On Rhetoric

Decorative banner for post. Text reads, "Rhetoric: A Directory Post." Includes illustration of a pencil.

I write about a lot of different things on here. Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about concepts in rhetoric. I’ve been trying to make them meaningful to a broad audience, not just folks interested in writing. A greater knowledge of rhetoric can help you become more media literate, which I think is a good cause.

This post collects all my past pieces on rhetoric, and as I add more (spoiler alert, I’m writing about stasis right now), I’ll post them here, too. I’ll still include links at the beginning of each post, but I thought a directory post might be a useful way point for those wanting to find and read about specific topics.

Posts on The Rhetorical Situation

Posts on Rhetorical Appeals

Happy reading! Let me know what you think of the series in the comments! Is there a concept from rhetoric you’d like to see me tackle? Let me know and I’ll get a-writing!

All the Facts about All the “Facts”

This post is one of a series of posts about rhetoric. Other posts in this series give an overview of rhetoric, describe the rhetorical situation, and discuss ethos and pathos.

In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” as their International Word of the Year. They write, “Post-truth has gone from being a peripheral term to being a mainstay in political commentary, now often being used by major publications without the need for clarification or definition in their headlines,” and illustrate this with a (admittedly, sort of vague) graph showing the sharp rise of its use over the previous year (though there are no numbers on the Y-axis, so whether we’re talking dozens of uses or thousands, I guess we’ll never know).

Over the past decade, and with a rise in the prevalence of online news reporting, there has been more and more hand-wringing over the presentation of “facts” and “truth” by politicians and media outlets—with good cause, of course. The current sitting president of the United States has a particularly egregious reputation for spouting statements that are, shall we say, less-than-true. The fact-checking website Politifact has rated over 800 statements made by the President, finding only 14% of them “true” or “mostly true.”

Graph of Politifact scores on statements made by Donald Trump. True: 4%, 34 checks made. Mostly true: 10%, 83 checks made. Half true: 14%, 115 checks made. Mostly false: 20%, 167 checks made. False: 34%, 283 checks made. Pants on fire: 16%, 131 checks made.
I love that “Pants on Fire” is a category here.

So, what does it mean to live in a “post-truth world”? Oxford Dictionaries proposes this definition of “post-truth”:

Post-truth is an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

This definition, though, begs the question: what even is a fact?

Just the Facts, Ma’am

There are many definitions of fact, and I’m not just talking about alternative facts, either. There are subtle differences in the definitions of the word fact across the Oxford English Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and the Cambridge Dictionary. The definition most useful for our purposes here is the second entry in the Merriam-Webster definition:

a piece of information presented as having objective reality

Notice that this definition does not say, “a piece of information grounded in objective reality,” or “information based on objective reality”; it says, “a piece of information presented as having objective reality.

I like this definition because it reflects actual contemporary usage of the term fact. Claiming to have “the facts” is something both Democrats and Republicans (and other political parties) do. Calling on a fact is a powerful tool in persuasive communication, and not just in politics. Any argument based on something the author claims is a fact has a certain persuasive appeal to it.

A rhetorical appeal, that is.

Logos, The Housing Market, and Aquaman

Back in ye olde ancient Greece, appeals to facts, logic, or rationality were called appeals to logos. When people say things like, “It just makes sense,” or “It’s common sense,” or “It’s the rational thing to do,” those are all appeals to logos. If something is the rational thing to do, it’s obviously the best thing to do, right?

Well….

Two things. First of all, just because a person claims something is the “rational” thing to do, or claims something is a “fact,” doesn’t mean that thing is, in fact (haha), rational or a fact. One of my favorite examples of this comes from Youtuber Hbomberguy in his video about climate change. He critiques a claim from Ben Shapiro; Shapiro argues that even if water levels do rise enough to make living in low-lying coastal areas impossible, that the people who live in those places would just sell their home and move. Put that way, it seems rational, doesn’t it? You’re worried that your home might one day be underwater, so you should probably put it on the market and get the heck out of town, right?

