Losing The Academic Writing

If you’re a regular reader or you looked at my blog’s tagline, you know I’m an archaeologist. As I mentioned in an earlier post, archaeological reports can put you to sleep in no time. They’re verbose, jargon-filled, passively constructed. . . . Seriously, the following paragraph is a real example from a report I co-wrote a few years ago.

White salt-glazed stoneware is the most common ceramic type, with 215 sherds representing 25 percent of the ceramic assemblage. White salt-glazed stoneware was recovered from Features 10, 11, 13, 17, 18, 19, 46, and 47 in Locus 1 and Features 37, 38, 39, 40, 43, and 44 in Locus 2. A few sherds also were recovered from the surface and several machine trenches. Most of the sherds (n=204) are plain, and the identified vessel forms include cups (seven rims, one handle, two bases, one body), bowls (four rims, one small base, one larger base), and a jug or pitcher (one handle) (Figure 116, a-c). Two sherds have an embossed rope design (Figure 116, d); one of these is part of a scalloped plate rim. The remaining nine sherds have “scratch blue” decoration (Figure 116, e-g). One of these sherds is a bowl or saucer rim with a blue swag design, and one is a cup or mug with a blue floral design. Noël Hume (1991:117) notes that “scratch blue” decoration dates mainly to the third quarter of the eighteenth century, and the embossed rope motif on rims tends to be a later design that was produced until the 1770s.

Are you still with me? Now imagine reading 50 scintillating pages like that—or more. This particular report was 288 pages, plus the supporting appendices. It does double duty as a serious  paperweight and sleeping aid.

When I started writing fiction, I had to put this behind me. Even I would never finish a novel written like that paragraph above.

It helped that the lessons I’d learned in English courses were still buried in my mind. But I had to excavate them and dust them off. And like muscles that haven’t been used in a while, it was hard to get them back in shape. How bad was it? Well. . . .

When I started Summer at the Crossroads, a lot of paragraphs were nine lines long. And sometimes there were several in a row—in Times New Roman 12 point with standard one-inch margins. That’s not a problem in most academic disciplines. But it will never fly in fiction. An agent could’ve glanced at the first page from across the room and told me the novel wouldn’t have worked at that stage.

On top of that, a lot of my words were looonnnggg. I’m talking 3 or 4 syllables long. Hey, I’m not trying to be Hemingway, so some of those are just fine. But there were way too many of them—especially when some of the characters were talking. If you ever hang out with university faculty, you know that’s typical. But I’m writing novels, not the latest and greatest tome on archaeological theory.

Here’s the kicker, though. I want some of that flavor in Katharine and Madeleine’s stories. Just a hint. After all, they do talk like me to some extent. It’s that academic background. That’s where they work. They’re going to use lots of long words in sentences. In the real world, they’d do it a lot. But I can’t have them do it often, or the books will have an audience of one—me.

So I have to be careful not to overdo it. And so I’m someone who always has to do a special round (or three) of edits in her novels — to lose the academic writing.

How about you? Do you have to write a certain way for your job? Technical writing? An academic field? Business? Does it sneak into your creative writing when you least expect it?

31 thoughts on “Losing The Academic Writing

  1. I wrote system run guides and training materials for several mainframe computer applications. I had to document every card column or every field on a screen, complete with all possible values of the field and any possible combinations of fields on screens (e.g. “A 1 in column 75 means that the value in columns 61-70 is negative.”) As a result, I tend to overexplain things, because I’m accustomed to reviewers of documentation asking me a hundred and one questions about everything. An example: I write the sentence “Joe came in and drank a glass of water,” and immediately I ask myself, “Where was he?”, “Where did he get the glass?”, “Where did he get the water?”, “Did he come in through a door?”, “Was the door an interior one or an exterior one?”, etc., none of which is relevant and could easily bore the eyeballs out of a reader.

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    • You bring in another aspect of non-creative writing — not just the jargon and passivity, but the degree of detail that has to be provided with those long jargon-filled phrases. That might’ve worked in the 19th century, but today? No story, short or long, would stand a snowball’s chance of getting published.

      Those extraneous details are something I have to cut from my works-in-progress as I edit them. Not always an easy thing to do.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experiences!

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  2. Oh, I could so relate to this post! Having written in the medical field, using pompous-sounding Latin words even Jonas Salk would find boring, it is such a treat to write in a more relaxed venue. Thanks so much for sharing part of your paper–gave me a good chuckle; not because it was bad, but because it was, well, so scientific!

    Always look forward to your posts. Thanks for another great one! Have a good weekend.

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    • I hope I don’t lose too many people with that clip! But it’s just such a contrast with my fiction, and I wanted people to see that contrast.

      On further review, I think I should’ve included a paragraph of Madeleine or Katharine in the field for comparison. Oh, well, I do have it here on the blog for Madeleine in the opening scene for her book.

      Love your posts, too. And the dog photo today is a hoot! You have a good weekend, too!

