A Conversation with Verlyn Klinkenborg on the Craft of Academic Writing

Abstract, dull & essentially passive. It doesn’t have to be this way. Short Sentences About Writing and academic literature.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing, Knopf, pp. 204, $22.

I’ve made my way through more than a dozen books on the craft of writing and most of them repeat each other: study Strunk & White incessantly, outline before you write, edit thoroughly when you are finished. A little book I read recently overturned these canonical truths along with just about everything else I’ve learned about writing.

The author, Verlyn Klinkenborg, serves on the editorial board of The New York Times and has contributed over 1,500 editorials during the past 15 years. He is also a lecturer of English at Yale University. Short Sentences About Writing is a series of brief meditations, a catena of reflections from a teacher and a master practitioner. Best read in small bites, the book contains hundreds of sentences that could occupy the reader’s thoughts for hours.

I could not overstate its importance. When I finished Short Sentences, I placed it mid-way up on the shelf in my living room. I want to keep it at eye level in a heavily trafficked space as a reminder to re-read it regularly. Klinkenborg’s book is one of the very few resources that will make a significant difference in my writing.

A group of our editors read Short Sentences and discussed it over a period of several weeks. Each of them had similar reactions to my own, so we thought it would be interesting to ask Klinkenborg to apply his writing advice to the particular challenges of academic writing.

MRB editor Angela Erisman was initially scheduled to be a part of the interview but at the last minute was unable to join us. Her questions, which she prepared in advance, are indicated below.

Charles Halton: In your book you have a string of negative descriptions critiquing an example sentence: ‘abstract, dull, essentially passive, academic’ (p. 189). Why has academic writing created such a negative association?

Verlyn Klinkenborg: There are a lot of ways to look at it—it depends upon whether you are in the academy writing from within the university or on the outside looking in. I am a partial academic speaking from inside, and I watched my generation of scholars get overwhelmed by the world of theory which grew up a different kind of discourse, which is important and interesting, but it gave license to a level of abstraction and a jargonistic approach to writing. The issue to me is not so much where true academics are because we’ve already been trained. The issue is how we train those within the academy to write. The part that worries me is that I have talked with young professors all over the place, and they say things as blunt as: ‘If I write more clearly people will distrust my writing’. There is a negative placed on clarity and directness as if these characteristics pander to the public.

Angela Erisman: You coax your readers to unlearn some of the things they’ve learned in formal writing courses. What things do you think academics in particular should unlearn?

VK: Academics at the middle of their career are not much different than the undergraduates that I teach. They’re working with the same habits and the same assumptions—assumptions that we are writing to persuade, that we are writing to argue, or writing to create logical structures. There is a fundamental distrust of the reader embedded in all of that. If you look at almost any piece of contemporary non-fiction alongside an academic article, the first thing you’ll notice is how dense the prose in academic writing looks. This is due to the superabundance of transitions, an anxiety of transition, and a real emphasis on the apparatus of logic—as if logic weren’t apparent in the argument itself. There’s a way in which an idea needs to be stated and restated. There’s a real uncertainty as to who the audience is and who the author is in relation to the audience. Although that seems to be spelled out in a lot of academic journals, it crates a place of uncertainty for academic writers.

I try to teach my students to unlearn, first of all, an obsession with transition, and, second, an obsession with logic. Let’s forget about argumentation and persuasion. Let’s talk about witnessing and about what we know and set aside the notion that we can persuade people to our point of view. Instead, set in front of them the character of our experience and let the clarity of that experience be persuasive to them.

CH: As you talk about unlearning things, I reflect on my experience of reading and it seems that there is an expectation that academic writing should have a patina of objectivity. How should writers discard this and represent their testimony or witness of their experience within their writing?

VK: Everyone is embedded within perceptual structures and to some extent they are self-evident and to some extent they are not. I think we need a directness about it and an assumption that we can actually talk about the inherent biases we all have. We shouldn’t try to correct for them by creating this monster of objectivity, which is an artifice itself. Part of the problem with academic writing is a fascinating indirectness about it, a real difficulty in saying what it is you are really trying to say. It’s a relic of what I see in undergraduates when they write an eight to ten page final essay. They have one good idea and they try to hide it until the very end. It’s as if people think, ‘If I use my best material too soon I won’t have anything else to say’. That is almost never true and has to do with an impatience in the nature of your own thinking.