But as Hbomberguy so eloquently says, “Sell their houses to who, Ben?! Fucking Aquaman?!” People will have to move, yes, but it’s the selling part that’s not as rational as Ben seems to think it is. Underwater real estate is not exactly a seller’s market.

The fact is (lol), anyone can call anything a fact. That doesn’t make it actually grounded in reality.

Second, what is rational to do in any given moment is actually highly debatable.

Marshmallows and Avocado Toast

One example of this contested nature of so-called rationality comes from psychology. In 1972, a psychologist at Stanford University named Walter Mischel began a study on patience in children. In this experiment, he sat a kid down at a table, put a marshmallow in front of them, and told them not to eat it until he returned. He said that if the kid waited, he would come back with another marshmallow. Then, he conducted follow up studies that linked the child’s ability to wait for the second marshmallow (their patience, or what he called “delayed self-gratification”) with measures of success in life—higher grades, higher SAT scores, etc.

This kind of talk around “delayed self-gratification” is often deployed against people who, for whatever reason, don’t do things like save for retirement, supposedly because of all those lattes and avocado toasts. According to this logic, it’s rational to save for retirement, or to buy a house, and if you millennials would just delay your self-gratification (i.e., stop buying lattes and avocado toast), your finances would be in a better position. It’s only logical. It’s common sense.

But is it?

In 2012, researchers Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri, and Richard N. Aslin published a variation on the traditional marshmallow experiment. In their version of the study, they created two conditions: a reliable condition and an unreliable condition. In both conditions, kids were initially given some well-worn art supplies, but told if they waited a bit, the researchers would bring back some better, newer art supplies. In the reliable condition, researchers left the room for two and half minutes and then actually came back with better supplies. In the unreliable condition, when the researchers returned, they told the kid they were sorry, but they couldn’t find the better art supplies, and asked if the kid could just use the ones they already had.

And then they did the original marshmallow task.

Which group of kids do you think were better able to wait for their second marshmallow?

If you guessed the kids in the reliable condition, you’re right. The researchers had already proven themselves to be reliable to the kids, so they were better able to wait than the kids to whom the researchers had proven their lack of reliability.

Given these two scenarios, which decision is a more rational decision, the decision to eat the marshmallow, or the decision to wait? Essentially, the researchers argue that both of those decisions are rational given their respective circumstances. If you don’t trust the researchers to come back with more marshmallows (a reasonable assumption given their previous behavior), it’s actually a more rational decision to go ahead and eat the marshmallow.

The Power of Logos

Appeals to logos are powerful. In a cultural climate that prizes rationality and common sense in the way that we do in the United States, it’s natural to want to appear rational, to do the rational thing. But appeals to logos are just like appeals to ethos and appeals to pathos in that they are tools of rhetoric that can operate both for us and against us. Hopefully being able to deconstruct them and find the underlying messages in the communication you encounter will help you in your own decision-making process.

But what if you want to use appeals to logos to construct your own persuasive communication? That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms, one I’ll hopefully get to next time.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed the post, please don’t hesitate to share on social and follow the blog! You can also support my work by “buying me a coffee” at ko-fi.com/claysad. My initial goal for money raised there will be to upgrade my WordPress subscription, a big step toward legitimacy and professionalism in the blogging world!

Pianos, Shoes, and Rhetoric, Oh, My!

Diverse people, with faces covered with emoticons

This post is part of a series on rhetoric. Check out the first, second, and third posts too, if you’re interested!

Did you know I am a classically trained pianist? Or, at least, I used to be. I don’t know how much I’m entitled to that… title, I guess… now, but I took twelve years of lessons and minored in piano performance in college.

Anyway. In high school, I began learning the first movement to Sonata “Pathetique” by Beethoven. I was really excited to learn it because the major theme was used in a Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego theme I used to play on the computer back in the dark ages when computer games required Compact Discs. But I digress.

