Category Archives: writing/editing

Bingeing on Books

I wrapped up my winter’s term marking just as the last of the ice melted off of the lake. While getting back into my academic writing that’s been shelved most of the past month and pulling together the reams of documentation necessary for my annual report, I’ve been reading lots. Bingeing, almost. Fiction, that is. Genre-style.

Over at Novel Readings, Rohan Maitzen has an intriguing post on binge reading. In her case, she’s doing it for a project, to review the novels of Dick Francis. When I saw mention of this on her Twitter update earlier in the week, I was intrigued. Not only because I was a big fan of Dick Francis’s work back in the day (when I was a teen, I binged on about twelve or fifteen books of his in quick succession, borrowing a stack at a go from our city library). I quickly recognized the formula (wiry, game ex-jockey who goes through some horrifying torture on his way to solving a racing-related mystery) and reveled in the easy read that predictability provided.

Today we read more about binge-watching television shows but binge-reading has its uses. Concentrated non-academic reading clears my mind of the detritus of a term of teaching. I’m not obsessing about the successes and failures of my students (or the recurrent problem some demonstrated in differentiating between hanged and hung in a discussion of early modern punishments). By reading a raft of mysteries, romances, fantasies and other completely non-work-related non-fiction, I’m attuned to words in a very different way than I was in the midst of marking. I’m thinking about what makes a story compelling and where it disappoints. I’m aware of how word choice can make or break a scene, all in a way that’s fun and energizing. I’m reminded about what I love in reading and ready to get back into writing, even my own much more sedate academic history.

Reading for teaching is diagnostic: you’re trying to find problems or help prescribe solutions. Reading for research is surgical: you’re in there to get some specific nuggets of information to fuel your own scholarship. Reading for entertainment is restorative: you’re in there to relax or explore or think in different ways. A balanced reading life includes all of these aspects. Sadly, when term’s crazy, I tend towards only the first two forms but this entertainment binge has me back in balance and just in time. Another deadline’s looming!



Filed under academe, personal, writing/editing

Dealing with Derailment

This morning I was all prepared to polish off the last course prep tasks for my winter classes when I got derailed. Pet health issues again: trying to figure out what was wrong, booking an appointment with the vet and dealing with the logistics of how to get there on a carless day with much snow? That ate up a big chunk of the morning.

Now it’s afternoon and I’ve just gotten back on track with compiling the last course materials. I couldn’t do it right away after dealing with all of the above. I was too flustered and high on adrenaline. Instead, I substituted a few low-stakes tasks into the rest of the morning. My range and kitchen counters sparkle, there’s laundry on the go and I’ve virtually filed away some teaching materials I won’t need in the new year.

When I’m derailed, I’ve learned to accept that this task, whatever it is!, has taken over my life for a short term. I throw myself into doing what has to be done to deal with it, deal with the issue as far as I can at that point (which may, in the case of a semi-distant crisis only be an acknowledgement of the problem), calm down and, only once I’m calm, get myself back on track. Which is where I’ve been for the last hour and where I’m heading back to as soon as I hit post!

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Unsnarling My Prose

Yesterday I completed my own chapter draft for The Hobbit and History. Yes, rather like the cobbler’s children who go without shoes, the editor’s chapter is sometimes one of the last to be completed.

Today I printed out the draft after class. I celebrated with a wee second breakfast the serendipity of wrapping things up in time for Hobbit Day and Tolkien Week. And then I looked at what awaited me. Ugh! Some of my sentences were so wrapped up in themselves, they fell apart as soon as I tried to read them. I’ll be spending some time this week unsnarling my prose.

Part of this is an artifact of my write early, write often philosophy. I’ve been working on this chapter for well over a year now, although it stalled for many months just around 1600 words. But most of it is the reality that I write shitty first drafts (Thank you, Anne Lamott). It’s not the argument or evidence that’s at fault, it’s my prose style.

My first draft sentences will often start in the middle of an idea, roll out a clause or two, throw in a caveat or qualification and finish up with a key concept. You’d see a lot of similarly disorganized sentences in this draft, let me tell you! I also see too many weaselly or empty words such as “although” and “therefore” and “so too”, sometimes more than once in the same paragraph. I stare in horror at the vaguely grounded statements that claim certain behaviours “were expected” without indicating by whom or how that actually happened. Passive verbs litter the paper landscape. In a word? This draft sucks.

