Finding Shape in the Stone

Since my last post, I’m happy to say my current project seems to be taking a clearer shape. I’m beginning to experience that strange, wonderful sensation that comes when a project gels. Instead of reaching toward some pattern to impose on my ideas and research, it feels as if I’m discovering something that was always there–finding the shape in the stone, as Michelangelo said. Maybe that sensation is just an illusion, a kind of deja-vu of the creative process. But who cares? It feels great and brings us closer to finishing the sculpture.

I’ll share more about that project later. Now, I want to point to a resource for academic writers who have already reached the chiseling stage. Even after the design–the intrinsic logic and structure–of a piece is clear to us, we usually still have more work to do to make it clear to others. As I often say in workshops, if the top three issues in real estate are “location, location, location,” the top three issues in preparing a piece for publication are “audience, audience, audience.” And scholars making the transition from writing for their dissertation advisors to writing for a broader group of readers got a much-needed break last fall. James Mulholland, a literary critic and assistant professor of English at Wheaton College, published an essay overviewing of the steps he found most useful in revising his first book. That project by the way, Sounding Imperial: Poetic Voice and the Politics of Empire, is forthcoming from John Hopkins University Press. Congratulations, James!

Mulholland’s essay “What I’ve Learned about Revising a Dissertation” appears in the October 2011 issue of The Journal of Scholarly Publishing. Mulholland digs into the nitty-gritty decisions that researchers wrestle with, especially with first books. He explains, for instance, how conversations with readers outside his field helped him think through the real significance of his argument. Most importantly, he traces the evolution of his understanding of how to convey his ideas in ways readers can relate to and use in their own research. Don’t miss his desciption of learning to write “portable sentences.” This little trick is an invaluable skill that can give your ideas stronger “legs”; they’ll go farther faster, whether you are writing an academic book or article or any other kind of nonfiction.

Spending a little time with Mulholland’s essay could save first-book authors months of struggle. Everyone, of course, has to chart a course of revision that best suits their own projects. Teachers of advanced graduate students and mentors of junior humanities faculty may also find this piece useful. Mulholland freely admits that his advice may not be suitable for every author because it reflects particular circumstances of his own project. Still, this article offers a great way to start conversations within academic departments and professional associations about how to nourish this endangered species–the first scholarly book.

For more on that issue and the larger transitions in scholarly publishing, see Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s recent book, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (NYU Press, 2011).


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