There are a lot of ways to think about how to correct the nature of academic writing and some of them are puzzling. In one book, which I am in the process of reviewing, the writing is okay, but, instead of it getting more clear and direct, there is an intrusion of personal narrative. In other words, there is a feeling that the way for me to fix my writing is to enter in the first person and be more present as if it is a form of memoir. For me this is no solution because all you’ve done is introduce a different voice, a different way of presenting your ideas, without actually clarifying your writing.

AE: What advice would you give to academic authors about how to cultivate a voice in their writing?

VK: I don’t believe in sound and voice. Those are words that imply a kind of separate application, an ornament afterward. Sound and voice are revealed through clarity. The more clear the prose, the more direct it is and the more room there is for implication and playfulness, openness to the argument of prose, and openness to the diversity that your sources present.

Clarity reveals style. It reveals who you are. Your style is as much of a function of your mental acuity, of your sense of humor, of your take on the world, than it is of anything to do with the arrangement of words. Set aside questions of who you are as a stylist and a search for your voice, and look to the clarity of your sentences. Once they acquire velocity and shape, and once you can begin to hear a pause in between them, questions of style will evaporate.

AE: You revisit the issue of implication a number of times. How would you describe its value specifically to academic prose, and particularly to the academic review, in which readers want to get a quick assessment of a book and its value?

VK: That is a pretty specific example and I would say that implication is pretty unuseful there. If people are looking for a direct, immediate, quick take on what a book accomplished then you just say what you have to say and get out. I am thinking of a larger scale, more open-ended approach—a place in academic writing where you have a little bit more room. In this context one of the most important issues we could talk about is the crowdedness of academic writing.

I try to teach my students to feel the space between the sentences and see what that does to rhythm. And, second, are you actually able to know what you are implying? It’s not that students and academic writers don’t know how to write things, but it’s that, in some sense, they are out of control, and they imply things that they are not aware of. Which means that they are creating a contract with the reader that is broken again and again.

The real task—and it’s a really critical moment in the evolution of any young writer—is the moment somebody working in one of my classes actually implies something in the sure knowledge that the reader will get that implication. It’s a transcendent moment because they just communicated something without words. That involves two things: it involves confidence in your own ability, and it implies a real trust in the reader—a real awareness that the reader is smart, investigative, collaborative, cooperative, and curious, and not immediately defensive. One of the things that I see a lot in academic writing is this sense of inherent defensiveness. As if the reader is not quite to be trusted. As if you are holding a position opposing the troops somehow.

CH: What do you think is the origin of that sense within academic writing?

VK: You mean that defensiveness or that crowdedness?

CH: Yes, maybe it’s different for different people, but do you think it’s an insecurity or apprehension of being proven wrong?

VK: Actually, I think people can be very sure about their arguments and their evidence and be very persuasive in structural terms. The real issue is that most people just really hate to write. I’ve been surrounded by journalists who would rather report than write. And I’ve been surrounded by academics who would much rather do research than write. As long as that essential discomfort in the act of writing is so strong it will show up in the prose.

I don’t know that it is always a defensiveness that someone will be proven wrong and that they feel the need to cover all their bases that produces this. Sometimes it is. But more often it is a feeling that I don’t know what my sentences should be doing. I don’t know if my prose is as effective as it could be. That uncertainly really translates. It really gets carried through into the prose itself. Until you reach a point where you are really comfortable writing—that it’s a place where you are happy to be—a place of meditation and creativity as well as deliberation instead of merely marshaling the facts, once you get a comfort there, the overtone of defensiveness leaks away.

CH: How can academic writers get to this place?

VK: One of the first things to do is try to write outside the academic framework. Whether it’s personal letters, a journal, an essay—in other words, try something different. Step out of your normal mode. Academics are like journalists in the sense that they are trained to write in a certain framework and that framework becomes constricting after a while. The only way to get anywhere is to step out of that framework because that is what’s constraining you.

