Friday, June 26, 2009

La Cover

Tell me you love it. Because I think it's the best-looking thing in the universe. I love the spare, dramatic design. I love the origami bird, reminding me of one Brooke did when she was at my house writing her dissertation. Orange is my favorite color. This exterior design harmonizes wonderfully with the interior design of the book (which I also l.o.v.e).

The designers produced what felt like hundreds of covers. Some of them I liked and the McGraw folks didn't. Some they liked and I didn't. I feel extremely fortunate that this is the final version (though it may yet be tweaked a bit), because when I saw this, I threatened—and I'll quote here—to "throw myself on the floor and hold my breath and turn blue and pass out" (I really did put that in an email) till they said "yes." (I think a measured, mature approach to collaborative decisions is always best, don't you?) I just. can't. wait to see this design on the cover of an actual, physical, printed, published, material book. Oh, and have I mentioned how proud I am of this book and how excited I am that it's publishing anon?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Everybody plagiarizes.

[Six months of blogsilence, and now I can't shut up. . . .]

Every smart, responsible writer works very hard not to plagiarize—not only because one doesn't want to be caught and punished but also because smart writers want to demonstrate the entire conversation they're participating in. And also because writers want others to see how hard they've worked to understand their topic. Etc. There's a host of good reasons for trying not to plagiarize.

But especially given the incredibly wide range of textual activities categorized as "plagiarism," every active writer from sources occasionally crosses the line. Really, can any of us swear that we have NEVER patchwritten?—never paraphrased too closely from the language of the source? That once we've acknowledged a source from which we're heavily drawing, we've ALWAYS made clear throughout the text exactly where we're working from that source and where we're not? How can those of us employing research assistants be sure that abstracts they produce are not themselves plagiarized? What about working with coauthors—what if one of them screws up and you don't know it? Etc. There's a host of ways that writers can plagiarize even when they're trying not to. Fully pulling apart a text from its source is a tough thing to do.

And then there is the publishing process. I am right now in the mad rush leading up to the book's being in the printer's hands, and it's terrifying as I try to make sure everything is as it should be. This is a moment where a host of mistakes could be made and could go to print. Plus there are other contributors to the book, good people all, who've done wonderful work. But even though their contributions are authored under their names, it's my name alone on the cover of the book. What if one of them crossed that dark, wavy line? And what about all the revisions that my editors have suggested?

Hence my blog title: everybody plagiarizes. I say that not in order to excuse plagiarism; plagiarism is bad. Rather, I say it as a way of arguing that we need to get a grip about plagiarism and not have a cosmic meltdown over the likes of a single unmarked quotation.

So if everybody plagiarizes, what happens when the plagiarism is detected? The almost-universal excuse from published scholars is "bad research notes." In Doris Kearns Goodwin's case, the excuse was "bad research assistants." At Harvard, for cryin out loud.

But in Chris Anderson's case, the response is to say "yes, I did." And then to explain how it happened.

Excuse me, but a hurricane of fresh air just blew across my desk.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Time management for the chronically overcommitted

Susan asks for an explanation of a Twitter entry forwarded to Facebook; here ya go.

I'm a longstanding user of the 43 Folders system. I can't immediately find the ur-post from that blog that explains the system (anybody else got it bookmarked?), but it's basically that you set up a hardcopy file folder for each day of the month (31 folders) and for each month of the year (12 more), and you file stuff in them so that you find what you need when you need it. Each day you check the appropriate folder(s). A great time hack. If this sounds new to you, browse the 43 folders blog; your time won't be wasted.

David Allen GTD junkies also espouse hardcopy planners, esp. of the DIY variety. I'm not there, probably never will be, as far as calendars go. Google Calendar is all I'll ever need.

But tracking a to-do list is an ongoing challenge and obsession for me, simply because I'm always profoundly overcommitted, hence always trying to find the best way to get as much as possible of it done. (I'm also still practicing the word "no," but it just sounds so wrong!)

A second problem with to-do lists is that I'm always trying to use them to discipline myself, to make myself do all the things that I think I should do every day--in order to earn my Wonder Woman badge for Girl Scouts, I suppose. It's hard for me to use the to-do list only for things that actually have to get done. The merit badge stuff just seems to creep in, especially when I'm using an electronic to-do list (Todoist, for example) that allows you to just add and add and add and add.