When I first began to learn the piece, my piano teacher taught me that the name “Pathetique” is what’s called a false cognate in language learning. To native English speakers, pathetique sounds a lot like the English word pathetic. But a more accurate translation would be “emotional.”

And so it is in rhetoric, too.

One of the three rhetorical appeals discussed by Aristotle and frequently taught today in writing classrooms is the appeal to pathos, or the appeal to emotion.

The Case Against Emotion in Persuasive Communication

Appeals to emotion in persuasive communication often get a bad rap. Cries of “you’re not being rational” or “stop being so emotional” are often used to shut down or dismiss people on social media. There’s this idea that’s really prevalent in many online (and offline, tbh) spaces that if everyone can just “calm down” and “have a rational debate” about difficult topics, then we could come to some kind of agreement or compromise, even about controversial subjects.

On its face, this may seem like a nice thought: if we can just all speak rationally, then we can come to the best conclusions for everyone involved. Underneath that idea, though, are several underlying assumptions:

  1. “Rationality” has more value than emotion.
  2. People’s systems of reasoning are more or less the same.
  3. People generally have the same values.

Here’s the thing: these assumptions are not necessarily true. In fact, I’d argue that they’re all false.

I probably don’t have to convince you that the last one is false, but the first and second statements, maybe I do. Let’s start with number two, because I have more to say about number one.

For those of you who don’t know, I was born and raised in America, but I currently live in Luxembourg, a small European country nestled comfortable between France, Germany, and Belgium. Something I have struggled with here is going to sit-down restaurants. In the States, if you’re not in a fast food or fast casual restaurant, you’re going to step inside the restaurant and wait by the host stand to be seated. A host will come and take you to a table, possibly after asking after your preferences. Here in Luxembourg and the other places we’ve visited so far, that’s not the case. There are no host stands, and so what sometimes happens is this: I walk into a restaurant, panic about whether I’m supposed to wait to be seated, and then a server will indicate that I can basically sit anywhere I want to.

Why do I get nervous about these encounters? Because this is an (admittedly slight) cultural difference between the US and Europe. The cultural assumptions about behaviors in restaurants vary just enough to make me uncertain how to behave.

This idea, that assumptions about beliefs and behaviors differ, and that those assumptions lead to cultural differences in how people interpret each other’s behavior, is called cultural logic.

People in different cultures operate under different cultural logics, and that affects how they communicate. I don’t just mean national cultures, either. Cultures within the States have different cultural logics, too.

Take, for example, the recent rise in support for defunding and/or abolishing police. One way to consider the disagreements about this topic is to think through two very different assumptions about policing held by different groups in the United States.

Some groups assume that police, and the institution of policing in general, is a net good and overall produces a safer society than a society without policing.

Other groups assume that police, and the institution of policing in general, is a net negative and overall produces a less safe society than a society without policing, usually for particular minority groups (Black and Indigenous people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, homeless people, etc.).

These different groups are operating off of not just different but opposite cultural logics, and unless those logics can be broken down and examined, one group is not going to make any persuasive headway with the other group.

The Case For Emotion in Persuasive Communication

Now, about that first assumption above: “rationality” has more value than emotion.

I’m not about to say that emotions are more valuable than rationality. But I will say they are at least as important as logic because they let us know what our values are.

Remember that example of an appeal to pathos I wrote about in my first post in this series? The Sarah MacLaughlin ad for the ASPCA? I always use this as an example because it’s such an obvious appeal to emotion. People watch it and get sad about puppies and kitties and then go give money to the ASPCA. But why does it make people sad?

I’ll tell you why it makes me sad. Because I care about the well being of puppies and kitties! It’s important to me that those little babbies get well-taken care of and are not abused! My emotional response to the commercial shows me (and others) what I care about.

Emotion can also be a powerful motivator to action, sometimes more so than logic or credibility. If something makes you very emotional, be it angry or sad or joyful, you might be more inclined to act on those feelings than if you just encounter appeals to logic or credibility.