For a lot of academics, and this is a broad generalization, there is a feeling of I am where I am, and I’ve gotten here by hard work, and it’s worked so far, and I get by—my writing is okay. The fact is that the professors that join my classes have to go back to write like the sophomores and juniors. What they discover—by going back to shorter prose, to shorter sentences, by looking overtly for rhythm, by thinking about the physical properties of the sentence and how those physical properties work and what they convey to the reader—is that they can change their writing dramatically with not a huge amount of effort. It won’t allow you to get rid of all of the constraints of academic writing but it can bring a new kind of flexibility, a new sense of opportunity. More importantly, it can bring a sense of confidence that you know what you are doing.

The problem is it takes work. It takes setting this reorientation as a goal. The funny thing about it is that most academics—especially in the humanities and even more particularly in literature—have the tools to reconstruct their prose. All I did to become a writer was look carefully at the prose I had written in my dissertation. I took it apart the way I had learned to take apart a poem. I cut it away to the point where I could see its linguistic energy and the invention that I was looking for. Although a lot of people feel that it’s too late to change or it’s too hard to change or think that what they are doing works alright, it’s not that hard to change. And it’s never too late to change. Any new vitality that you can bring to the creative act of writing is a real plus.

CH: One of the things that you underscore in the book is that a writer is his or her own editor. Even if you submit a piece that another person will edit, at the end of the day a writer is responsible for her work—you are your own editor. In light of that, what are your favorite strategies for revision and editing of your own work?

VK: I will separate that into two things. Revision is an inherent part of composition—I do not make a firm distinction between them. I often find myself getting into places that are most interesting, in terms of making new writing, from a piece that I have begun to revise. The philosophical distinction between composition and revision is absurd and harmful, I think.

If you are looking over your prose and seeking clarity, make every sentence it’s own paragraph so that each sentence begins at the left side of the page. When you do that you have a column of sentences. And once you have that column of sentences, you can immediately see if there is variation in length. If there is no variation in length then you are writing really dull prose. You can immediately see the resemblance of structure and duplications of structure. It is a very simple way to inform yourself graphically on how the sentences that you are composing work.

For a lot of people revision remains a very amorphous thing. It is very helpful when you are first starting to reorient your prose to make a checklist. Go through some of the things that are worth looking at. I have a few examples in the book. One is how you use the word ‘as’. This is an extremely ambiguous word full of syntactic confusion. Are you using the word ‘with’ as a preposition or as a false relative pronoun as a way of extending the sentence? It doesn’t matter what you pick up—if you decide to look at all your verbs or all your nouns. One of the things you could do is look at the last word in every sentence. That is a really important position in any sentence. If you look at every last word that you’ve written in a piece, it will tell you something very dramatic about where the energy of your prose is going and how you structure the sentences. If you go back to, say, a handful of those sentences and revise them so that the most important word isn’t buried in the sentence but is the last word, this leads you to a structural revision that is very useful.

Be accountable about it. Make a list. Very consciously go over it because you can’t do it successfully by hoping to do it, or wishing to do it, or planning to do it. Eventually, what you are doing mechanically in revising will become instinctive. But it isn’t at first. I suppose it’s like dieting or exercising. Anything you can do to make it a conscious part of your practice will greatly help.

CH: You suggest going over a piece with this mechanical checklist after the piece is written, but what I found completely revolutionary in your book was that you recommend letting a piece develop as it’s written instead of outlining in advance. Do you think this works for academic writing?

VK: Yes, I think it does, but I think it’s really important to be clear about what I mean by not outlining. Some people will assume that I mean not taking notes or not doing research—that is not what I am talking about. Do everything that you would normally do. Do all the research that you would normally do. Take all the notes you possibly can. Take notes on your notes. What I have done in the books that I have written that have been most, not scholarly, but most aggressively non-fictional in terms of reporting on the world outside, I read through my notes again and again and instead of creating a moment where you do the planning for the writing and the writing is more or less mechanical, which is what happens in outlining, which assumes that you can have everything laid out in advance, why not turn writing into its own meditative structure? By meditative I don’t mean anything particularly Zen-like but when you are writing and making sentences in your head, and you are thinking about the nature of your evidence, it gets you closer to the nature of what you’re doing than you ever will be when you’re outlining. Why not make it more open-ended? Why not make it about exploration and discovery?

