Write the Synopsis First | Academic Writing

academic writingIn the past few months, I’ve been obsessed with AuthortTube (the writing community on YouTube). Although I do not write fiction, so much of what authortubers talk about applies as well to academic writing. Most recently, I came across a series of videos about the process of writing a synopsis. The synopsis is a 1-2 page summary of your book’s plot.

Most writers only prepare a synopsis when they are ready to query agents. Academic writers may even skip this step entirely. But what if we wrote our synopses first? What if, instead of figuring out our arguments while we write, we were to write a 1-2 page summary of our articles or book chapters?

If I cannot summarize my argument in 1-2 pages, I will not be able to do it in 20. For the past few years, I have found organizing my papers particularly challenging. I worry that I have strayed from my original argument. I don’t always know why my argument is important or how it fits in the existing scholarship.

Therefore, I will begin my next academic writing project with a 1-2 page synopsis. I hope that this exercise will make writing the article that much easier.

Mystery, Reflections

I’m Terrible at Guessing Mysteries

Gray Magnifying Glass and Eyeglasses on Top of Open BookAm I the only one who can never decode a mystery? I’ve been reading mysteries off and on for years, and I am still terrible at connecting the dots. At times, I manage to guess the identity of the perpetrator, but I never know why they stood out to me as guilty.

In the past, I have rarely been concerned about my inability to figure out mysteries. Good mysteries keep the reader guessing, anyway. That’s the fun. But my goals for reading crime novels have changed in the last few weeks. I now want to try my hand at writing a murder mystery.

The difference between reading a mystery and writing one is the difference between enjoying magic shows and performing magic yourself. As a spectator, you are expected to buy into the illusion. But a magician has to know how to create the illusion. I have always been impressed by the intricate plot structures of whodunit mysteries, but I am ignorant of the narrative tricks that mystery writers employ. I don’t know what is considered “fair” in the genre.

I recently finished my first Inspector Maigret mystery: Les vacances de Maigret (Maigret on Vacation). Like most readers, I found it a very fun read. I stayed up until 2 am, finishing the last 100 pages of the novel (basically the second half of the book). That is pretty typical for me. Once I get to the interviews, I don’t put the book down until I’ve reached the big reveal. But unlike many readers, I could not piece together the mystery. I asked myself several questions throughout: Which details are important and which details are not? What are the different characters’ intentions? Why do the characters behave this way? I was totally off.

Perhaps, I should reread the story with a pencil. I’ve enjoyed rereading Agatha Christie mysteries in the past. If I reread Maigret on Vacation, would I be able to piece together the plot like so many readers claim to have done?

Writing a mystery sounds fun. I love the detective-work of research. That is what I love about doing a PhD. But can a terrible detective write a good detective novel?

What are your suggestions? Am I alone? Have you ever tried writing a mystery yourself?

Poems, Reflections

La Fontaine’s “The Wolf and the Lamb” (Le Loup et L’Agneau)

I’ve been having a hell of a time finding something to blog about. But a few minutes ago, it occurred to me that I have never discussed my favorite La Fontaine fable “The Wolf and the Lamb” on my blog. Although “The Crow and the Fox” is the most famous French fable, “The Wolf and the Lamb” is my favorite because it gets at a disturbing social dynamic.

I am including both the original poem and an English translation.

                         Le Loup et L’Agneau
La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure :
Nous l’allons montrer tout à l’heure.
Un Agneau se désaltérait
Dans le courant d’une onde pure.
Un Loup survient à jeun qui cherchait aventure,
Et que la faim en ces lieux attirait.
Qui te rend si hardi de troubler mon breuvage ?
Dit cet animal plein de rage :
Tu seras châtié de ta témérité.
— Sire, répond l’Agneau, que votre Majesté
Ne se mette pas en colère ;
Mais plutôt qu’elle considère
Que je me vas désaltérant
Dans le courant,
Plus de vingt pas au-dessous d’Elle,
Et que par conséquent, en aucune façon,
Je ne puis troubler sa boisson.
— Tu la troubles, reprit cette bête cruelle,
Et je sais que de moi tu médis l’an passé.
— Comment l’aurais-je fait si je n’étais pas né ?
Reprit l’Agneau, je tette encor ma mère.
— Si ce n’est toi, c’est donc ton frère.
— Je n’en ai point.
— C’est donc quelqu’un des tiens :
Car vous ne m’épargnez guère,
Vous, vos bergers, et vos chiens.
On me l’a dit : il faut que je me venge.
Là-dessus, au fond des forêts
Le Loup l’emporte, et puis le mange,
Sans autre forme de procès.