The Corporate Case for Pathos

Take for example a few major commercial campaigns from recent films. In 2018, Nike released an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, a (former?) football player and activist who had been protesting police brutality against people of color by kneeling during the national anthem.

People who had been critical of Kaepernick for these protests were spurred to action by these protests. They tossed out or burned their Nike shoes in protest of Nike’s support of Kaepernick.

But after the ad and the associated social media storm? Nike stocks went up.

While one group saw the ads and protested Nike in a storm of emotion, others were spurred to support Nike through feelings of pride, righteousness, and hope.

Another Case Against Pathos

Here’s another thing about appeals to pathos, though. They can cue us in to our emotions, which is great, but just like any rhetorical appeal or device, appeals to pathos can be deployed for both good and ill. And, of course, a bit of both.

Take the Nike ads, for example. While supporters of Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement more generally may laud Nike for this ad, they may be frustrated to find that Nike has long been and continues to be scrutinized for their treatment of their workers. Specifically, Nike has historically used sweatshop labor in their factories, something they claimed to have addressed in the early 2000s. However, more recent investigations seem to indicate they may have returned to this practice. Some BLM supporters did know of these allegations, and called on Nike to end these harmful practices. Whether or not Nike listened to these critiques amide the social media storm that arose from these ads, however, remains to be seen.

The long and the short of it is best summarized by Youtuber Hbomberguy in his video on Woke Brands. In it, he reminds us that “brands aren’t [our] friends.” Brands want one thing: your money. And support. Okay, maybe two things. But really, that second thing is actually about that first thing. So yeah. They want your money.

TL;DR: Emotions are Great. Pathos just is.

So what’s the big takeaway here? Basically, I’m trying to persuade you that the use of pathos isn’t inherently good or bad. Appeals to pathos are just something that exist in the world, and, like all rhetorical tools, can be used in service of many kinds of causes. They’re not more or less important than appeals to logos or ethos, but they can give us a different kind of information–information about ourselves.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, help a blogger out and share it on your social platforms, please and thank you. And then go check out the other posts in this series:

Three Things to Improve Your Professional Writing

This post is part of a series explaining basic principles of rhetoric as they apply to professional and public writing. Check out the first post and stay tuned for more posts on rhetoric!

When you sit down to write something for your job, what’s the first think you do? And don’t say panic.

If you’re like most people, you probably think about what it is you want to say. You might also think about the person or people you’re writing to, and why they should listen to you.

If you’re writing something short and simple, like an email reply, you might not spend a lot of time thinking about these things. On the other hand, if you’re writing something really big, like a grant proposal or a technical report, you probably think quite a bit about them.

In rhetoric, we talk about something called the rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation is made up of three main components:

  1. The author
  2. The audience
  3. The purpose

Sometimes we like to illustrate these components with a neat little triangle.

An image featuring an illustration of the rhetorical situation triangle diagram. A triangle's three corners are labeled "purpose," "author," and "audience."

Most likely, you’re already thinking about these things when you sit down to write. You’re thinking about who you’re writing to—that’s the audience. You’re thinking about why you’re writing, or what you want people to do after they see your message. That’s the purpose. And you may be thinking about why your audience should listen to you, the author.

If you’re not thinking about these things when you sit down to write, you should start! Thinking through each component more explicitly can help you be more effective in your writing.

Fix this Social Media Post with the Rhetorical Situation

Here’s a quick, short example:

Say your organization is hosting an online trivia event to raise money for a charity. You create this great social media post with all the details, and you plan to ask everyone in the organization to share it. Let’s think through this piece of writing. Who is the author? Who is the audience? What is the purpose? And do you think the document will succeed in achieving its purpose?

Text on decorative background. Text reads: "Charity Fundraiser. Zoom Trivia Night. Date: Saturday, June 27. Time: 6:00 pm. Location: Your Computer!

Okay, so, first of all: who is the author? In this case, it’s you, but only sort of. The event is hosted by your organization. Can you tell that by looking at this piece of communication? Not really. It might be a good idea to add an organizational logo to the image so that the author is easily recognizable. Especially if it’s a big, well-known organization, that’ll give the post a boost in credibility.

