Tag: writing

The Poverty of Style in IR

As one of the new Ducks, I will from now on be posting diversely on a range of topics including political violence, the status of critique in IR, and professional issues that will be of particular interest to early career scholars and PhD students. For my first post, however, I want to write about the style of writing IR and/or Political Science. This is something that has troubled me for some time now and on which – I think – I depart slightly from the mainstream view of things.

To begin, let me quote the author’s ‘style’ guidelines for the ISA journal International Studies Quarterly:

  • Favor short, declarative sentences. If it is possible to break up a sentence into constituent clauses, then you most likely should do so.
  • Avoid unnecessary jargon. Define, either explicitly or contextually, necessary jargon.
  • Favor active voice, the simple past and present, and action verbs.

Favoring ‘clarity’ and ‘accessibility,’ the guidelines go onto state that “it is unreasonable to require readers and reviewers to read many pages into a manuscript before encountering its basic claims. It is unrealistic to expect that readers and reviewers are skilled in Kabbalah and therefore able to decode esoteric writing.”

These basic words of guidance are common across journals in IR and in the advice we give to our students, the reviews we write of articles, and the words we ourselves attempt to write. We seek to be clear. To the point. To report what we want to say and nothing more. This is the dominant ‘style’ of IR today.

I want to argue that the too-rigid enforcement of this Anglo-Saxon writing style creates problems for IR and – in fact – impoverishes its diversity, enjoyment, and ultimately its relevance to the world in several ways.

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My 5 Secret 'Weapons' for Finishing a Book

There is all kinds of advice out there on how to write and finish a book. We are frequently advised to ‘Write everyday’, ‘write early in the morning,’ ‘workshop and present your work,’ among other things. Here is a great overview of 10 steps to writing a book and another fantastic post called “‘I’m writing a book no one will read’ and other reasons the PhD can get you down.'” It seems common knowledge that writers need time, space, and mental energy to complete any piece of work. But no one talks about the other types of daily tools that can be useful in getting words on a page. I’m no expert on writing books- in fact, I’ve only got one! But I’ve been hibernating for 8 months working on another project. Besides the obvious- coffee, sleep- here are a few unlikely ‘weapons’ I used to complete my recent book (unless I’m wrong, and I still have 2 chapters to write, which is a reoccurring nightmare)

1. IMG_3008‘Back in 5 or 45 minutes’ post it notes.
Ok, I’m outing myself to my colleagues on this one. I appreciate office socialization and I generally have an open-door policy and welcome staff and student drop-ins. However, when I start to get on a writing roll I try to get up, put up a ‘back in 5- or 45’ note, and close the door to ensure uninterrupted typing. Obviously, I don’t do this during office hours or other appointments. The result? I catch the inspiration while it is there, and open the door for chit chat when its not.

2. Retreats.
Over the course of this project, my partner and I organized 3 separate  writing retreats. They were scheduled at pivotal times (completing the theory chapter, writing the intro, and going over the complete manuscript a last time). I went to a Buddhist temple that has simple hotel rooms. There is not much to do besides write, meditate….and sneak in a few episodes of bad tv from the ipad. These blocks of time got me over major writing blocks and helped me get back on track when I had fallen far behind my own deadlines.

IMG_30103. Dragon Dictate (hands free microphone)
Sure it is a mega pain in the @ss to set up, but once you get the hang of using this program it can get you through some long days. It is particularly useful for ‘talking out’ sections of the manuscript, dictating longer quotes, or brainstorming ideas that you will go through and finesse later. Much of the conclusion chapter was ‘written’ by me pacing around my office with this plugged in my ear.

4. Grooveshark and Spotify. Namely, extended Prince playlists.

IMG_30095. New glasses. This seems obvious, but trying to write a book (or anything) with glasses from 3 years ago is not a good idea…as I figured out in month 2 of this project. These beauties make 8 hours of screen-staring bearable.

What are your weapons for getting work done? Continue reading

Coauthorship – Like Bad Marriages and Struggling Nonprofits

It’s that time of year again: the time when professors team up with their best buddies/colleagues/random-people-who-publish-in-the-same-area and endeavor to write a brilliant ISA/Midwest/APSA paper.  At least, that’s what the spring semester always means for me.  I like working by myself, don’t get me wrong, but I also enjoy working with others. And, I don’t think I’m alone here: coauthored work is quickly becoming the norm in political science.  In general, coauthored work gets in better journals and ends up getting cited more (See: this,  this, or this, for example).  That makes sense, right?  Two (or more) very smart people, working together on their very smart idea.  Like marriage partnerships, a coauthor relationship allows you to join forces for a common goal: at least 1 “offspring,” preferably placed in a top-10 journal.