                         The Wolf and the Lamb
The reason of those best able to have their way is always the best:
We now show how this is true.
A lamb was quenching its thirst
In the water of a pure stream.
A fasting wolf came by, looking for something;
He was attracted by hunger to this place.
—What makes you so bold as to meddle with my drinking?
Said this animal, very angry.
You will be punished for your boldness.
—Sir, answered the lamb, let Your Majesty
Not put himself into a rage;
But rather, let him consider
That I am taking a drink of water
In the stream
More than twenty steps below him;
And that, consequently, in no way,
Am I troubling his supply.
—You do trouble it, answered the cruel beast.
And I know you said bad things of me last year.
—How could I do that when I wasn’t born,
Answered the lamb; I am still at my mother’s breast.
—If it wasn’t you, then it was your brother.
—I haven’t a brother.—It was then someone close to you;
For you have no sympathy for me,
You, your shepherds and your dogs.
I have been told of this.I have to make things even.
Saying this, into the woods
The wolf carries the lamb, and then eats him
Without any other why or wherefore.
-Trans. Eli Siegel

Admittedly, this is a pretty pessimistic fable. But which Aesop or La Fontaine fable isn’t? French fables do not teach children how the world should be but how it really is. Consequently, children are forced to confront the injustices of the world from a young age.

In most La Fontaine fables, the first line is the moral. The first line of Le Loup et L’Agneau is “La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure”. A literal translation is “The reason of the strongest [person] is always the best.” The fable beneath tells the story of a wolf who chastises a lamb for troubling his water supply. Never mind that the lamb has done absolutely nothing to deserve the wolf’s wrath. The two animals are so far from each other that the lamb is not at all in the way. Nevertheless, the wolf claims that he is.

The wolf’s complaint is far from reasonable. The lamb was already at the stream before the wolf arrived. When the lamb defends himself, the wolf’s accusations become even more ludicrous. He claims that the lamb insulted him the previous year, even though the lamb hadn’t even been born.

So why is the wolf’s reason (ie. the reason of the strongest) the best? It’s certainly not the best because it is the most logical. It’s the best because the wolf has the power to get what he wants. The lamb, on the other hand, lacks the power to escape from the wolf; nothing he might say can prevent him from being eaten.

Thus, the reason of the strongest is the best because the strongest always wins. The irony of the moral points to an unpleasant social reality. Those with the power to get what they want, will.

Many scholars believe that La Fontaine’s moral was an allusion to the case of Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintendent of Finance under Louis XIV. Fouquet was an ambitious administrator and an extravagant spender. He built himself the castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte, which eventually became the model for Louis XIV’s Versailles. Indeed, King Louis was so afraid that a subordinate might become a Richelieu-type premier ministre that he imprisoned Fouquet and confiscated his castle. Fouquet ended his days in prison.

Fouquet may have been one of the wealthiest men in King Louis XIV’s court, but his wealth could not save him. Nor could the reasoning of his friends and acquaintances. Of course, calling Fouquet a lamb is more than a little disingenuous. He certainly acquired his wealth through unjust means. Nevertheless, the moral of the fable holds true: “The reason of those best able to have their way is always the best” (trans. Eli Siegel).

People who get away with saying and doing the most ludicrous things are those who have the most power in our society.


I Haven’t Published a Paper Yet… | Academic Writing

laptop turned onIn the United States, PhD programs are 5-7 years long. Although programs expect students to finish in 5 years, most do not. Before starting my program, I thought I would begin publishing articles at the start of my third year. For two years in a row, I’ve vowed to submit my work to an academic journal. Yet despite what hiring committees might claim about the importance of publishing in graduate school, PhD programs privilege coursework over publications and grants – at least in the humanities.

Don’t get me wrong. There are steps I could have taken to get this article written. I could have scrolled less, managed my time better, and woken up earlier. There are certainly students who have published by the end of their third year. However, I would like to bring attention to the hefty work load students assume in the first 2 to 3 years of their programs. This semester, I have a lighter workload than usual because I am studying at the University of Geneva, where students complete 1, maybe 2, assessments for each course and read one book per course per semester. Yet, my colleagues back at my home university are required to read hundreds of pages per week, teach beginning language courses, and grade numerous assignments. Where can they find the time to write presentations, book chapters, and/or articles?