Second, who is the audience? Well, you want everyone in your organization to share it, so, potentially, it could have a very wide audience—the social media friends of everyone in your organization! But, really, is that actually your audience? Or is it a bit more specific than that? If the event is a charity fundraiser, you probably want people to attend the event who have some disposable income and are amenable to donating it to the fundraiser.

And speaking of donating, what is the purpose of this post? You want to let people know about this event, but more specifically than that, what is the action you want people to take after they read the post? You want them to actually participate! And eventually, hopefully, give to the fundraiser. But does the poster let people know how to attend the fundraising event?

No, it doesn’t, because it’s a fake example I engineered as a teaching tool. The big place this piece of communication fails is in the purpose. If you want people to actually attend the fundraiser after reading the post, just saying, “Your Computer!” is the location isn’t quite specific enough. You’d need to give a link to the Zoom meeting or to the online ticketing service you’re using or whatever so that people know how to participate.

Identify Your Purpose

Understanding your purpose when you sit down to write and communicating that purpose clearly to your audience are both crucial parts for successful communication. But how, exactly, do you do that?

Well, it’s tricky. Especially because documents can have more than one purpose. Take for example meeting minutes—those documents that get sent around after organizational meetings that explain, sometimes in excruciating detail, what was discussed at the meeting. What are the purposes of those minutes? Here are a few I came up with:

  1. To have a record of organizational activity. Sometimes organizations need to refer to these things later on.
  2. To let people who couldn’t attend the meeting know what happened. Folks who didn’t attend can read through them to know what decisions were made and what tasks may have been assigned to them at the meeting. And speaking of tasks….
  3. To remind attendees what they agreed to at the meeting. I used to work as an editorial assistant at an academic lab that developed curricular materials for engineering education classrooms. I regularly referenced the lab meeting minutes to remind myself of all of the projects that needed my attention each week.

One way to think through your purpose for a document is actually to begin by thinking through your audience(s). Once you’ve identified your audience(s)—the topic of another post—you can think through what you want each audience to do after they’ve read your work. That’s your purpose.

Next up: Audience

Next time, we’ll take a deeper dive into identifying your audience for a piece of communication. But for now, I want to hear from you! Have you ever come across a piece of communication that failed in it’s purpose like this example? What about one that misunderstood its audience? Feel free to share examples in the comments below!

Rhetoric is Not a Four-Letter Word

It’s literally an eight-letter word. But you know what I mean.

Politicians like to throw the word rhetoric around like it leaves a bad taste in their mouth. They pair it with adjectives like hateful, divisive, or violent. They use it to talk about why their opponents are wrong or bad.

These are not incorrect uses of the word rhetoric. But here’s the thing. Calling out someone else’s rhetoric is, in and of itself, an example of rhetoric.

Academics (and recovering academics, like myself) like to quibble about definitions of rhetoric. They’ve been writing about it pretty much since writing became a thing. Socrates didn’t care for it. Aristotle thought it was a core component of civic life.

But what is it?

Aristotle said that rhetoric was all about persuasion, but I think it’s more than that. Rhetoric is about the choices we make whenever we communicate, not just when we’re trying to be persuasive.

If you believe that, then you start to see rhetoric everywhere around you—and that’s a good thing. Learning more about rhetoric can help you become a better communicator. It can also make you a savvier consumer of contemporary media. It can help you see when you’re being manipulated, and it can help you identify fake news.

It’s also a great at removing warts! Just kidding.

Rhetoric 101

Hopefully by now, you’ve been persuaded by my rhetoric to keep reading and learn more about, well, rhetoric. There’s a lot to cover, so while I’ll give an overview of a few concepts in rhetoric in this post, it’s just the beginning of a whole series on rhetoric. I’ll do some deeper dives into particular topics, and I’ll dissect rhetoric as I come across it in the wild.