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10 Steps to Finishing a PhD Thesis (or book) in 6 Months

Most academics will admit to themselves and students that the majority of dissertations and books are written in a 6 month block of time (the remainder of the post focuses on a PhD process, but it can be easily applied to book writing). I’m talking here about the WRITING process- not the research, figuring out the question, organizing the chapters etc (no wizard can do all that in 6 months- at least not this wizard). But once you’ve done your (field) research, reading, thinking through the chapters, taking notes etc. it really should only take you 6 months to finish the thesis. For PhD students this is referred to as the end of the faffing about/procrastination/reading gawker and people.com daily/existential crisis about the structure of the thesis phase and the start of the “time to suck it up, close the office door, shut off the email, and just f#$@king write” phase.

So how can one get a complete draft of the thesis done in 6 months? Here is the 10-Step Process to Completion.

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Friday Nerd Blogging: Now for Something Completely Different

Instead of posting a video, I thought I would present a short book plug/review:

I actually don’t read that much science fiction or fantasy, but I could not resist once I heard the concept of Redshirts by John Scalzi: that instead of writing about the main characters on a starship, he would focus on those extras that tended to get killed on the away teams that get deployed to the planets the starship would visit.  Scalzi is touching on a key piece of nerd culture as we have long noticed that the folks on Star Trek (classic version) who beamed down with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy tended to have short life expectancies.

Okay, so far so good, but it gets even better beyond the break where I spoil away:
The real genius of the book is that the small group of extras that are the focal point become aware of this dynamic that Redshirts die at an amazingly and statistically improbable rate.  Indeed, these folks are new to the ship, the Intrepid, and realize that the behavior of everyone is out of whack.  The captain, the science officer and a few other leads expose themselves to grave dangers but are never hurt, except for one, the astrogator (think Chekhov) who always gets hurt but never fatally.  The crew have figured this out and have learned to dodge the officers when they are looking for folks to build an away team.

Better still, our Redshirts begin to believe in something crazy–that they are all potentially vulnerable to this crazy force that can overcome physics and certainly overcome logic.  This force is called The Narrative.  If it is necessary for the furtherance of the plot of a particular adventure (episode), then a member of the crew will suddenly know things they didn’t know before or suddenly act in ways they would not have, such as foolishly running across an area inhabited by Dune-like or Tremor-like earthworms.  This concept, of the Narrative forcing these real people who are also characters to act, well, it changed how I experienced The Dark Knight Rises.  Much of Bane’s evil plans seem less than logical but driven by that strange mystical force–The Narrative.  Indeed, why Midichlorians?  Because it was required by the Narrative!

Anyway, in the book, our Redshirts start to realize that they are really the victims of bad writing.  That the screen-writer responsible for the show that they are on tends to be lazy and kills extras off for the sake of drama instead of putting the effort into writing a story that makes sense and builds drama more organically.  How do the extras save themselves?  Via time travel, of course.  They must visit Hollywood when their show is being produced and change how it is written.  Yes, really.

Along the way, Scalzi not only sends up Star Trek in a big, big way, but much of science fiction, much of TV production, and much of nerd culture.  It is a very funny book that is so meta it makes Community look as un-meta as Happy Days.  Oh, and after the main story is over, there are three codas which are not only funny and moving but demonstrate how one can write in the first, second and third person.  Yes, the first coda is written in the first person, the second one is in the second person (don’t remember the last time I read something told from that perspective), and so on.

First Coda: To be clear, the Narrative is not an evil force, but can be used for good or evil.  And even for edu-tainment, as I happened to discuss this week over at Political Violence @ a Glance.

Second Coda: You really should read the book–heaps of fun. (Yes, you scoff at my effort to write in the second person.  But then you move on).

Third Coda: Oh, and Scalzi also has a very good blog: http://whatever.scalzi.com/.  He made a big noise recently by making a really interesting suggestion: that being a straight white male was the equivalent of choosing the easy or rookie level of difficulty on a video game.  A perhaps more topical post of his for this blog is on who gets to decide who is a geek or not. Behind the scenes of the Duck, we have had some discussion about whether Friday Nerd Blogging should just be Charli’s bailiwick (my stance) or that anyone can post such stuff (Charli’s).  Of course, hers is the right answer and mine is the free-riding approach.  Anyhow, now that Charli is back from vacation, I expect her to be posting silly stuff on Friday’s, but I will probably keep doing it as well.  Too much stuff that is too fun not to share.

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