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  3. This is a really interesting post. Professionally as a social research director I get to write in a range of styles – marketing material, proposals, government reports, summary reports, magazine articles and of course I have my blog and creative writing in my own time. I love writing so it’s great to be able to draw on different styles like this.

    No offence but my eyes did glaze over a little while I was reading the paper – it reminded me of my student days when you could be reading something on a truly fascinating subject, but the academic style made it a bit hard to engage! I’m a social researcher in an agency setting and we sometimes go about information dissemination quite differently to academic social researchers!

    Have a lovely weekend.

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  4. LOL on your eyes glazing over — mine probably did, too, when I was writing it! Don’t feel bad about that. 🙂

    I’m hoping to hear more like this about readers’ “day writing.” I’d bet we come from a variety of jobs with different requirements. And yet we all have this drive to be creative. Obviously, our creativity takes different forms, just like our work, but the desire to write something new or present an old idea in a new way is a common trait for all of us.

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  5. Sounds like you had an interesting find. I’d love to see you rewrite that passage from your report in fiction style! Dare! Double dare!

    In my worklife I have to write reports, budgets, policy, plans, procedure manuals etc. All very dry! I wrote a desk manual at the same time as NaNoWriMo… wonder if it made any of my writing dry in the novel draft.

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    • I accept your challenge — sorf of! See the comment below Philosopher Mouse’s!

      Have you checked your NaNoWriMo draft for “work-isms?” Sometimes I just gloss over them when I read mine. And then a beta reader will point out “too much detail,” or “you’re losing my interest.” And then I bang my head on the desk…. 😉

      Isn’t it much more fun to let the creative side play?!

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      • I haven’t checked it fully yet, as have to write another 30k words (at least) to complete the first draft. I know already that I’ve done a lot of ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’…ah details (damn them!)

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        • Ah, “The devil’s in the details.” But wait, you also hear “God is in the details.” Maybe it depends on whether the details are bad/good or dull/interesting….

          I always seem to start with telling. Showing takes shape as the drafting goes on.

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  6. Sad, but I found the stoneware interesting – love all the detail….but then again as you say academic writing is hard to shed. That close observation and attention to detail is training for writing concrete fiction…you are lucky – you write it all and then select just the best pieces of detail “meat” for the selection…some people have to struggle write important details. So not such a curse after all…just a little trim now and again?

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    • When I get better at this craft, maybe it will be that “little trim now and again.” At this stage, I still need to cut more than that. But all skills take time and practice to learn, yes?

      Fortunately we had some nice artifact photographs that helped break up the text of the report, including that salt-glazed stoneware. The site was an eighteenth-century plantation in Maryland and really was interesting to work on. I have an idea in the back of my mind to use sites that I’ve worked at in future novels — disguised, of course, to protect the real people who lived there in the past.

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  7. Here’s my reply to Tracey’s (Snagglewordz) double dare! It’s not the text from the report, but it’s a clip from Death Out of Time where I’m aiming for some of that flavor in a more digestable fiction form.

    Madeleine was still in her lab that afternoon, working on the artifact analysis from the cemetery project. At least, she was trying to work. It was hard not to think about time travel and Hopkins’s body locked in her storage room.

    She grabbed a tray from the drying rack. It held the personal artifacts from Burial 13, the man with the broken leg. Bridget agreed that he’d been run over, maybe by a large carriage or cart. The resulting infection in his crushed leg was the probable cause of death.

    Madeleine opened her artifact database software and began entering the inventory information. A cursory look at the artifacts showed the man was of good social standing and well-to-do. She’d recovered nine coat buttons and six oval sleeve buttons from the grave. Sleeve buttons were similar to cufflinks. But rather than wear one set on each sleeve through a buttonhole as modern men might do, eighteenth-century men wore several on each arm.

    And these were expensive. They weren’t just copper gilded to look like precious metal. These were made of silver with an ornate etched floral design. The coat buttons were also silver with a similar decoration. This man had money. But it hadn’t saved him from the accident and his ensuing death.

    She wished part of his coat would have survived, but careful study of the buttons didn’t show any fabric remnants. Still, she could imagine a velvet or richly brocaded silk fabric had showcased those magnificent buttons. Burial 13 must have been one of the local wealthy landowners. He should have had a large stone marking his grave. But it was gone, leaving him anonymous some two hundred years later.

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    • Result! I should double dare people more often. 😉

      That excerpt from “Death Out Of Time” had me captivated and I actively read every single word. On the academic report I was skimming… over the numbers especially.

      I think that you can safely say you have added some fiction flavour and the taste is great! This is the line that makes me want to read more, “At least, she was trying to work. It was hard not to think about time travel and Hopkins’s body locked in her storage room.”

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      • It’s wonderful to get feedback like this! This excerpt is still in “second draft” form. I’m removing some scenes and replacing them with others, so there’s still a long road ahead. But even when I’m in a “I’m no good at this” mood, I still think the story is a good one. I just have to do it justice.

        I’m hoping there are a lot of lines that will keep readers’ hooked and enjoying it!

