Academic Writing Gets Its Revenge

Remember me? Dr. Professional is the name. Academic Writing is my game.

Back in February, I posted about keeping my “academic” writing out of my fiction. And before I sent Draft 2 of Death Out of Time for its beta read, I went through the manuscript with that in mind. I did searches for passive construction, weak verbs, loooong sentences, and the like. These are the classic elements of my “professional” writing. They are de rigueur in archaeological reports. In fiction? The kiss of death. I was confident I had slain the academic beast in the manuscript.

And then the review comments came back.

Bless Kate’s heart, she suggested that if some of my scenes were written in a style used in science fiction, then I should ignore her comments. But she noted that several scenes had no point of view (POV).

That’s right. No POV. Dialogue dominated some scenes. Descriptive passages ruled in others. But the reader wasn’t in any character’s head. The scenes were “pointless.”

Bang.Head.Here

I wish I could say, “Oh, yes, this is classic sci-fi writing. There’s nothing wrong with it.” But that would be a lie. A big one. The sad truth is academic writing was still entwined in my manuscript. Lying low, where it thought no one would find it.

And it was snickering, knowing I had missed it. I’d forgotten one of the major characteristics of archaeological writing. You see, few of us introduce a “point of view” into our writing. First person? Highly discouraged. We say things like “The data suggest” not “I think.” Nearly everything is presented as a straightforward recitation of facts and data.

The closest we come to a POV is when we present the results of the study. But even then, the construction is passive and oblique, like “Based on the results presented above, the assemblage represents repeated, seasonal occupation during the Late Archaic period, most likely during the summer months.”

I’d bet the scenes that Kate marked would catch your attention. Fiction writers, like Kate, would jump on the lack of POV. Fiction readers, even if they didn’t call it POV, would know the scenes were awkward. You’d rightly ask, “What’s going on here?” Or, “What’s the point of this scene?”

So my list of things to check in future drafts of this and other manuscripts keeps growing. Hopefully that means Draft 2 of future novels will be a heck of a lot better than Draft 2 of Death Out of Time. If I’m going to make it as a writer, they’d better be!

How about you? Have you ever been sure you got rid of something, only to have it raise its head again like kudzu or multiflora rosebushes in the spring?

Your Moment of Spam

The spam queue hasn’t been too interesting of late. But the other day, this one did appear.

Hello there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that it’s truly informative. I am going to watch out for brussels. I’ll be grateful if you continue this in future. Many people will be benefited from your writing. Cheers! — Do they mean the Belgian city? Or will sprouts fall from the sky like hail, coating everything in bitter mini-cabbage slime? And do they mean they’d be grateful if I would watch out for brussels in the future? I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time—or inclination! ;)

54 thoughts on “Academic Writing Gets Its Revenge

  1. I hate it when work life does these little sneak attacks.one the bright side, you’re going to have one of the most fluid stories out when finished.

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    • Thanks for the support. :) And your phrase “fluid stories” really struck me. I hope the books will be like that. I just came up with the analogy of an unexplored river and its tributaries for a book series.

      The first book is the discovery of the river. The readers start following the river in the first book. And as they read, elements of the story stand out as tributaries. “That could be another story,” the reader thinks. And it could be. It might lead to the sequel, a feeder stream or major branch of the bigger river. Or it could be a red herring or a one-off, like an oxbow.

      Maybe someone made this analogy before and I’ve forgotten I read it. If so, s/he did a good job of planting it in my brain!

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  2. The way I see it is thank goodness you know why you mistakenly wrote some scenes without a POV. I think that will make it easier to fix them. Also, I bet in fixing them you will discover more about your book and the characters within. This, in turn, may help out with other sticky scenes that are giving you a hard time.

    I have never had the fortune of writing academically ;) but I can imagine how easy it would be to switch into that style when your guard is down. I think this problem is comparable to anytime a writer is feeling comfortable and isn’t constantly vigilant of each word. This has happened to me when I’m inserting brilliant research and not paying attention to how it will affect the entire manuscript–not just that particular scene. Suddenly it’ll rear its ugly head like you’re talking about and show me that I wasn’t paying full attention to what I was doing.