If national conferences, single-author papers, book chapters, and grants are the current metrics of academic success, why don’t graduate programs prioritize these tasks ? Why don’t professors encourage their students to work on a single piece all semester, rather than in the final three weeks of class? I am convinced that a course dedicated to academic publishing would give students the time and resources to prepare a piece for publication. Besides, I’ve learned more from the act of writing research papers than from reading a series of semi-related books for a course.

As I enter 2020, I know that my resolution will once again be the submission of a paper for publication. I really need to set aside time every week for important task. But I also have a PhD exam at the end of the spring semester covering 70+ texts as well as final exams for the courses I’m taking in Geneva. Here’s to 2020!


There’s No Perfect Writing Process | Academic Writing

Image result for the secret miracleMy local library carries a copy of The Secret Miracle, an edited collection of author interviews about the writing craft. I have no intention of reading the book from cover to cover, but I spent an hour late last week exploring the writing routines of a diverse array of successful authors.

And what I learned, surprised me.

I have written before about the dangers of romanticizing writing. The process is messy and hard. Yet, I often assume that all successful authors have type A personalities with strict writing routines. The Secret Miracle pokes holes in the common writing advice that I’ve encountered on AuthorTube or in the writing blogosphere.

True, most of the authors interviewed treat writing as a job with fixed hours, but they don’t all write everyday. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that few authors follow their outlines to a T or rush first drafts. Ultimately, the only “secret miracle” to writing is perseverance.

How long does it take you to finish a draft?

Rodrigo Fresán: I don’t write thinking about a first draft. I edit all the time while writing. Because the first finished version is the only one (and maybe it is the tenth or twentieth draft).

Like Fresán, I edit as I write. I used to be ashamed of my slow writing speed, but many authors, it seems, take ages to produce a polished “first” draft.

How polished do you try to make the prose in a first draft?

Susan Minot: Pretty well polished. Though I do line edit afterward. But the polish is the difference between good writing and average writing.

Claire Messud: Doesn’t everyone always try to write as well as they can, at any given moment? I can’t imagine not caring, whatever draft I’m dealing with. It’s a matter of aesthetics, as much as anything – infelicities, it seems to me, should be deliberate, not a matter of inattention; because they mean something too.

Do you outline? If so, how closely do you follow it?

Andrew Sean Greer: I write a very careful outline and then abandon it halfway through. It is always a difficult moment for me, but of course I know that it is crucial to follow the way the story has grown, even if it means leaving the road and bushwacking my way to the end.

I always have a detailed outline before I start writing an academic paper, but I realize soon enough that my outline contains massive holes. I often produce three or four different outlines while writing my so-called first draft.

If, like me, you spend ages writing a first draft because you don’t always know what you want to say or you are not satisfied with sloppy writing, take heart! You’re not alone. There is no one ideal writing process. Don’t be discouraged by the writing advice you find in self-help books; they work for some people but not for everyone. Find what works for you, and go with that. As long as you reach the finish line, it doesn’t matter that you write slower than your colleagues.


Not Dead, Just AWOL (PhD and This Blog)

I am currently beginning the dissertation phase of my PhD. That is my excuse for neglecting to blog for the past few months, despite having read some great works. For most of the summer, I have read books related to my research interests (15th and 16th-century life writing). I have also begun turning a term paper into a journal article. “Begun” is the key word because I’ve only worked for two hours on the paper the entire summer. I tell myself that I’m early in my doctorate program, so it doesn’t matter that I haven’t worked seriously on the article all summer. Nevertheless, I need to adopt some kind of writing routine to reach all of the deadlines that I have set for myself.

But none of this explains why I have not written reviews for the books that I’ve read. The real reason is lack of interest. For some reason, I have not wanted to write reviews for by Luther Blissett or Orlando Furioso by Ariosto. I don’t think that I have grown tired of this blog. On the contrary, I have a list of posts about reading and writing that I’ve wanted to publish for the past six months. It is true, however, that I am less interested in promoting well-known classics than I used to be.

