Day 7: Make every moment count
From James M. Lang, higher education author and columnist
Photo by James M. Lang
Editor’s Note: As context for the author’s exhortation to make every moment count, we encourage you to read his account of a life-changing experience in 2021-2022 that shifted his perspective on time and mortality.
Every time I submit a piece of writing to an editor, I hear the same complaint: Your introduction takes too long to get to the point. Essays, chapter, books—they all display my love for long and leisurely invitations to readers. I channel the spirit of Henry James when I compose introductory paragraphs: multi-clause sentences, lots of descriptive details, and a slow buildup of suspense. I turn a lot of screws before my thesis appears.
After many years of begrudging compliance in response to editorial scoldings, I have recognized the wisdom of my editors. Long and leisurely prose occupies its special nook in the literary world, but your academic writing doesn’t belong there. Most works written by academics will benefit from a few sessions with the lopping shears. The problems might be confined to the introductory paragraphs, as mine are, or extend through the manuscript.
Plenty of books and essays offer advice for how to tighten up or trim your prose. But nothing beats the brute power of word counts and short forms. Book editors will demand that you reduce a 150,000-word manuscript to 100,000 words or less; newspaper editors will ask you to resubmit your 1500-word essay in an 800-word version. Faced with such word counts, you’ll discover your own ways to eliminate the clutter in your prose and bring the key ideas to the surface. You chop the third paragraph and realize that the fourth one was making the same point anyway. The funny anecdote that inspired the chapter no longer fits. Nobody will miss the adverbial intensifiers (very, really, quite) that were puffing up your sentences.
Short forms in academic writing include abstracts, query letters, book proposal overviews, or social media posts. When you have to squeeze your voluminous thoughts into a short form, you learn to play with words and sentences in new ways. Instead of a paragraph setting up your thesis, three more to explain it, and some concluding thoughts, you need a single paragraph that provides your thesis, why it matters, and why you are qualified to argue for it. A marketing staff member at your publisher might ask you to compress your big idea into a single sentence.
The prompt below demonstrates the power of external constraints on sharpening your academic writing:
Imagine Twitter hadn’t been ruined. Compose a 280-character Tweet about your writing project designed to inform potential readers about it; then write down three insights that you could apply to your future writing and revisions.
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James M. Lang, higher education author and columnist