The 967th Cut: Writing, Writing, and Writing

I’m currently on course to triple-bogey NaNoWriMo. It is too early to panic, and I’ve got several hopefully word-lucrative weekends to go in the month, but I’m something like 6000 words off “par” depending on how much I get done today. It is not for want of writing that I’m behind. I suspect that, if I included everything I’d written since the flip between Halloween and All Saint’s Day, I’d be far closer to my goal.

What have I been writing? Posts for games (including a lengthy training montage involving a Chinese truck driver), professional correspondence, lengthy sub reports…but mostly I have been expanding and polishing the paper I’m presenting Friday afternoon at the annual American Musicological Society meeting in Pittsburgh. It has been a while since since I’ve touched my research, never mind tried juggling it with fiction writing, blogging, and my usual keyboard recreation. It has provided an opportunity to reflect on writing, on what changes and what remains the same as I shift characters, genres, and function.

Here’s the important thing: words matter.

I knew words mattered a long time ago. I wrote a lot of poetry in my latter teenage years, tinkering with every word and sound to get what I wanted. I knew about lightning and lightning bugs, to crib a bit from Twain. By the time I started grad school, I had incorporated that sensibility into my fiction writing. It never occurred to me that I could pay the same attention to my academic writing, though. At least until I had a fantastic advisor (Carol Hess) who deployed her inimitable mechanical pencil to mark up my papers like they hadn’t been marked up since I started at Atlantic College.

From Dr. Hess, I learned just how many of the lessons I’d learned writing poetry and fiction could apply to formal writing. She argued with me about word choice, about syntax, about varying sentence length. It was not enough to have good ideas. Nor was it enough to express them clearly. To get past “clear” to “compelling” takes work. It takes choosing the right word every time. It requires killing your darlings.

This is especially true for presentations. The presentation format amplifies everything that turns good ideas into bad writing. Nobody in a conference room has the luxury of re-reading a muddy sentence. As a writer, I have to make sure that the paper makes sense read out loud, that I don’t choke it with jargon or polysyllables. At the structural level, arguments need careful scaffolding so that they catch in listeners’ minds.

Turning literary wordcraft to academic ends has made all of my writing better. Without being able to skate by on mere fluency in any of my word work, I’ve had to develop better habits. Even in my least formal writing, the stuff I do for games, I find myself striking out extra words and focusing on vivid verbs. Focusing on sound and register has helped me improve my dialogue writing. (Games have actually been incredibly useful for that, as a Cypriot smuggler, a high school guidance counselor, and a Cajun werewolf are all going to speak…rather differently.)

Writing is writing is writing. As long as we do it attentively, we learn from it.

Expect an update on the conference and the NaNo progress this weekend.

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