    I think once you get going with it, you’ll find that it might not be as bad as it seems. And along the way you’ll discover some buried gems in your story :)

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    • Once I saw your comments on those scenes, the light bulb came on. :) I just wish it would have before I sent you the draft! I couldn’t believe I’d missed something that fundamental. But we all miss something. That’s why we need critters and betas. :)

      I like Anne’s comment below about getting into the POV character’s head, like an actor would with a role. I’m going to do that as I revise these scenes. (Maybe that’ll get the characters off the beach. They might think I won’t need them anymore….)

      You aren’t missing anything by not writing in a technical or jargon-laced style. I don’t recommend it as a background for fiction writing. Bits of it can add flavor to a scene with an appropriate character. Too much is fatal for the story. :)

      Now, if I can just excavate those gems….

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  3. I think it’s very difficult to eradicate the things that have become habitual. For some it’s cliches, for others, everyday figures of speech, or convoluted sentences, or … For me, I’m just so wordy! Isn’t it great you have a trusty reader to look with fresh eyes? Bravo and keep up the good work:)

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    • Thanks for the encouragement! Those fresh eyes are crucial. Everyone’s novel (even those of award-winning authors) needs that objective reader to show us what we missed. No one can get it all right all the time. It’s a long climb to get it right, but I don’t want to send the book out into the world before it’s ready!

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  4. I tend to write descriptively without introducing dialogue because I’m writing in my mind. Working on it. Writing is certainly a learning experience. Good stuff as always.

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    • Thanks. :) And I don’t think we ever stop learning. We can improve and become very good. But there’s always more to learn. And I think writing would be boring if I really “knew it all.” Life is for learning. :)

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  5. JM, We all have our weak points. Always better to discover them (even with the head-banging). I’ve been reading a lot of writing craft books lately, and they’ve made me discover things about my own writing as well as feel less alone in my issues.

    You know how we mentioned not liking revising last week? One of the craft books pointed out that journalists (I have a journalism degree) aren’t used to revising… we are expected to write an excellent first draft, get it to an editor and never see it again. Move on. So maybe I have an excuse, like your academic writing one?

    I think it’s great that you A.) understand things that are very science-y and B.) can write about them in an academic manner. That’s key for science fiction (why I probably wouldn’t be very good at that). I’m betting adding in the POV won’t be as difficult as you think.

    I took some acting/speech classes in college, and one way I think of POV is that I am inhabiting that character’s body… anything that he/she sees, thinks or does must come from inside of me. Unfortunately, like you said, it’s exactly the opposite of what you do usually. But put that character inside your body as you write, and it will seem easier. I wish you the best as you revise. Let us all know how it goes!

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    • I love that acting analogy—putting yourself in the character’s role. And I’m going to put it into practice with this round of revisions. Maybe that’ll get some of the characters coming back—to tell me, “Hey, I wouldn’t say that!” ;)

      The journalist angle is interesting—write it, give it to the copy editor (or appropriate person), move on to the next one. That would make revising short stories and novels a different experience. I took college prep writing in high school instead of journalism, and my teacher was a firm believer in editing and revision. So even then, I knew it was a “must do” in fiction. But I never tackled anything like a novel until 2009.

      One of the many things I love about our blogging cohort is the wealth of experience and tips that everyone shares so freely. It’s a great way that we help not only ourselves, but each other. And sharing our experiences and ideas will bring such a cool dimension to reading the books when they’re published. We can say things like, “I remember her post about how difficult this character was,” or, “This was the scene he had to rewrite fifteen times to get it right.” I can’t wait for those moments!

      So I will be sure to keep posting about the ups and downs of the rewrites—unless you all get bored with them! :)

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  6. As we’ve discussed before, I share your experience with academic writing and worry it slips into my fiction. Mine is usually in the form of passive language. It’s amazing how easily this tense sneaks past me.