I want to cry. I don’t. Instead, I revise my work, step by laborious step, smoothing out the snarled phrases, eradicating the evasions and purging the overwhelming passive constructions. Editing your own work is just as important as writing. If you don’t allow time for revision, what you send off to the editors, reviewers or friendly members of your critique group can be so rough as to be unhelpful. I’d rather see their time spent getting me from 80% to 100% than from 60% to 80% which is what it will be if I ask them to read my shitty first draft. I can get that to respectability and then their feedback can help me turn it into something I’ll be proud of for years to come.

If you’re going to be a writer, you have to get over the instinctive flinching you experience when you review what you’ve written. (I can’t be the only one who felt that way, going back to when I was an undergrad.) Revising is just as important as writing. Yes, it takes some time, which is why I tell my students to try and have a complete draft several days before the assignment is due so they can review and edit! It also takes courage to face the truth that what you wrote isn’t nearly as clever as you imagined it was when you were writing it. But it pays off and can make the difference between a composition that’s published and one that’s not.

I’ll wrap up with a plug for a great writing opportunity. Jo VanEvery, who’s a font of wisdom on many matters academic, is running a Monday morning Meeting With Your Writing that, if it didn’t overlap with my Monday mid-day class, I’d be all over. If you’re working on getting your own writing or editing working within your schedule, check this out as a great value for not a lot of expense!

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On Again, Off Again Scheduling

This term I’m teaching three days a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That leaves the other two days a week for research, writing and editing.

It’s been a while since I’ve had two days in a term that were out of the classroom, especially in my heavy term which isn’t as heavy as some have been. Only three courses in my official workload but there’s also one graduate directed readings meeting at a timeslot still TBA. Usually I’ve been lucky to have one non-teaching day in a week and that usually gets further complicated by being on a day when I have regular committee obligations. This year? Not yet. All may change when the T&P committee ramps up for actual meetings but if they’re slow to get started, that might wait until next term. For now, my Tuesdays and Thursdays seem safe.

I must say that I’m enjoying the on again, off again nature of my work this term. The format helps me to recharge my introvert batteries after a long day of teaching, for one thing. For another, even though I know I can write in small timeslots set aside during a busy day, I write best when I have at least two or three hours to pour into one project. Uninterrupted time allows me to better see how what I’m adding fits into the bigger picture.

The schedule also only works by making sure that teaching prep or, in a few weeks!, marking doesn’t eat up my research and writing time. I’ve found that the weekend is the best time to finalize my visuals and class plans for Western Civ (so that the files can be uploaded to our CMS in advance of Monday’s class) and to review the readings for the Tudor seminar which meets on Wednesday mornings. The grad students meet on Friday so I’ll go back through my discussion notes on Wednesday evening (after a veeery long day). Tuesday and Thursday? They’ll stay free. They have to or all of my fall writing plans fall apart.

So yes, I’m eating into my weekends in a big way this fall. It’s unsustainable to work full-out seven days a week all through the academic year, yet somehow so many of us do just that, right? But for a few short weeks I know that I can keep it going and reap the benefits of focused, productive time to research, write and edit on some days while devoting myself fully to teaching and campus contact duties on others.

I’ll see how the rotation holds up once I’m at the midterm point, just around the time I hie off to Potterfest. That’s when a boatload of marking lands on my desk and even with the able assistance of my GTA, I suspect I’ll have to give up a Tuesday here or a Thursday there but don’t let it get to be a habit. I’m fully booked up with writing, editing, revising and researching right through the first of November. After that, it all might fall apart but I’ll hope to sustain the schedule through the end of classes in early December.

What’s your term schedule looking like? Thumbs up or fingers in ears?


