Why You Shouldn’t (and Should) Focus on Writing Style

I’m going to say something here that might cause a gasp of horror.

Something that seems to fly in the face of what people say about writing productivity.

Something that seems to fly in the face of the often stated plea to write first and revise later. That to be productive academic writers we need to ignore quality at first and focus on output. You can fix things later.

I don’t actually disagree with that, not at all, since I often say such things, but there is another side, at least for that sub-set of academic writers who have a sincere desire to write well….

When you’re writing, as far as style goes, you should feel like a witness to a miracle of nature.
You should feel like:
“Holy crap, I can’t believe how this is rolling out!”

No one suggests that you should feel such a thing anymore. But that’s like hiding the truth from people.

This feeling– “holy crap I can’t believe how this is rolling out”– is something every writer deserves to feel. It’s something you should feel.

Of course, you shouldn’t always expect it to feel that way. But you should expect it to sometimes feel that way.

And if that’s not sometimes happening, then there is something wrong.

But so also is there something that you can do about that.

If you would like it to happen for you more, or if you would like to up your style, then there is something you can do.

But first a word of caution: it’s true that oftentimes trying hard to write well– at the same time as you are drafting your academic journal article or dissertation or book chapter– is not going to go well.

When you put a lot of pressure on yourself to achieve beautiful prose while you’re drafting and exploring your ideas, things could get stopped up and the writing become painful and drudgery.

Especially if writing well is a kind of afterthought coming at the end of being theoretical and erudite and original and right and all that

Add to that the imaginary voices of hoards of experts and cranky professors you’ve bumped into over the last 10 years, heckling you in your inner movie theater before you’ve even started your next sentence, and you’ve got a miserable experience lined up for yourself.

We’ve all been there.

These just aren’t the right conditions under which to focus on writing style.

In fact, there are two best times when writing style should matter.

  1. One is when you have momentum already, when you’re committed to your text and have writing established as a regular part of your life. Then, it’s not so much that writing style should be your focus but that you don’t need to really bear down and focus on it because it comes naturally. When you are already well on your way you can afford to be the witness to creative prose rolling out.

    The question then is how to get to this state of regular writing practice and this daily momentum. That’s what our writing group is about– the coaching and group accountability in the Academic Muse Writing Bootcamp.

  2. The other perfect time to work on your writing chops– the one I’m going to focus on here– is when we are not writing our actual text, but just working on our writing abilities.

But do you ever actually do the second one?

In most cases, academic writers aren’t really ever doing that. They’re not training their writing ability outside of their actual work.

In many cases, I believe, there are academic writers who never– as in never ever– write any academic text that they don’t intend others to read!

That might be crazy. Yet common. (But also understandable.)

We feel limited, especially about time, so we put all our writing eggs in one basket: working on the piece (which we’re already behind on).

And if you manage somehow to finish, then there is the next thing that you are already behind on.

So you’re always committing to the next piece of writing instead of to writing itself.

But when you stop to think about it, it’s hard to imagine any other realm of life that requires accomplishment where people don’t actually take time out to practice and train.

Music. Sports. Just about everywhere.

Everyone has to practice. It’s not game-time, all the time.

But for academic writers it’s often game-time or no time.

They vacillate between eking out, word-by-painful-word, their best effort at good writing on some occasions…

and other times completely avoid writing because it’s not coming out good enough; it’s disappointing and frustrating.

Yet there, like a wallflower at the school dance (that was me by the way), stands to the side a third option:

to practice writing. To train your writing chops.

It’s understandable. We all get it. We feel limited, especially about time. We academic writers constantly feel like we’re always behind, catching up, always late.

And as you know very well, that’s pretty much at our best!

On the other end of the spectrum is the feeling you’ve wasted months, years of your life. Squandered weeks with nothing to show for it. Deep regret and self-recrimination.

But neither the tiring, draining version nor the horrible hair-shirt-with-iron-spikes version will likely give rise to the thought,

when you’ve got an overdue dissertation or still unwritten book:

“I know what I should do in this situation! I’ll practice my writing skills!”

Right? That’s a difficult thought to have for an academic writer.

Even just in the ordinary clutter of teaching duties, motherwork and fatherwork, applications to write, papers to grade… where’s the time for practice and training?

We think, “If there is any time, it should be used exclusively to write the words that the reader is going to read, and advance the project.”

There’s an emergency. And it’s time to act.

In this threat situation, it’s hard to think of training your writing.

But what if that thinking is so wrong, precisely the opposite of what is in fact what you need?

What if you could actually write more and write better, have a quicker path to getting your work finished and be impressive enough to get published, if you took time to develop your writing, to practice and train, so that game-time goes well?

Rationally speaking, it’s only under the most emergency conditions—
one more chapter to start and finish before next week when the diss has to be turned in, or else—
when it’s truly unreasonable to work on your writing.

Even then, a few moments couldn’t hurt. But still I admit there are these hair-raising situations sometimes.

(and I don’t mean the dissertation is due in 3 months and I have two chapters. That’s a kind of an emergency, to be sure, but there’s still room in it).

We actually all could write in more creative and inspiring prose if we worked on writing itself rather than only ever worked on the writing that we intend to be read.

When you are drafting your text, that’s the time when the effects of your writing training should be showing up naturally and sometimes even effortlessly.

It’s not the time to turn up the screws and push yourself to “write great.”

But you CAN push yourself, or play, or sometimes both, when you are training your writing.

Just like that last sit-up you are going for. You can barely do it, but you get through and it’s okay, even if you didn’t make it all the way. Just doing it was the point.

We just have to understand that if we commit some time to training, we are becoming better at writing and actually saving time, not spending time.

It becomes easier to write because the power to connect words is what is really going to get you out of the troubles and traps and puzzles and thickets that we spend so much time struggling with in academic writing.

When the words fall in place, and fall in place easily, it all becomes much easier.

The alternative is to do nothing about training in writing. You can just stay in the same cycle, expecting different results.

You can go straight to your project, use all your available time to work on writing your project, writing the words that the reader will read, because that seems like the most efficient thing.

Then get disheartened when it’s not going well. Then avoid it.

Or soldier through, with neither the reader or you left with much to enjoy about it.

Or quit now, or sometime in the future, because writing is just so hard.

Or… and this would be doing something different:

you could sometimes devote yourself to writing well by training in writing well.

Develop chops. And take that into the game to have it go so much better and, ultimately, faster.


So How Do you Train Your Writing?

A great question. Because so far we’ve only been saying what training is not. It’s not game time.

Training to write, thankfully, is really play time.

Or at the very least, a balance of play and work at your craft.

The number one best thing you can do to work on your writing style if you are an academic, and that is the writing exercise I call Emulation.

There are many helpful exercises I can share, but this is the first place to start for academic writers because it covers all bases.

If you have really fine-grained awareness of where you exactly need to improve, we can supplement Emulation with other exercises. But do this first.

It basically takes that feeling you get when you’ve read a good book, and find that you’re writing in the style or voice of the author you’ve just read, as a deliberate strategy and in-grain it deeply into your writing being.

It’s an amazing practice that not only takes your writing to another level but also contributes to writing momentum.

I recommend it most of all to really learn masterful writing from the inside out, but it’s also a great thing to do when you’ve got something to write about but you don’t know how to start.

I explain it in depth, including exactly how to do it, in the free eBook Learning to Write from the Masters from the Inside Out.

It comes as part of a series of books I can send to you via email, just click here to get started for free on writing great prose now.