My blog has evolved over the years. I started in 2014, when I was 21 years old. At the time, the blog was called Exploring Classics. I even created a Classics Club list, with the intention of reading those 50 classics in 5 years. I’ve abandoned that project for the past three years. I am now 27, having completed a 2-year master’s program and 2 years into a PhD program. My intellectual and research interests have changed over the years. And of course, I have grown in maturity. Each time, I have adjusted the layout of the blog. Two years ago, I finally gave in and bought a domain name. So Exploring Classics is now Exploring Literature.

Perhaps, I am concerned about what people might think if I were to write about my academic writing struggles. Vulnerability is not my strong suit. But at this point in my academic career, I have experienced some challenges that I want to write about. Other academics may find them relatable. I will continue to post reviews of some of the books I’ve read, but I want to explore literature from a different angle than I have in the past. Rather than focusing predominantly on reviews, I will write more writing and research-related reflections.

I hope that making this post will encourage me to finally make the many posts that I’ve wanted to make for the past few months. Let me know if there are academia-related topics that you would like me to cover on this blog. Thanks for sticking around.


5 Things I Learned From Presenting at a Language & Literature Conference

The Great Benefits of Attending Academic ConferencesI presented a paper at a major language and literature conference in the region. It was a great experience! I met scholars and was introduced to new texts in my sub-discipline (Late Medieval/Renaissance France).

Here are 5 things that I learned from the experience:

1) Never underestimate the importance of giving background information in a presentation. After spending nearly four months working on Louis de Berquin – the “Protestant” translator whose trial accounts I analyzed at the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference (KFLC) – I falsely assumed that Berquin was well-known to most Renaissance scholars. Thankfully, I provided a lot of background information about the political state of France in the early 16th-century because the early modernists in my panel had never heard of Berquin.

2) Present your argument clearly and near the start of your presentation. Listeners will be lost if they do not know what your argument is. In the first draft of my paper, I put my argument at the end of my fourth page but a fellow graduate student told me to move it to the first or second page. I’m glad I heeded his advice.

3) Bring a visual (either a handout or a PowerPoint). Not only does a visual keep people awake, it helps with the presentation of complex plot structures and ideas.

4) Speak slowly. Better to speak slowly and go under time by a couple of minutes than to speak quickly and barely make the time – or in the case of one presenter, get through only the first half of your paper and go over time by three minutes .*sigh*

5) Listen to questions and suggestions. Audience questions and comments can be valuable. It’s OK to disagree with someone’s claim, but please be respectful and open to suggestions. Talking over an audience member is rude and counter-productive. Conferences can be great opportunities to grow as a scholar, but you cannot grow if you are unwilling to listen and learn from others. Yes, comments-veiled-as-questions can be irritating, but even more irritating is the speaker who doesn’t know when to stop speaking.

If you have presented at academic conferences, what have you learned from the experience?


Stop Saying That Good Writers Are Born

Image result for self-defeatismI strongly dislike the debate over whether a good writer is born or made. It fosters a defeatist mentality. Why do we feel the need to ask this question in the first place?

I particularly dislike this debate because it’s so hard to evaluate. Who do we consider a “good” writer? Because this debate often comes up in writing circles, my assumption is that a good writer has been published and has won a few literary awards. But are all successful writers good writers on an aesthetic level? Are all unpublished writers bad writers? Do all good writers get published?

I can name many authors who have written New York Times bestsellers but who would probably not get As from their English teachers. But their books are published and have been optioned for movies. Isn’t that the dream for many writers? There are equally as many writers with MFA degrees that have never published a single book. Are they bad writers?

To statistically determine whether good authors (however defined) are born or made, we could conduct a large-scale study on the childhood interests of such authors. Maybe all of them were prodigious writers at a very young age. But I doubt it. Time and time again, we hear stories about critically acclaimed authors who took up writing late in life. My favorite children’s author Roald Dahl was ridiculed by his teachers and told that he would never amount to anything.

And yet, so many people feel the need to say that writers either “have it” or they don’t. What’s the point? If success is defined by publication or prize, then an unpublished writer always has the potential to be published. An unpublished writer could become a published writer whose story sets the tone for how other unpublished writers see their own work.

There’s no point in asking yourself whether a good writer is born or made. No matter who the writer, writing requires discipline and practice. Unless you are on your deathbed, you – the unpublished, unrecognized writer – could become a published, recognized author. But only if you write and finish a project.