Filed under academe, teaching, writing/editing

Observations on the Start of Another Term

  • I hate starting teaching in the middle of the week. I understand why we’re starting on a Wednesday. My OCD tendencies just don’t like it. Ditto for the last day of term, the first Wednesday in December, being taught as a Monday to compensate for the Monday we’ll miss on Canadian Thanksgiving. It’s logical. It just doesn’t feel right. It also means that my Wednesday morningsenior seminar will wrap up on November 30.
  • Speaking of the seminar, which I’ll do frequently this fall, we’re currently standing at 36 enrolled. I’m printing out fold-over name cards for each student to set on their desks in hopes that it will not only help me remember all of their names more readily, but also encourage them to use each others’ names in the lively discussions I hope will ensue.
  • Why is discussion so difficult to inspire and maintain? Ah, that’s the million dollar question of academia, isn’t it? If it was easy, everyone would do it. I love what Dr. Virago posted about encouraging discussion earlier this week: that feigning ignorance or error inspires students to attempt their own explanations. It’s not so much the “lying to student” part of not giving them the answer that’s important, it’s how avoiding giving them the answer helps them to generate answers on their own, sometimes even more than we’d be able to give them as the ‘sage on the stage’. Reminder to self: silence is golden, patience is a virtue and the Socratic method still is pretty awesome.
  • Tuesdays and Thursdays will be writing and editing days. I’ll also be devoting a chunk of Monday mornings to writing and editing. And, given the daunting number of projects I have on the go and due in the near future, most of the weekends. Of course, the challenge is to not let administrivia, errands and other issues fill up these blocks of time. Already there’s a service task which is in the process of blowing up in my face (not through any wrongdoing on anyone’s part, it’s just when this particular committee gets called upon, it means Work and lots of it). I’m pretty well-resigned to some of that writing and editing time getting eaten up by the service task from beyond the grave but I can hope that the only time we can tackle that problem is sometime on Friday afternoon instead, when I know I’m too tired to do a good job of writing and editing and focus, instead, on less demanding occupations such as filing, emails and blogging.

And that reminds me, it’s off to Dame Eleanor’s for the weekly writing group check-in!


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CFP: A Game of Thrones and History

We are seeking proposals for essays to be included in an edited collection with the working title of A Game of Thrones and History, to be published by Wiley in 2013 as a volume in its ‘Pop Culture and History’ series. We’re looking for essays that elaborate the historical context of G.R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, examining individual characters or aspects of Westeros and other cultures against a historical backdrop, or analyzing how popular historical understandings inform the material.

The collection is aimed at a broader audience than is the case for many scholarly collections, and seeks to make visible for readers the underlying use of historical events and culture in A Game of Thrones. We welcome submissions from historians or those in cognate disciplines, including gender studies, medieval studies or cultural studies.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to: Continue reading

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Project Immersion

With just a few weeks left in the term I’m throwing myself wholeheartedly at another writing project that has to be wrapped up shortly, my own chapter for The Hobbit and History. To that end, I’ve pulled out my pile of books to which I’m referring, rifled through the articles I need to draw upon, reread The Hobbit and skimmed through the subsequent trilogy including the appendices as well as parts of the Silmarillion plus The Unfinished Tales. In other words, I’ve poured myself back into the world of Middle-earth.

Project immersion is the best way for me to get from skeleton outline to finished composition in a short time. I have to live and breathe the world I’m trying to recreate, whether its the story of 17th and early 18th century Londoners playing out at the Old Bailey or the adventures of people long ago in a galaxy far, far away. Along with that, I try to come to terms with the key scholarly themes – how can I ensure I’m relying on up-to-date and accurate assessments of what other practitioners are saying. This is just as important in my pop culture pieces where I will range wide and far in time and space, relying heavily on other historians to help me understand and assess many different cultures and scholarly treatments, as it is for my conventional academic writing where I need to engage with the most important and current interpretations.

As the immersion progresses, I start muttering to myself, hopefully sotto voce, testing out key themes or possible sub-headings. I drift off to sleep with important examples running through my brain. I wake up ruminating over key arguments. I peel potatoes and I ponder primary sources as yet untapped. I jot down a note about how to bridge two different sections in between errands.

And then? I write. The whole draft’s finished in just a few days but don’t be fooled. I couldn’t get my project done if it weren’t for the initial immersion.

What about you? How do you get revved up to write?

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