        And yes—I think you’re on to something with the double dares! 😀

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  8. Hey JM,

    This post made me smile. At least you’re aware of your dilemma, and you know the difference it makes. I personally don’t have this problem. (I deal with children and my elderly mother as my main “jobs” but luckily my 25-year-old characters don’t sound 9 or 83).

    However, there is a woman in my writing group who sometimes lets her academic background sneak into her memoir. She teaches Italian at a local university and she’s got a Phd here and a PhD there. Sometimes, I’ll read her work and just stare at a word or a sentence long after she’s read it and onto the next page.

    But most times the problem doesn’t lie in the construction of the sentence or the word choice. The problem tends to lie in the “voice” she uses. The overall tone of her piece tends to be unwieldy, obnoxious, and distant.

    Now–on to your excerpt that you posted. Magnificent stuff, JM! Truly. It is easy to read; I’m not turned off by the detail; I like the word choices you used to hold my interest (such as burial 13); and your sentence construction is simple yet elegant.

    I think you have nothing to worry about. I’d also love to read more, if you ever feel like sharing. 🙂

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  9. Hi Kate,

    Thanks for the feedback! Writing dialogue for characters who aren’t my age is tough for me. I’ve really tried to listen to some of the younger people I work with to get a feel for how they talk. And I try to avoid too many “current” words that might be dated in a few years. I’ve taken out “cougar” to describe Jack’s ex-wife, for example. But it still needs to feel real.

    Memoirs would be tough to write, even beyond the subject matter. Voice, as you said, is so important. The writer needs to be true to her voice, but also engage the reader’s interest and empathy. I immediately wondered if the description you gave of your writing group member’s work also fits her personality.

    I’d like to take you up on that offer to read more. I’m working on the rewrites based on my beta readers’ comments on the first draft. And I’d like to get some fresh eyes to look at the second draft. I’d be happy to reciprocate, too. Let me know if you’re interested.

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    • Hi JM,

      Yes, I am interested! I’m in the middle of beta-reading for two other writers, so my plate is full for the next few weeks. Could I hit you up at the end of the month, possibly?

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      • Oh, I wish I could be ready with draft 2 by the end of the month! But I am really struggling with it recently. So it might be a couple of months or so before it’s done. How about I let you know when it is, and we can schedule from there? Thanks so much!

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  10. JM, I have been a consultant and an auditor in my day job. Writing up testing and reports was always done in passive voice and with such a level of detail to build to a conclusion. I found in my first book, I was telling and documenting all the time. Eeek. I’m revising that one again and slamming my head on the desk often and repeatedly. Such bad fiction writing.

    The crazy part? I really thought it was good at the time I wrote it. 🙂

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    • Funny, I left a comment earlier today about my early drafts being too much tell, and not enough show…. My first drafts were like you describe, too. And I also thought they were great. Man, I had this fiction thing down pat!

      Worst case of sophomore-itis or pride or …. ever!

      I think your conference pitch-slam results show you’ve gotten over it in your completed work!

      I think a lot of us have gained experience in our day writing — even if it’s to remind us what not to do in our fiction 😀

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  11. My problem was I hear the edict show don’t tell buti didn’t understand it enough to eradicate all the telling. The book I pitched was my third try at a novel. I learned so mucus crewing up the first two. :p

    The first one is still being revised. But it’s like working on a commodore 64 computer. There is only so much I can improve before I give up and relegate it to relic status.

    But something in me wants to keep trying. So I’m kicking it around again. 🙂

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    • Hmm, I’m thinking you might have written this one on your phone? Looks like a “Damn You Autocorrect” entry in that first paragraph! 😀

      I still have a hard time with “show, don’t tell.” I know I’m missing some of them, even after a few rounds of editing. I’ll probably do some searches on things like “Madeleine was” to check for blatant tells like, “Madeleine was nervous,” or “Jack was tired.”

      Can’t remember who it was now, but I read an interview awhile back about a successful author who finally published that “first” book as number 10, or something like that. So you’re not alone in going back to that first love, er, book! 😉

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  12. Much of my writing has had a public relations slant to it and quite a bit is related to fundraising. Sometimes I tend to give whatever I write about a positive spin when that is likely not the best tack to take in my creative writing. Great topic of discussion–thanks.

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    • I think you’ve found a great balance in your blog posts. Thought-provoking words don’t have to be negative or dull or angry. They have their place, but I may avoid them too much in my creative writing, too. I like to get away from the real problems of the real world now and again. That doesn’t always make for good and interesting fiction, though.

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  13. hahah – I know what this is like – I proofread scientific journal articles for my day job….thank you for this – I think I’ll get a good night sleep now! By the way, I really love that you don’t hate adverbs or adjectives. I don’t hate them either but I probably still follow those rules too often and end up removing too many of them.

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    • Yay! Support for adverbs and adjectives! Oh, proofreading scientific writing. How much caffeine do you drink during the day?! Archaeology can be hard enough. I can’t imagine adding other fields to the mix.

      Thanks for joining in!

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