now of the missing again. Adversity and failure accounted for more than half of them, as if beneath the amenities in the pretty room a keen race were in progress, in which the loser's forfeits were extreme. Laura felt cold. She picked the ice out of her drink with her fingers and put it in a flower vase, but the whiskey didn't warm her. She asked Ralph to take her home.

Of this passage, Canin gives insight,

I discovered two things: first, that Cheever's great, epiphanic leaps were almost invariably preceded (and followed, it turned out) by paragraphs that accumulated small, accurate detail.

I'll leave it to you to read the rest of the essay, which appears in The Eleventh Draft.

* * *

Mentoring my first author does not mean that I know how to write well. I realized I couldn't write when I was 16. I got a "C" grade on my first essay for my American History course. Devastation. Through the rest of the semester, the teacher tried to cure my own Cheever Fever. He fought against my long sentences; encouraged me to write like Hemmingway instead of Faulkner.

(True, good Faulkner is good. Badly imitated Faulkner is criminal.)

I'm editing my own article today. I see that I still have bouts of Cheever Fever. Take a look at these "Before and After" edits:


B: "The current media climate surrounding the issue of declining enrollment and lack of diversity in the sciences ought to peak the interest of today's scientists and educators."

(Pique. As Inigo would say, "I do not think that word means what you think it means")

A: "The faces of today's computer science community do not reflect those of the larger global community."


B: "we highlight the means by which participants were initially attracted..."
A: "we highlight how participants were initially attracted..."

* * *

To the delight of my friend Moira, I'm also learning how to use a semicolon. Trimble says, "If you can replace your semicolon with a period, your construction is OK, but if you can't, substitute a comma for it."

1 comment:

pluto said...

I really enjoyed this!
Yeah, learning to write never ends.
The thought of a 16 year old would-be Faulkner is pretty scary.
About semi-colons: lately I've been trying to axe them from my writing altogether. I think they're increasingly regarded as a bit prissy. But academic writing is pretty conservative. And on a paper I wrote recently my older co-author went through it and inserted semi-colons in places where I'd deliberately flouted prescriptive rules and put commas instead. He was only meant to be checking the statistics.