    My next post also discusses point of view but in a different manner. Of course, that means I need to write it first. It’s been in my mind the last few days, but I just can’t seem to get it on paper. Or at least in a Word document. But I am off to do that now. :)

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    • I did all kinds of searches for passive—and I’m sure I missed some. I’ve noticed as I type this draft into Scrivener, I have too many sentences starting with “There are” or “There were.” Too weak! I’m keeping a list of everything Robin Coyle is covering in her “Strong vs. Weak Words” posts. Once I finish this round of revisions, I attack the manuscript with that list!

      Your discussion of POV will be far more entertaining than mine. :) And don’t underappreciate the humor you bring to your posts—it’s a great way to get a point across! :) Even if there are 40 “new post” emails waiting for me when I get home, if yours is in it, it’s one of the first I read. :)

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  7. Everyone has their little tics as a writer, though the combination of them is different for each person. The important part is learning what they are, then being aware of them. As time goes on and you write more with that awareness, you’ll probably find that you do it less. The difference between academic and fiction writing is pretty wide, as I recall from my days in university as a Lit major. When you do a lot of it and on an ongoing basis, it’s bound to leave it’s mark on you. But it sounds like you’re on your way to that necessary awareness of where the two diverge and what you need to watch for, so I’m sure everything will be fine. :)

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    • It should be—especially as I have people read the revised versions until I get them to the point where they’re good for publishing. I do believe Draft 2 of the next novel will be better than this Draft 2. (I can already hear the two sequels fighting about who gets to go first!)

      I’ll know to watch for missing POV. And shifting POV—I didn’t even touch on that one…. Whew. And, of course, a host of other things. The first drafts of future books can and will be sh**ty as Anne LaMott says. But Draft 2 should be significantly improved. That’s where the lessons I’ve learned up to now (and will continue to learn) will come into play.

      And the most important thing I’ve learned? Even though there are days when I wonder if I can really do this, I keep sitting down with the stories at the computer. I enjoy writing. No matter what else happens with publication, I’m having fun. Can’t beat that. :)

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      • See, I’m not the only one with a battle going on in their brain! I love having company on that.

        You’re right, first drafts always suck to some extent or another. The best gift I ever gave myself as a writer was to say that it was okay for that to happen, so long as the story got written from beginning to end. That and the learning process are the important parts. And I agree, nothing beats the shear joy of doing something you love, regardless of the outcome. :D

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  8. Just keep on going. I have written technical documents at work before which is also a completely different style. You just keep working at it, the skills will come with the work and experience.

    I had a spam with the brussels comment a few weeks back (that I may have mentioned in a Monday Haiku post). It just seemed to be a bit random in the middle. Odd isn’t it?

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    • Good writing is like getting to Carnegie Hall—practice, practice, practice. And helpful advice from others never hurts. And encouragement is always good, too. :)

      I had two variants on the brussels spam, so I suspect there will be a few more before it runs its course. I wish the funny ones would come back. I got a couple of fun posts out of them! And more names like “Poopyface Monger” would be good, too. Take note, spammers! (Not that I’ll click on your links or approve your comments.)

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      • I got a lot of spam after writing a couple of posts on spam, but thankfully it has tailed off in the last week or so. Unfortunately that has removed some of my fun. “Poopyface Monger” was a good one.

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    • I’d love to say it’s a great way to “break” the rules of fiction and create something new and innovative. But, alas, I don’t see that happening. ;) I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s run into it. Thank heaven for test readers!

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  9. I feel for you. I would think I had my book perfect and send off for a proof copy, thinking I would publish, and then I would read it and find ‘yet another’ adverb or something else I had searched for the last time and thought was cleared out. My husband started getting annoyed with me, asking, “When are you EVER going to be done with this book?” It’s funny how things sneak past you each editing session. I read and reread mine dozens of time so carefully, and would miss obvious things that I would catch 2-3 readings down the line. I’m in awe of how you analyzed what you were doing so well though. That will definitely help you in the future when you know what your weaknesses are.

