Wednesday, April 10, 2013

No characters, no plot, no story

Jonathan Wolff (a philosopher) writes in The Guardian about how boring academic writing is.
Choice line:
It explains why academic writing is generally so much easier to put down than it is to pick up again.
He argues that a good story depends on there being a tension between what happens and the revelation of what happens. E.g, you know what's going to happen next, but the protagonist is dangerously unaware of the banana peel lurking under her boot.

Academic writing can't be this way, or it shouldn't be this way, or it's risky when it's this way. I'm not so old that I can't remember back to my way of writing as a naive philosophy student. I would pick an unpopular position, but I wouldn't reveal the argument until the last possible minute. "It's not a detective  story," my professor would say. Those papers flopped.

I still resist opening a paper with the roadmap approach: "First, I will argue that xyz-ism is inevitable. Second, I will show that given the inevitability of xyz-ism, it is also necessary. Finally, this point will be used to launch a criticism of the contingency of xyz-ism."

Although philosophy papers aren't known for cliffhangers, I can think of a few that have style. Just a touch of tension may be all that's needed.

No comments: