Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Devil over the Right Shoulder

The Wisconsin news (see Dr. Crazy, who can write rationally about it) about the continuing war on education and the middle class would only lead me into another rant, so I am not going to write about it.

Instead, here's an update on what Mark Scroggins is calling "my writing life" over at his blog. Like him, I've finished a number of pieces that are now coming out, and I'm now looking at the big project.

The big project now sits before me, in all of its terrifying there-ness. It isn't complete, although I've published some pieces from it and have presented on others. I've gotten feedback from scholars and an editor I respect that it's good, even exciting. At those times I've felt buoyant and good about it.

But now I'm sitting at my desk with the devil over the right shoulder. The devil is asking whether it's worth doing at all, or at least whether it isn't two different projects. He's asking for more rationales and more research. He's asking whether every single claim is really true or whether I'm flourishing rhetorical capes to distract the attention of the bull/audience. More immediately, he's asking me how I plan to structure the opening arguments.

This devil over the right shoulder can be a great help, of course, in anticipating problems and making the project stronger. What's been the most help in answering the devil is approaching this through structure, or models, as Jonathan Mayhew recently suggested as "reading for structure" over at Stupid Motivational Tricks. Reading for structure is something I've done for years myself, and I've recommended it to students many times.

In this case, it means reading introductions and prefaces, lots of them, to recent scholarly books in the field and noting not only how the argument is structured and in what level of depth, but also the nuts and bolts: how long is the writer spending on the various parts? How is she/he making the claims? How much background and review of scholarship is there? What's the voice like in these pieces? How does the first sentence work? The first paragraph?

This could be seen as a distraction, but what has happened is that I end up making notes and putting pieces of my own project together as well as temporarily quashing the devil's objections.

What about the other shoulder? There's a devil on the left shoulder, too, saying, "C'mon, why don't you ditch this and write a blog post or something?"


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Just write a list of things your introduction should do, or a couple of paragraphs about what your ideal introduction would do if you were capable of writing an ideal introduction, and I'll declare your writing done for the day. Tomorrow you can come back and expand the list or work on one of your "ideal" paragraphs.

Anonymous said...

Tell the devil that you are going to do it Your Way and he needn't pester you.

And I agree with DEH--jot a list and go away to ponder. I'm a big believer in testing arguments via lists or outlines.

And you wouldn't be the first scholar to wave a rhetorical flourish cape at a point or two. Sometimes I like and admire reading those, btw. Is that weird?

undine said...

DHE, Ink--I am going to try to do what you say. I think I am distrustful of rhetorical flourishes right now because one of the lunatics at Time used so many to show why we should quit unions and just be rich ourselves that my head was spinning.