To start with, in this post, I’ll cover the rhetorical situation and rhetorical appeals.

The Rhetorical Situation

Any time you communicate, you find yourself in a rhetorical situation. A rhetorical situation consists of four main parts: an author (or speaker), an audience, a message, and a context. Let’s take this blog post as an example. I’m the author, you’re the audience, and you’re reading the message. The context is that I want to talk about rhetoric to people outside of academia.

Let’s take another example, though. Say you’re writing a cover letter for a job you want to apply for (incidentally, something I can help you with). You’re the author, and the message is the contents of your letter—the experiences you share to illustrate your qualifications for the job in question. But who’s the audience?

That’s actually a more complicated question than you might think. You’re probably trying to get it on your future boss’s desk, but before it makes it there, it makes a few other steps along the way. First, it might go through an ATS, or automated tracking system. ATSes skim application materials and use machine-learning algorithms to select a few candidates out of several hundred to be forwarded on to HR. Then, someone in HR will likely look at it, and then finally, your cover letter might make it all the way to your (hopefully) future boss. So, your audience is not just your future boss, but also the HR department. You could even consider the ATS to be part of the audience!

So there’s more to the rhetorical situation than meets the eye. I’ll talk more about each component of the rhetorical situation in future posts, so stay tuned!

Rhetorical Appeals

If we think about rhetoric as persuasion, then one problem we have to solve when communicating is how to persuade. Rhetorical appeals are tools for persuasion.

In his Rhetoric, Aristotle talks about three rhetorical appeals, using some Greek words to describe them. These Greek words have stuck around since his time, so I’ll use them here, too:

  • Logos: Appeals to logic
  • Pathos: Appeals to emotion
  • Ethos: Appeals to credibility

As examples, I’ll talk about some popular commercials that use each appeal. Analyzing commercials is a great way to hone your ability to spot rhetorical appeals, by the way. And getting better at spotting them helps you get better at using them yourself.

Logos. Verzion makes several appeals to logos in this commercial. They say switching to Verizon makes more sense than “settling” for less 4G coverage.

Pathos. Old Spice has been the king of comedic commercials for awhile. Here’s an example of an Old Spice commercial appealing to pathos, or emotion.

But joy isn’t the only emotion that can be appealed to. The SPCA used to have a commercial featuring sad animals set to Sarah MacLaughlan’s song “Angel.” To this day I can’t watch it; press play at your own risk.

Ethos. Trident uses two main appeals in this commercial. It’s a funny commercial, so they’re appealing to pathos, but the phrase “four out of five dentists recommend…” is actually an appeal to ethos, or credibility. Dentists know what’s good for your teeth, so if four out of five dentists recommend it, then it must be good!

Rhetoric is an Eight-Letter Word

To recap, rhetoric isn’t inherently a bad thing. It can certainly be used for causes we disagree with, but it can also be used for good. Have you ever donated to a cause you care about after seeing a post on social media about it? That’s rhetoric at work!

Rhetoric and communication exist to get things done in this world. If you want to get things done, stay tuned for more discussions of rhetoric!

The “Science” of Science Writing: Reader Expectations

This post is part of a series on the “science” of good writing. You can read the first post here if you’d like, but you can also just dive right in!

How do you determine if writing is good?

Depending on who you ask, the answer will be more or less nuanced–good writing is clear and concise; good writing is engaging or persuasive. Some would argue that writing can’t be good unless its content is based on sound ethical principals. Others might say that any writing is good as long as it gets its message across.

George Gopen and Judith Swan, in their piece The Science of Scientific Writing, foreground the audience as a determining factor in what makes a piece of writing good. This isn’t necessarily a new idea; audience-centered communication has been taught at least as far back as Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

But Gopen and Swan specifically talk about centering audience expectations. When an audience reads a sentence or a paragraph, what do they expect?

Gif of a short clip from the Monty Python sketch, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition." Three red-robed gentlemen burst into a modern-day living room, and a caption appears, saying "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"
False! No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Turns out, readers general expectations are pretty easy to predict. And understanding and meet those expectations are core components of Gopen and Swan’s idea of good writing.

