The Aesthetic Pleasures of Scholarly Writing
While it may seem unlikely, such writing can actually provide a great opportunity for playing with the meanings and the music of language
To talk, as I am here, about the aesthetic pleasures of scholarly writing is surely a fool’s game. After all, we know that much academic writing is at best intelligible and at worst unreadable. To gain aesthetic pleasure from either the writing or the reading of scholarly texts seems the remotest of prospects.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Such writing in fact offers a great opportunity for playing with the meanings and the music of language. Try fiddling with the rhythms of a sentence until it comes out in a pleasing cadence, with the strongest points of emphasis reinforcing the most important words. Nail the point you want to make concisely, like an epigram or the punch line to a good joke. Exploit the value of finding just the right metaphor. You don’t want to force it; there’s nothing worse than a clunky or clichéd metaphor. But to stumble into an apt one is a kind of magic. When it suits your purpose, use alliteration to pull together a string of words and give them greater impact. Play with shifts of tone to keep the reader engaged, moving from the language of the seminar to the language of the street and back again.
How can you develop your aesthetic skills as a writer? Start out by reading like one. As you read, look beyond the simple sense of the text and consider how the text is constructed, especially when there’s a passage that really grabs you. How’d he do that? What’s the linguistic move she just made? It helps if you don’t spend all your time reading within the confines of the academic ghetto. Scholarly journal articles are not going to teach you a lot about good writing—although it’s a great pleasure to come across such examples from time to time. You need to read widely in a variety of media. Seek out magazines that feature strong writers. Follow journalists who have a way with words. Read popular histories. Explore fiction in all its forms: short stories, novels and poems. See how accomplished writers make their writing a pleasure to read.
In addition to reading like a writer, you should write like a reader. Allow yourself to take pleasure in making your sentences sound good as well as make sense. While you’re working your way through an argument, grant yourself the pleasure of playing with the language. Your readers will thank you for it. Revel in the thrill of doing something aesthetically pleasurable as well as academically credible. (Small example: in writing the last sentence I first used the word “pleasing” but then switched to “pleasurable” because of how it rhymed with “credible.”)
You can find your pleasures in the most seemingly trivial places. When Nabokov was asked for an example of a favorite passage in his own writing, he pointed to the names he constructed for Lolita’s classmates.
Finally, never underestimate the rhetorical power of graceful writing. It’s a great gift to your readers, drawing them into your argument and motivating them to keep going, in the hope of encountering another burst of pleasure on the next page. It’s also a gift to yourself. Writing with grace can draw you more deeply into the task of writing, as you generate your own bursts of pleasure in constructing the next sentence, paragraph or page. And those aesthetic gifts can also pay off for you in more material ways by charming reviewers, engaging editors and pleasing tenure committees. They can help get you published, promoted and preserved in memory.
Being a graceful writer can become part of your academic brand, as a scholar who pleases the eye and the ear as well as the mind of the reader. But the biggest payoff is for you as writer: the feeling of producing a sentence that sings.
David F. Labaree is the Lee L. Jacks Professor Emeritus at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and author of A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education.