March 28, 2011

Writing Matters

If there's one thing that I think needs some more emphasis in anthropological training, it's writing.  I'm not talking about just grant writing, or proposal writing, but the whole craft (ie method) of writing.  Writing is, in fact, one of the primary methods of anthropology (and numerous other social science disciplines), but how often is it seriously considered a core part of methodological training?  Not all that often - it's almost as if everyone is magically expected to know how to write well, and that, so they say, is that.  Well, maybe there's another route to take.  And that's why I can appreciate Michael C. Munger's article on The Chronicle of Higher Ed "10 Tips on How to Write Less Badly."  It was posted in September of last year, and it brings up some good points and tips about writing...better.

One thing that I go for is the volume method, and I took this directly from my days as a photographer.  Someone once said that "Good writers write" and hence "good photographers make photographs," so the key to good photography is taking lots of pictures, just as the key to good writing is, yes, writing a lot.  Nobody ever got good at anything by dabbling every other month.  My good friend Tom, who taught me pretty much everything about photography that I know, also called this the TRASH CAN METHOD, meaning that it's important to take lots of pictures but also to realize that most of them are going to be crap and destined for the waste bins of history.  Volume is key: this means that it's important to work a lot.  But editing is also critical: this means that it's just as important to realize that most of what we create (whether photographs or paragraphs) are going to be seriously deficient and will need tremendous revision (or a complete restart).

It's all a big process, and the hardest part is getting used to plugging away, regardless of the bad paragraphs, false starts, out of focus images, poorly conceived ideas, or weak arguments.  Brett Weston, one of my absolute favorite photographers, once said that photography is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent sheer, brutal drudgery.  I think the same applies to writing.  Part of the difficulty is learning how to weather the bad streaks and lame attempts while finding ways to grab hold of the key ideas, discoveries, and moments of inspiration long enough to pin them down on paper (or Microsoft Word------------you know what I mean*) and create something that's actually heading somewhere.  The good ideas, it seems, arise from a sea of crap.  Plenty of fertilizer, I suppose, to pave the way for the future.  So goes writing: we all just have to keep tilling the mental fields, and eventually spring will show up.  Ok, I'm done with the metaphors for the day.

*This grammatical disaster is an inside joke that only a certain grammarian will appreciate.  


Jim said...

nicely done. an inside grammar joke with an attached footnote.

JM said...

Hi Ryan,

You've certainly read it already, but just in case : an interview with Robert Sapolsky about writing (his).

Pretty interesting.

here :

I think I found it at neuroanthroplogy.