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    • Well, if Kate hadn’t pointed out those scenes, I wonder when I would’ve had the “aha” moment and recognized them for what they were! My hard copy of this draft has a running list of things that I did check for and will need to check for in the next edit. At some point, I should type them all into a Word document and print myself a “personal” editing manual. When Draft 2 of the next novel goes out for beta review, I want it to be a much more polished document!

      “Eyes of Light” is now downloaded on my Kindle. Once I finish a round of beta reading, it’s next on my list to read. :)

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      • I should do the same with the ‘personal’ editing manual. Thanks for the idea. I seem to make the same mistakes, so a list to remind myself what to check for at the end would be great!

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  10. JM, I’m someone who does many rounds of revisions. Each with its own flaws that I didn’t see. Even after 10 rounds of revisions someone will inevitably point out something I missed. :)

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    • It’s reassuring to hear that such a good writer as you has to do many rounds of revision, too. :) We’ll never get a novel perfect, of course. Something always slips through, be it a few typos or a stray bit of dialogue refering to something in a previous draft. Even agents and editors can’t catch everything.

      And some things are subjective, even to the point of just depending on our mood on a particular editing day. One day, we think a sentence is fine. A week letter, we completely revise it. That can go on forever if we don’t turn off the internal editor at some point. Heaven knows I’m not at that point yet! But at some point I will be. :)

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      • JM, It’s important to take your time and be certain it is the best version you can get it to. Then send it out. See what kinds of reactions you get from agents. You can only revise to your abilities and unfortunately (or fortunately) our writing skills are always improving with practice and time. :)

        Things are very subjective and some days I am downright mean to myself with the editing comments. One of the reasons I set strict deadlines is so I don’t drive myself crazy. I won’t revise forever. :)

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  11. I’m afraid I share your problem. After writing a dissertation my head is full of neurtality when passion would be better. Your beta reader did a wonderful job of pointing it out.
    Speaking of spam, I had one that politely informed me that my posts could be longer, and if I followed his/her advice they would return. Hmmm.

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    • It’s one of the reasons why anyone who wants to publish should have beta readers. :) We become blind to some problems when we live with a work for so long. Even though writing is such a personal endeavor, we must have objective readers help us see the problems. And they are there. Some writers have more than others, but we all have them!

      Oh, spammers. :) Think how hard it will be to recognize them when the algorithms are good enough to make realistic comments…..

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  12. When I started writing at Showmeyourlits.com I found that I’d be able to work on one aspect of my writing that people had commented on, only to find that I then had to focus on another area! It’s hard. There are six voting categories, it’s hard to write a flash that always encompasses everything and in a way that is impressive and enjoyable and what not… I guess becoming self-aware about our writing is a really important step in this work. :)

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    • Definitely that self-awareness about our writing is a major part of our development. We’ll all have our “weak” areas, even as we improve. But learning to recognize them is a big part of the battle. The sooner we recognize that no first draft is perfect, the better! But I believe our second drafts should improve with each new work as we learn to recognize those weak points. :)

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      • I’ve been writing something tonight. Just a little something for the blog… the next part of ‘Talk Over Tea’. It’s just for fun, but as I was editing the first paragraph, I rearranged it completely. Sometimes (not all the time!) it can be really fun and experimental to edit work.

        Other times… ;)

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  13. jmmcdowell good luck revising – it is so nice to find these things out before submitting!

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    • Thanks, David! And thank heaven I knew this draft wasn’t close to publication-ready. That’s a major lesson learned over the first novel I queried. I’m learning to be more patient with my writing, even though I don’t think it will ever be easy. But critiques are a good opportunity to “put on the brakes” and remember that I want to publish something that people enjoy reading—not ignoring or tearing apart.

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  14. jm, I think you are one lucky lady to have such a good beta reader as Kate! Isn’t it funny how we can’t see the forest through the trees sometimes except with someone else’s eyes? You are becoming more and more aware of each little thing that makes a complete whole–what a gift you have been given. Each step you take, and each lesson you learn in the process is a feather in your cap!! I think you are on a good road to seeing your project come to fruition. What a marvelous time you are in right now. !!! xox

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    • You are absolutely right about how lucky I am, Jeannie! And if it weren’t for this incredible blogging community, I never would have found her.