Purple giraffes fly over the moon.

See what I mean? You’re probably thinking, “Wait, what about purple giraffes?” I threw completely new information–a new topic, even–at you completely out of the blue. I didn’t even lead into it with the question, “What happens when you don’t meet audience expectations” because I wanted the sentence to feel as out of place as possible.

It pulls you out of the text and might have made the paragraph after it a bit more difficult to read, even though the sentence “Purple giraffes fly over the moon” clocks in at about a fourth-grade reading level.

So what are audience expectations? And how do I meet them to help make my writing better?

We’ll get into that next time. And speaking of next time, here’s a list of all the posts in this series. As each piece comes out, I’ll edit in the links here, so bookmark this page or follow the blog if you want to stay up to date!

  • November 8: The “Science” of Good Writing
  • November 15: This post!
  • November 22: The Structure of Reader Expectations
  • November 29: What’s the Missing Piece?
  • December 6: Taking Action

Thanks for reading–see you next time!

The “Science” of Good Writing

I don’t know if you know this, but writing is hard. And writing good–ahem, writing well–is even harder.

Sometimes, though, writers hide behind the complexity of their subject matter to excuse–or even brag about–their bad writing. Writing in certain academic fields, like science or philosophy, has a reputation for being just completely incomprehensible. And some academics are proud of this. They preen about the difficulty of their work and say things like, “It’s not my fault other people can’t understand my brilliance.”

Okay, okay. I’ve never heard an academic say anything quite like that (I don’t think), but the attitude does exist.

But this attitude butts up against the attitudes of other scholars who think that a core part of academia’s mission is service to the public good. And if the public can’t read and engage with your work, then what are you even doing?

Sometimes, from deep within these debates, advice emerges on how to make your writing better–advice like George Gopen and Judith Swan’s The Science of Scientific Writing, originally published in the 1990 November-December issue of American Scientist.

This piece speaks directly to scientists, who are particularly known among academics for their nigh indecipherable prose. It’s not a listicle, but it ultimately breaks down several strategies for improving scientific writing that are actually backed by research from my field–because it’s co-written by someone from that field.

And it’s kind of great, but it’s also kind of long. And the examples are directly lifted from scientific papers that can be difficult get through for field outsiders like me. So I’m going to do a little mini-series of posts breaking down their recommendations one by one into bite-sized pieces that are slightly easier to digest.

Here’s a preview of coming attractions. As each piece comes out, I’ll edit in the links here, so bookmark this page or follow the blog if you want to stay up to date!

  • November 15: Reader Expectations
  • November 22: The Structure of Reader Expectations
  • November 29: What’s the Missing Piece?
  • December 6: Taking Action

Thanks for reading–and stay tuned!

Revise and Resubmit… Again.

Remember like two weeks ago when I posted about the revising and resubmitting process in the short fiction market? And how I said it was frustrating because I never got any feedback?

Well, now I have to eat my words because I did get some feedback! Mmm, tasty words.

I didn’t get a ton of feedback, but a little bit of feed back is still feedback, so today I worked on applying it to the story.

And you know what?

It’s a better story.

Big shocker, I know.

I didn’t use all of the feedback, for two reasons. One, I wasn’t sure I agreed with part of it. The editor said a part of the story felt a bit rushed, and I rather liked the pacing of that section. Two, expanding that section would have taken up even more space in 2700-word story I am planning to submit to a journal that seeks stories of 3,000 words and under, and I wanted to expend those 300 additional words at the end of the story. The editor said the ending was rushed, and that, I definitely agreed with.

And I like this ending much, much better than my original ending.

So, I’m going to let it rest for a bit and submit it somewhere else soon. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe they’ll say the same thing, that the part I didn’t change was a bit rushed, or just reject it without giving a reason. Then I guess I’ll give that section another look.

We’ll see how it goes.

I wrote a book! Now what?

