Monday, September 22, 2014

Shifting Gears: Tips on Writing in Public

Wasn't it Farley Mowat who said "if someone tells you writing is easy, they are either lying or I hate them"?* 

Well, it is certainly true in my experience. Writing is always hard for me, no matter the genre. Indeed, when Hook & Eye started back in 2009 I had never written a blog post before in my life. The most public writing I had done was in the genre of the book review. Sure, I had many conference presentations under my belt, but there is something very different about an oral and embodied presentation of a paper. When there's no body there one must rely on the words on the page to get the point across, for better or for worse. 

What I did not realize initially is that writing a blog required shifting gears from the academic writing that, while terrifically challenging, was the genre in which I was most comfortable. That isn't to say that my academic writing was stellar! You should see my first drafts. I am not one of those people who is able to draft an outline and follow it. I think as I am writing and that means that the first draft results are messy, scattered, and disorganized. No, writing academic essays and articles is always a challenge, but it is a process I have become familiar with. After several years of practice I am becoming more comfortable with the blog as form. Sometimes, my blog posts break a few of the loose rules around the genre: they are too long, too introspective, and periodically they forget their audience. Every now and then they get me into trouble. But, for the most part, I have become familiar with this form, and I don't find it as terrifically intimidating as I once did. 

The differences between writing blogs and writing academic texts--books, articles, even reviews--aren't that great. Save for the turnaround time of publishing a blog post you still have to think about who you're writing for, and why you're writing. You need to know your field and have something insightful and unique to say. 

So why, when I started drafting my essay introducing the launch of the 2013 Count data collected by Canadian Women In the Literary Arts, did I stare at my computer screen in horror? After all, as an essay that will be published on the Internet it is basically a blog post, right? And I'm familiar with that genre, right? Wrong. Partly, my horror came from the challenge of again shifting gears into new genre. Partly, it came from the realization that I was writing in public for an organization, not solely in my own voice for myself.

If you've not heard of the organization before, CWILA (say kwhy-la) is a national non-profit organization that strives to promote and foster equity and equality of representation in the Canadian literary community by tracking statistics on gender representation in reviewing, bringing relevant issues of gender, race, and sexuality into our national literary conversation, and creating a network that supports the active careers of female writers, critics, and their literary communities. CWILA is an organization that constellates primarily on the Internet through our website. The launch, which begins on Thursday September 25, will be my first as Chair of the Board. As I've said, I'm plenty used to writing posts that exist solely on the Internet, so it surprised me that I was having so much trouble with this essay. Writing is hard. Writing for an immediate audience can be anxiety inducing (it can also be thrilling and fulfilling). Learning to shift tones is crucial.

Here's an example of what I mean. This was my first-draft paragraph:


In her 1977 publication L’Amér Nicole Brossard wrote “écrire: je suis un femme est plein de consequences.” This has been translated by Barbara Godard in the English edition as “To write: I am a woman is full of consequence” (45). Writing, women, consequences. These three things seem to be at the core of CWILA’s mandate. Let me think here with you about what I mean. The “W” at the heart of the organization is always a contested space. In other words, to write “woman” is to take a risk, because in a hegemonic and patriarchal culture the term—never mind the subject position—is always already outside. Look at Brossard’s sentence. While it is tempting to read it without the colon (to write I am a woman is full of consequences) the punctuation is a gatekeeper. Granted, the colon keeps the gate grammatically ajar, inviting the reader forward into fact. With a simple act of punctuation Brossard has shifted the category of “woman” into direct relation with the work of writing. Writing is full of consequences, gendered categories are full of consequences, and writing about marginalized genders is full of consequence. And yet, the gate is ajar.
 
If this was an academic essay, or, maybe, a short meditative post for Hook & Eye, this would be a decent starting point. But it isn't for the CWILA essay. This essay is meant to introduce CWILA's 2013 data to a diverse reading audience. I've missed the mark here by half a mile, because I have fallen into the familiar academic terminology. "Hegemony," "patriarchal culture," the length (12 lines and no mention of the new data!), my assumption that the readers know and are familiar with CWILA and its projects, all of these tell me I've forgotten my audience. And forgetting your audience means losing readers. 

Writing in public requires translation. Just as writing a good conference paper requires translating complex syntactical maneuvering into something that your audience can listen to and follow, writing for public requires shifting your style. Here are some tips for translating your academic writing into writing in public:

1) Find your voice. This is the hardest part, for me. Maybe it is a throwback from the graduate student/dissertation days of demonstrating that I know the conversations in the field. I'm not sure. In any case, finding your voice immediately is crucial for writing in general and writing in public in particular. 

2) Ask a friend for help. This is at least as important as #1. Indeed, I only recognized that my intro paragraph (above) wasn't working when I mustered up my courage and asked a friend to read my very rough draft. Thanks LM!! She put in several hours editing and commenting, and now the essay is not only better for her work, it is also the product of real feminist mentorship and collaboration. Moral of the story? Sharing your work at an early stage can make it stronger sooner. 

3) Give it time. Learning a new language is extraordinarily time consuming. While shifting your writing genres may not be exactly like learning a new language, there are some striking similarities. It is hard. It takes more time that you think it should. You can actually track your progress. 

4) Develop your audience. Writing in public is more conversational that writing for an academic readership. Do you agree or disagree? That comment box is just below this post.

5) Share what you know. I remember having discussions in grad school that focused on intellectual property (aka 'stealing ideas'). Concern around intellectual property--especially as a student or early career or contract academic faculty member can range from the paranoid to the absolutely and completely valid. It makes sense, right? Interviews, grant applications, landing the job; all that stuff is often predicated on your solitary brilliance. Sure, that notion is shifting thanks in part to feminist theorizations and practices of collaboration, as well as the path breaking work done in some digital humanities projects. But it can still be scary to go public with half-formed ideas. I say, do it. Share what you know in public. Ask the questions about your ideas in public. Crowd-source. Build allies and communities of thinking. Learn to revise on the fly. Learn to defend or restate your ideas...in public. Try it, it can be pretty fantastic.

6) Sometimes it sucks. Like, really sucks. Even though you're unlikely (I hope) to have experienced the unmerited and violent backlash that Zoe Quinn experienced, writing in public is always risky. You risk no one reading what you write, you risk everyone reading it and hating it, and you risk the wrath (or mean-spirited violence) of the comment box. Working on steps 1-4 help with this, but it doesn't make it hurt less. That's when you turn to your audience, to your knowledge, to your friends and colleagues. And, after you've processed what happens, you open up an new post and write again.  
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*Actually, Farley Mowat says "he is either lying, or i hate him," but, you know, feminist blog.

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