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Power Up Your Prose

We’ve all witnessed, or as I’m not ashamed to admit, committed the felony of bloated, meandering prose. You see it exhibited in the chapter that should have ended fifteen pages ago, or the book that is impossible to finish, because it is impossibly long (and not in a good way). More often than not, it’s observed in the paragraph padded with unexplained theoretical allusions and fillers like, “as such” and “forth with” and “in as much as,” etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Mistakenly, this rhetorical approach is believed to smarten up the writing, as if sending it out into the world in its best navy suit. At other times it’s a crutch or a barefaced attempt to stitch together a sow’s ear into the proverbial silk purse. But rather than adding gravitas, it can denude your argument of its force and do a disservice to your reader. So, let’s talk about the art of writing with power.

What Powerful Is & Isn't

In the past, I’ve written about word choice. Why employ three words, when a single, precise, and even unexpected word will do? This is not an exercise in frugality. Rather, it is something akin to linguistic discretion, a kind of less is more approach with one overarching test question: does this wording/sentence structure/organization express my meaning with power? Of course, now comes the follow-up question. What is meant by power? Perhaps it’s easier to begin with what it is not. For example, you might imagine that those “filler” words and concepts mentioned above signal power in academic writing. Or you might be under the misapprehension that throwing in the latest theory or a series of them is the kind of intellectual heavy lifting akin to swinging the hammer and ringing the bell of the high striker at a carnival. Well…yes and no.

Rhetorical devices are important and utilitarian. They help move a reader through a text, allow one to emphasize contrasting ideas or grand and not so grand summations, and agree or disagree, respectfully and thoughtfully. (For a great primer on the subject look forThey Say, which I reviewed here.) The key is to understand them as the nuts helping to bolt sections or ideas together, rather than as decorative rivets with little function but lots of impressive visual impact.

When writing a long essay, journal article, or dissertation an entire section, chapter, or more is devoted to the literature review to explain a work’s intellectual foundations. However, when revising a dissertation into a book or a journal article into an editorial or blog post, it’s best to limit citations or work them into the text. In truth, the object of your efforts is to highlight how your ideas fit within the broader intellectual pantheon, and not to showcase your knowledge of others’ work with tracer lights and a brass band, as if attempting to ace an orals exam.

But powerful academic writing is more than getting from point A to point B with the fewest number of detours in word or idea. Besides, don’t we want weight and depth? And isn’t the quality of the work marked by such intricacy, or dare we say, the impenetrable? In the case of the relatively recent scholarship of say a Judith Butler, Martin Heidegger, or Jacques Lacan, their complexity and opacity is celebrated. In fact, conquering it is often seen as both a rite of passage and a mark of intellectual prowess. If such density distinguishes your writing style—fabulous! More power to you. However, as I mentioned at the opening of this post, for most of us that approach suggests more crutch than character.

Conjuring Magic and Movement

In his book, Writing with Power, Peter Elbow observed, “When writing is really good…the words themselves led some of their own energy to the writer. The writer is controlling words which he can’t turn his back on without danger of being scratched or bitten.” This isn’t the writer alone imbuing meaning, but rather the words returning the favor and then some. It’s the “flow” moment in the act of writing when the ideas and the words move so fast and tight that everything feels as if it might derail, but to the writer and reader’s delight, it doesn’t.

Elbow suggests that such a state and the thrall it commands is less frequent in academia. He notes that scholars “can be sophisticated and still get magic into language. But the suspicion lingers that perhaps it is harder, it involves swimming against the tide.” And admittedly for many it does. For these scholars there still may be the need to wind through internecine linguistic logistics because it is expected. But let me state here and now that you can connote complex ideas directly and without excessive ornamentation or affectation. You are not dumbing down your writing to do so. Instead, you are giving your ideas legs that travel up the ivory tower and out into the world, which is something increasingly of interest to universities and funders.

Less Is More

Last fall, Pulitzer Prize Finalist and MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates sat down at Charlie Rose’s table for an interview. When Rose mentioned that in college Coates had harbored aspirations of becoming a poet, Coates commented that:

I think that [poetry] marked my journalism….I think ultimately poetry is about the economy of language….And that is so crucial in journalism—the ability to say something with as much power as you can in the briefest amount of space.

Academic writing is not journalism. Nor is it the preferred stomping ground of those with Hemingwayesque leanings. Academics have things to say and key protocols and conventions to follow that necessarily fill up pages. And many, like myself, love complex clauses and wordiness. However, that doesn’t mean that we need to lose the wizardry found in being direct. Yes, it requires the careful selection of words, targeted and surprising linguistic choices, more plain speaking and concreteness, and other judicious expenditures in this economy of language. That's when the magic happens. That's when those wonderfully complex ideas that challenge us to think and inspire us to act move from inside the writer's head to that of the reader. And if that isn't power, I don't know what is.

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