None of this is to say that people should assume that what I am saying is that you should write one perfect draft and that’s it. That’s not at all what I am saying. What I mean is that you work sentence by sentence, you make discoveries as you go, and the piece evolves. It may turn out that the thing that you thought you were trying really hard to say has evolved into something else based upon the time you spent thinking about how to put it down in words. To me that’s a good thing. That’s a discovery and not a negative thing.

I was trained the way everyone was trained, that is, to make a very deliberate outline. The fact is that I was totally bored writing because writing was just filling in the blanks. I had to throw out outlining in order to recover the actual act of thinking.

CH: Another way in which you go against the ways we have been taught is that you encourage writers to trust their instincts. How does a writer develop their literary sense of what works and what doesn’t?

VK: The first thing is to be reading—reading within your discipline and outside of it. Basically, keeping your eyes and intellect as open as possible.

By the time I get students in college they’ve been reading for years. They’ve been read to, they know about rhythm, and they know how stories are structured. They know that stuff by the time they are eight years old. It’s embedded in us. You may not know the terminology of revision, and you may not know the terminology of syntax, but you can tell when a sentence feels funny. You may not know what it is, but you know that something is wrong with it. Pay attention to that. That feeling is real, and it comes out of your experience as a reader. The fact that you can’t articulate it means nothing. Go back and figure out what is wrong in the sentence.

Once you start doing that you will begin to realize that you have all these numerous, tiny little emotions that flutter through you as you are reading. Honestly, if you start to pay attention to that stuff—to that one feeling that there is something strange happening in this sentence—and trust that a little bit, the chances are really good that you are going to be pointing yourself to sentences that need fixing.

I do this exercise with my students where I take one really bad sentence from each of their pieces, and we put them together in a list a little bit like the sentences in the back of the book. What happens is by the third or fourth week some student exclaims, ‘Oh I knew you were going to use that sentence’. What that means is that they were aware that there was something weird there, but they didn’t fix it. The fact that they didn’t fix it is not the important thing. What’s important is that they knew that something was weird.

There are two parts to this. One is to know when something needs fixing. The other is to know when you got it right. That is the other thing that happens later in the semester. Students are able to make sentences that they know are absolutely solid. That is a huge transition.

CH: That seems so elementary, yet it is something that I was never taught to do and that I never thought about until I read your book.

VK: It is elementary. The critical thing is that the way students are educated throughout the United States, and probably elsewhere, is as if we are educating students to make arguments. We are educating to be persuasive, to create a mask of authority. We are not teaching people how to think. We are not teaching people how to trust themselves and to understand how language really functions. And we certainly are not teaching them how to trust their readers. You throw those things out and you have nothing left.

I teach at wonderful places and have wonderful students, and I’m always afraid that I’m going to show up and this is going to be the semester when everyone already knows what I am going to say to them. Every semester I walk in and the students are sweet and smart and hardworking and out in the world, and they can write their academic papers to get A’s, but, as they say to me after six to eight weeks, that feels really false. They realize that there is something inherently insincere and merely performative about those essays. This isn’t about the value of a personal essay versus an academic essay. It’s not about the genre but the nature of the prose and what you are trying to do in the piece. It is an important realization for them to discover that feeling of insincerity and awkwardness. It is a feeling that they are doing something on command but that it doesn’t feel valuable.

AE: What techniques from fiction and other genres of writing do you think might be most valuable for authors of academic prose?

VK: The most useful—and that form that I would point everyone to—is poetry. There are three techniques that are particularly important for most people who are trying to reclaim their writing. First, look at line length. Line length in poetry is usually pretty short, syntactically speaking. Second, and perhaps most important of all, is rhythm. Poetry is where rhythm lives. The third is the way poetry uses the names of the world. Poetry is very much about naming the world around you. It is about the discovery of the power of words and their solidity, their physical aspects. It is a great place to go to recover a kind of concreteness in your vocabulary.

You look at a lot of academic writing and what you see is the verbs are merely verbs of presentation or arrangement and comparison. You see nouns that are fundamentally abstract. But read some poetry just as a way of refreshing your sense of what language can really do. All of those elements, rhythm and concreteness and physicality of language and variation in line length, those are fundamentally essential things for non-fiction, for fiction, for academic writing. It may be hard to find it in Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Robert Browning for that matter, but there are plenty of poets that will help you recover the kinds of things you want to find.