Shut up, and write (a review of books-on-writing-books)

Writing is hard work. It is. For a long time I thought it was not. But I was wrong. Very much so. I have only begun to realise how hard through the two books I’m writing now.

At the outset it appeared all easy: I have a topic that is new enough to write something about, but not so new that it can’t be placed in a body of literature. I have already published a number of articles on the topic that help shape the larger narratives of the books. And I have a lot of data—over 200 interviews and documents on over 60 innovative governance instruments for urban sustainability from six countries.

That is where I went wrong: With so much data on so many different governance instruments it is all but easy to write a narrative that makes sense. When looking closely at the individual instruments they all have something interesting to tell, they all have a quirky thing I like to share, they all contribute to a larger pattern that I see. But that was some months ago, when I was still high on the ease of getting the last book out. It was before I realised that getting a single narrative out of all that information is a great deal of work.

Gone is the naivety. From now on I will tell the story told by everyone else: Writing is hard, and I don’t envy you if you are at the start of a book project—I don’t envy you if you’re halfway, and I don’t even envy you if you’re almost done. But realising that writing actually is hard—which people have told me for a long time—I now wonder: Why don’t we teach our students how to write? Or at least, why don’t we teach them that writing is hard? No-one ever told me how to write—well, not since high-school. I don’t have the answer to these questions. Sorry.

But, I do have some ideas on how we can help out each other—and particularly our students—a little. I’ve recently begun to read books on writing, and I think every writing academic should. They are good for two things: Confirmation that writing is hard—so hard that people actually bother writing books about it. And they come with helpful tips on how to improve your writing, and your attitude to writing—so let’s share our favourite books-on-writing-books. The ones I have read so far are (in order of reading):

  • How to write a lot?, Paul Silvia: This book is strong in debunking myths on writing, including writing is fun, writing should be done when you feel like it, writing needs inspiration, and writing needs the right setting. It also gives good tips on planning and doing your writing. Since reading Silvia’s book some weeks ago I’ve been keeping track of my daily book writing progress. I have come to realise—which I should have known from reading Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow—that my original planning was a little too optimistic. I do indeed write the number of words I expected I write, but I fully forgot to include rewriting, and rerewriting, and rererewriting, and…
  • Write it up, Paul Silvia: Great for thinking carefully about the structure of articles and some good tips on grammar and style. The book particularly debunks the myth that academic writing should sound clever—it should sound clear.
  • Scientific Writing for Impact Factor Journals, Eric Lightfouse: This book drives home the simple message that whatever you write should be clear about the novel insight and ideas it presents. It has also some good tips for non-native speakers on English language.
  • Writing Science, Joshua Schimel: This book drives home another simple message. That you should write a narrative. It is all but the useless advice you normally get that a narrative should have a beginning, middle and end: It gives tips on how to write a compelling narrative. It also has some good tips on sentence structure and grammar.
  • The Elements of Style, William Strunk, jr.: Probably the classic of classics in this field. It’s a composition of elementary rules on structure, composition and form. I’m going to read this one at least once a year (it helps that it is only 52 pages).
  • On Writing Well, William Zinsser: Another classic in this field. Rich in tips on grammar and how to write well (which you expect from the title), but less than the first four it presents these in bite-size format. To me it was a book with many aha-moments. It helps seeing flaws in your own writing by pointing out the common flaws in everyone’s writing. I will surely read (parts of) this one once a year as well.

That’s it. These are the first books I’ve ever read on how to write. You clearly won’t need to read these if you want to get published—I’ve managed to get a fair bit out without them—and they will not do magic to your writing, but I wish I had read them years ago. If only for confidence—and for my now golden mantra for the hours that I block for writing: Shut up, and write.

As a Ps: Gary Smailes from BubbleCow (the copy-editor of my book Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience) has also recently written a blog post that discusses books on writing: The Ultimate List of Books About Writing  

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