Literate, Academic and Fun!
My Dear Daughter, Other Academics, and Ph.D.
Candidates of the World:
May I introduce you to Don Murray.
Don Murray wrote essays for the New York Times,
the Boston Globe and others. He wrote in
a variety of genres. Don Murray was well-known
for being literate. Don Murray was also the ultimate
teacher of writing. Unfortunately he died in 2006.
Fortunately, we have the miracle of books that
preserve thoughts beyond lifetimes and the dedication
of other writers and editors like Thomas Newkirk
and Lisa C. Miller who will keep Murray's important
ideas alive in a book called The
Essential Don Murray.
When I ran across a copy of another book written
by an academic, I was inspired to tell you—you,
part of that rather large group who seem to be
writing primarily to please teachers or to reach
a goal—about Don and this new book from
Boynton Cook. It is Veiled
Sentiments. I found it as I was stowing
The Essential Don Murray into my bookshelves.
I remember my daughter recommending this specific
book, back when she was an undergrad anthro student.
"It is just fantastic," she enthused. "It's written
by an anthropologist."
I'm thinking yeah, academic, no fun, a struggle
to read even by someone with an avocational interest
She spread her arms out as if embracing the world.
"It's about the women Lila Abu-Lughod observes
when she's allowed to infiltrate inaccessible
Northern Arabic tribes. But most of all it's so,
so . . . readable!"
It turned out we were both right. Veiled Sentiments:
Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society is readable.
By academic standards it's especially readable.
I loved it. But with a lighter voice it might
have reached a much broader audience and therefore
helped even more people to an understanding of
the veiled culture.
Too often students get into what I call the "academic
mode." It's a little bit like the "business mode"
that people get into when they write business
letters. Or the "technical mode" that tech writers
get into when they put together instructions for
assembling bicycles—or worse, computers!
Writing that way may serve them well enough within
their communities but much of it is nearly unintelligible
to those outside of it. And not very interesting
(or entertaining?) inside of it.
A writer must know his or her audience, certainly,
and try to accommodate it. But there is
also an advantage to stretching a bit, holding
out something of interest to a broader group.
Those who write in academic (or technical or
business) disciplines often use jargon. Interminable
jargon. They may be uninterested in paring to
their essentials sentences with excess words.
Those who write in these fields set examples for
those who come after; and, because they are focused
on subject and forget about voice, most (dare
I say it!?) are tedious and stilted. When new
writers, students and others come along, they
follow the traditions set out for them. If what
went before is impossibly dull, those coming after
think they must be, too.
So, back to Don Murray. Here is an academic who
taught his students to write from the heart. Taught
them to write to serve their purpose, whatever
that might be. And to write to involve the reader.
His editors say Don Murray "reinvented the academic
essay . . . that academic writing could have voice
and even humor." Those same editors assembled
this book full of Don's essays telling any writer
who cares to learn more about how to make their
writing more interesting, more accessible.
The book includes Murray's essays on writing,
especially the process of writing. It also includes
samples of his writing, notes and even sketches
from his daybook that illustrate the processes
This book has in it the information an academic
needs to turn a dissertation into a book. A book
that appeals to a broader audience. A book that
is widely read. At the very least, it will help
a student's dissertation become something that
even mentors and department heads will enjoy reading.
And, no. He won't encourage students to violate
department guidelines or expectations to do that.
The mark of a great writing teacher is not to
dictate, it's to help each writer stretch—really
reach—for his or her own meaning, his or
her own voice. The final determination is up to
(Each month in this box, Carolyn lists
a Tidbit that will help authors write or
promote better. She will also include a
Tip to help readers find a treasure among
long-neglected books or a sapphire among
Writers interested in promoting their work
will find articles, resources, guest blogs
and anything else that strikes me as being
useful for writers at my blog,
was chosen by Writer's Digest for
their 101 Best Websites for writers.
Aussie poet Magdalena Ball and I recently
published the first book in our series of
poetry chapbooks that celebrate holidays
and seasons. Find Cherished Pulse,
a chapbook of unconventional love poetry
It's priced at little more than most spend
to give their loved ones a quality greeting
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