25 February 2009

Writing about something I understand

This is going to end up a bit wonkish, I think. You've been warned.

I am getting through this paper I am writing about interviews and, more broadly, reflexivity in research. It's been easy enough and I was able to draft it in about two days, which is good news for me as I have to draft a literature review and that'll be about the size of a paper for the MRes. 3,000 words plus 2,000 on methods by May 1st. I really enjoy writing about things I am confident about. It is quite easy for me to put down a couple of thousand words when I know what I'm saying. It gets to be a science almost. I know a paragraph is between 150 and 200 words. If it's above or below that, the thought is either underdeveloped or it is two underdeveloped thoughts stuck together.

The process of writing for me is not very chaotic. I know some people write that way: I do not. I was the person who made a genealogy of characters for my senior thesis in college. I didn't make maps, like Faulkner, but I knew more about the people I was writing about than what I wrote down. When I write an essay, I usually put in my section headings (three or four in an MRes paper, including introduction and conclusion) and then go from there.

Today I kept telling the German woman I sit next to that the problem with the paper I was writing was that the trajectory was 2,400 words, and not 3,000 and sure enough, as I finished, I was at about 2,450 words and had to spend about two hours doing taffy-pulling work, teasing out my ideas from earlier. I was quite happy with where the draft ended though and was able to find my missing 600 words by filling in things here and there. I don't think I actually added another paragraph. My average sentence in academic writing is about 20 to 30 words, I suspect. So adding 600 words is just really adding 20 sentences.

You may say, 'Well, hell, Stephen, you have really gone off on the numbers game. What ever happened to the beauty and joy of writing, of the notebook?' Like I said, I'm sure some people can do it, but I am a firm believer in a pragmatic approach to writing, and not just in academia. Anyone who thinks that novels are just written without thought to these sorts of things are not novelists. Structure is key to making something readable, and structure is quite often in the numbers, I think. Most of the bullshit talking I hear about poetry and short stories is based on the nonsense of whether or not someone likes something. It's like me talking about painting. Painters, I imagine, talk about tautness of cloth on a frame. They talk about ratios of paintings, ingredients in color pigment, brush stroke. Writers, I think, should be equally obsessed with the things of the craft like word count and sentence length.

Feel free to disagree?
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