      Your comment is a real pick-me-up after a couple days of wondering if I have the strength to do this. We all have those doubts from time to time, but it’s wonderful to have blogging buddies to support us and carry us through those rougher patches. :)

      I’ve done some good revising this afternoon, so I’m definitely feeling better about the journey. Thank you for sharing the trip!

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  15. Another academic here, and some aspects of that writing style probably do creep into my fiction. So far readers have not spotted anything consistent, but I’m not sure I’ve had a sufficiently critical reading yet, for most of it. (Oh, no! Just had a thought. J.R.R. Tolkien was an academic, wasn’t he…? ooh, scary.)

    I can actually imagine a scene without a POV. I think I’ve see some in my current favorite writer, Terry Pratchet. Whether it would work in the story would depend on how it was used. Pratchet always makes everything work, of course. It’s all a learning process.

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    • While I love the Lord of the Rings, I don’t think I could write like Tolkien, and I doubt his style would be published today. He’d have to move the action more and use fewer, more action-oriented words. Somehow, the results wouldn’t be the same.

      I think you’re right—an exceptional writer could pull off scenes with no POV. But me? Not so much. Readers probably wouldn’t get what I meant to say. And that’s not a good thing. :)

      It’s definitely a learning process—and one that never ends.

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  16. I learned something with the handful of beta readers I am blessed with. One said, “I loved the scene where . . . ” and another said, “What was you point with the scene where . . .”

    At some point, we have to go with our writer’s heart. Ah me. Aside from all that, you amaze me.

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    • Very true. Stephen King talks about ignoring conflicting comments. But recognizing when our hearts are right and the “critters” are not takes a lot of skill and learning. I’m not sure when I’ll reach that level of enlightenment. :)

      My very modest Midwest side is having a hard time staying composed with all these compliments! And know that all your posts like the “Strong vs. Weak Words” series are being taken to heart with this round of editing! And they’ll be the backbone for editing future works, too. :)

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  17. Oh, wow! Can so identify. – you have to work so hard in research to keep neutral- it is so rigid in form and style.
    (That’s why it’s fun to break away) – As you say, you don’t notice when that sort of writing becomes habit.
    Good beta readers are worth their weight in gold!
    After looking with “new eyes’ no doubt you’ve spruced up that piece and it’s stronger than ever. YEA!

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    • I’m still slogging through it! But I’ve made some good progress, and I think I’ll be able to tackle the tougher rewrites once I deal with some that are more straightforward. The ideas are starting to come to me. Maybe some of those characters are wrapping up their vacation on the beach…. Now if they can just get over their mojito hangovers, we can really get to work. ;)

      And when Draft 3 is done—out it goes for more beta reading! :) (Hopefully I’ll be a lot closer to done with that one!)

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  18. POV is difficult for me too. I’m used to reading classic books and a lot of those have the omniscient narrator POV so I end up mixing that in. I still like that omniscient POV even if we’re not supposed to use it these days. It’s hard to stay in a certain person’s head all the time! :)

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    • I’d hate to say how many cases of “head hopping” Kate noticed within scenes. A few good writers can get away with that. I can’t put myself in that category! Cleaning up scenes so that we’re only in one character’s head has been a big part of this round of revisions! :)

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  19. Love this post! I can relate…I fall back into academic writing all the time (it’s a hard habit to break!) Also just recently began consciously reading my spam folder for comments that amuse me – takes the edge off seeing that box all filled with fluff, waiting to be cleared out :)
    Anne

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    • The worst part for me is sometimes being completely blind to the academic bits that manage to sneak in. I’m so used to them from “the day job” that it’s easy to gloss over them. I’m trying to be more vigilant about that now.

      The spam queue can be a great source of laughs, which I’m sure is not the spammers’ intent! But thank goodness WP and Akismet do such a good job of corraling it for us. :)

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