Let’s stop promoting the defeatist belief that artists are born, not made. In Academia, we use the term “impostor syndrome” to refer to that false belief that you do not belong in a graduate program or the professoriate. Impostor syndrome is particularly sinister when it is cultivated in us by our friends and mentors. Stop allowing other people to define success for you or to limit your potential. Stop self-sabotaging your own career or hobby. Work on improving your craft.


Why I’m Such a Slow Writer | Academic Writing

Related imageI don’t often talk about my writing struggles on here. I might share goals or writing advice, but I don’t feel comfortable sharing my faults publicly. I resist being vulnerable because I am terrified of being perceived as a complainer – perhaps because my emotions were often ridiculed and dismissed as a child. Nevertheless, I want to share my failures with you because I know that failure is necessary for growth. So here goes.

Yesterday, I submitted my final term paper for the Fall 2018 semester after having worked on it for over three weeks! Now, I know what you’re thinking.  You think I have a problem with procrastination. Nope. I wrote consistently over the three-week period. Many days I worked for 2-3 hours. Nevertheless, it took me three weeks to write a 20-page term paper.

My major problem is that I revise as I write. I am doing it right now. It’s so hard for me to resist the urge to correct clumsy, disorganized prose. I worry that I’m missing transitions or entire paragraphs.

For this paper, I made serious structural edits every 3-5 pages. Then I wrote a few more pages. Then I made even more changes. One day I spent almost two hours writing two sentences. Another day, I spent over three hours changing the order of paragraphs and rewriting topic sentences.

This needs to stop!

I need to be okay with writing multiple drafts. I must resist the urge to write a perfect first draft. In fact, I’ve noticed that my writing is more, not less, clumsy when I agonize over each and every sentence. Paragraphs don’t flow as well.

A more organized and detailed outline would certainly help, but perfectionism is what’s really holding me back.

There are some reasons for this. I’ve never been a “creative”. There was a time when I thought I might like to write fiction, but my writing is very plain and straightforward. I hated creative writing assignments. I couldn’t even write a decent essay in high school. It also doesn’t help that writing is shrouded in myth. Many writers claim that you are either born a writer or you’re not.

Although my writing has improved greatly over the past three years, I know that I will never be a wordsmith. And I’m honestly okay with that. I just want to get my point across. I care about academic writing because I want to communicate my findings with the scholarly community. But at my current writing rate, it will take me a decade to write a dissertation.

My goal in 2019 is to accept that my first draft will be atrocious.


2019 Writing, Language, and Blogging Goals

Closeup Photo of Journal Book and Pencils

First of all, Merry Christmas to everyone celebrating!!

happy new year christmas GIF

Now, on to my 2019 goals:

I usually review the goals that I set for myself the previous year, but I’m not going to do that this year because I didn’t achieve any of them. Nevertheless, I did work toward some of my university-related goals, so I am generally pleased with my progress.

Language and Writing Goals

  1. Let’s start with the most ambitious one. I would like to have a manuscript ready for submission by the end of 2019. Thankfully, I have picked a topic that my advisor agrees is worth turning into an article.
  2. In 2018, I relearned elementary Latin and began reading classical and medieval texts. My goal in 2019 is to read a Latin work (classical or neo-Latin) from start to finish. The length is irrelevant. I just want to have a text under my belt. I read about 50 pages of Neil Klim’s Underground Travels by Ludvig Holberg last summer, but I probably won’t be able to finish it in 2019 because it’s a fairly lengthy work. My biggest weakness is vocabulary. I look up nearly every word in the dictionary. This needs to stop. I’m sure I will be able to read more quickly if I spend time everyday memorizing vocab.
  3. Write for an hour at 7 am every morning. I’m finally going to implement Joli Jensen’s advice in Write No Matter What. Not everyone is a morning person, but I work better in the morning. This is also the best time for me to write, based on my schedule.

Blogging Goals

I’m pretty sure I write the same goals year after year. Will 2019 be the year? We’ll see. I am only setting myself two goals this year.

  1. Post once a week. The only reason why I do not posting regularly is because I don’t write my posts in advance. Instead, I try to do everything all at once. Successful bloggers plan their posts in advance.
  2. Successfully complete a Classics Spin book. To be honest, the 50-book Classics Club challenge no longer interests me because I already have a massive PhD reading list to get to in the next year-and-a-half. But I love the community and what it stands for. I have lost touch with most of the bloggers I knew in the early days of my blog. I am hoping that the Classics Spin challenge will encourage me to interact more with the community.