So, something happened this weekend.

Did you notice?

Screen shot of front page of the blog, with the "Manuscript Progress" bar circled in red because I have written 75,026 words out of my goal of 75,000!
What now?

I finished my book! I both hit my word count goal of 75,000 and actually managed to end the story satisfactorily.

Well, I say satisfactorily, but I’ve already made several notes to myself with plans for revision. Because I said the book is finished, but I didn’t say it was good.

Now, before you protest and say I’m being too hard on myself, just stop. While I do certainly suffer from my share of imposter syndrome and am often unreasonably harsh on my own writing, that is not what’s happening here.

What’s happening, is a first draft. And sometimes to finally finish a first draft, you have to do some weird things. Like completely change a side character’s occupation and backstory, and maybe even delete a character because they weren’t really serving the story. Like add in new aspects of your protagonist’s motivation that didn’t exist in the first chapter that now need to be added in to the first, like, three quarters of the book.

So, when I say the book is bad, it’s more like, the book is a hot mess.

But that’s okay. It’s not going to stay that way, at least not forever. It is going to stay that way for a couple of weeks while I focus my pen elsewhere.

That’s really what this blog post is about.

I stopped doing just about any other writing for a few weeks because I realized that if I focused all of my energies on the book, I could be finished with the first draft by Halloween, and that realization proved to be an extremely strong source of motivation for me. But now it’s time to get back to other projects.

The problem is, I’m feeling a bit torn on how to prioritize my attention.

As a fledgling fiction writer in the 21st century, I’m unsure what the most strategic path to publication is for me. Back when I was in college (2004 – 2008), the path to fiction publication was to write a book and then query agents and/or publishers. If, when you wrote said query, you could add in a list of fiction you had published in respected literary or genre magazines, you were more likely to get a positive response. So a crucial early step to publishing your book was to write and seek publication for short stories.

This is still a path to publication, and unless you’re magic, it’s the only path to traditional publication.

But is it?

Part of the reason for including your short story publications in your queries to potential agents or publishers is so that they can see that other professionals have invested in you before. Agents and publishers are essentially making a financial decision. They want to know if your work will sell. If it has an audience.

But literary and genre magazines are not the only pathways to building an audience anymore. They’re a good pathway, certainly a well-respected pathway, but not the only pathway.

Other pathways to building an audience for your writing include blogging, podcasting, vlogging, social media, even fan fiction, and online serial publishing services like Tapas.

But growing an maintaining audiences through those platforms takes a lot of work and a lot of time. I recently read a blog post by Chris Breechen, the brains behind the very popular Writing About Writing Facebook Page that talked about how to build a social media following.

His recommended posting schedule?

Roughly one post per (waking) hour, every single day. Roughly ten to twelve posts a day, maybe a hundred posts a week.

I read that, and my heart just sank. Chris said he spends roughly one to two hours per day on the WAW facebook page, planning and scheduling posts. And that’s not counting the blog posts he shares, either, if I remember correctly. Combined with the time he spends writing for his blog, writing on other projects, and doing his other non-writing jobs, he works at least 50 – 60 hours per week.

Damn.

That’s… a lot. More than I can do and maintain my current levels of mental and physical health. So, uh, I’m… not going to do that.

But I could certainly up my blog and social media output.

But any time I spend on social is time I spend away from writing. And I have one story that needs to be revised and resubmitted (for an early December submission window), one story that needs to be finished and submitted somewhere (no deadline), and one story that I’m thinking of writing for an upcoming short story contest with a mid-November deadline.

And that’s not even to mention the research, plotting, and world building I’d like to begin for my next book.

Or the bit of freelance writing/SEO work I’ve got on my plate this week.

Or, of course, revising my finished book.

So, yeah, I’m a little uncertain where to turn my attention just now.

What about you? What’s your ratio of writing to blogging/social-media-ing? Do you spend more time writing on spec for lit/genre magazines? Or do you find the wide, digital world of self-publishing to be more strategic? Let me know in the comments below!