So what I've done is set up 43 index cards, 5x8, on the 43 folders principle. And I'm using Post-it notes to make lists on each of those cards. I don't want to write directly on the card, because deadlines change and to-dos move accordingly. (Besides, Post-it notes are purty.) Index cards, even the big 5x8s, fill up, felicitously discouraging me from scripting every dang thang I can possibly think of. I can lay the cards out any way I want, and somehow the physical handling and the IRL scanning makes my tasks - well, makes them more real. (The relays between material and virtual text is itself a matter of ongoing fascination for me. The most recent thing I've read, and one that wonderfully intersects with my interests in authorship history, is this highly recommended essay: Mandell, Laura. "What Is the Matter? Or, What Literary Theory Neither Hears nor Sees." New Literary History 38 (2007): 755-776.)

Now we'll see how long it works for me. Stay tuned for moment-to-moment bulletins.

Monday, June 22, 2009

An open letter to my dissertators

Dear dissertation-writer,

Congratulations on having passed your exams. Now let's talk about the next stage. In it, three huge monsters await you, and I want you to know about them in advance so that you can recognize (and avoid) them when they rear their ugly heads. These are the monsters of inspiration, extended uninterrupted time, and additional reading.

Don't wait for inspiration or for huge blocks of time; set aside time (however brief) for writing every day, and during that time, write. Write even if it sounds stupid or off the mark as you write. Don't spend that time reading, checking your email, or making a fresh cup of tea.

And don't tell yourself that you can't write until you've read some more. Instead, write provisionally. Set aside reading time, too, and as you read, you can expand or correct what you've already written. But never read at the expense of writing. "I have to read some more first" is the oldest I'm-scared-to-write dodge in the academic universe.

Now let's get down to what you're actually writing. You and I both want your dissertation to be highly cohesive and gracefully written. The more important of these, though, is cohesion. Hence as you draft, cohesion is the thing you should attend to first. Worry about grace as you revise. And if you have to sacrifice one or the other, put the knife to grace and keep the cohesion.

To achieve cohesion,
  1. Your introduction should overview the argument of the entire dissertation and do so concisely;
  2. The introduction should not only summarize each chapter but should make wildly clear how that chapter contributes to the overall argument;
  3. The beginning of each chapter should be explicit about what the chapter will do;
  4. The beginning of each chapter should make clear how the chapter contributes to the overall argument of the dissertation;
  5. The beginning of each chapter should be explicit about how this chapter connects back to the one before it;
  6. Throughout the body of each chapter, readers should have no chance of losing sight of what the argument is and how what they're reading contributes to that argument;
  7. The conclusion to each chapter should point to the next, so that one chapter flows logically into another.
If doing this makes your prose sound clumsy as you do it, go ahead and do it anyway. As you revise, we'll talk about how to smooth it out. It's also possible that you're thinking this is heinously formulaic, bound to squeeze all the life out of your prose. Trust me: you can be creative and still make life easy on your readers. This is a dissertation, not a mystery novel.

And if you're wondering how to do this cohesion thang when you're not actually sure how the next chapter will actually unfold: For cat's sake, write an abstract of your whole dissertation and one for each chapter. Write 300 words for the whole diss and 150 words for each chapter. Print them out and pin them to your wall. Don't let yourself spend more than 3 hours total on the first draft of these abstracts. It's just a draft. Then every time your ideas move forward a little, revise them. Always have an up-to-date draft of your dissertation and chapter abstracts; these are the axle grease of the drafting vehicle.

Another thing to note: A dissertation is an argument; it is not a transparent reporting of data. Your argument should be with scholars to whom you accord respect, even as you expand their work, point to new directions, or disagree with them.

And finally: When you send me drafts, make sure I have a list of the works you're citing. Maybe it would be useful to keep your working bibliography on Google Docs (despite all the formatting glitches) and give me permission to see the document. If I don't know who the "Miller" is that you're citing in Chapter 79 (heh heh), I'm going to have a hard time helping you develop your ideas.


Your Beloved Director, she who knows that finally what you write will be quite brilliant. But brilliance comes from steady, focused work, and the faith to allow yourself to produce first- or even second-draft dross.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

What it's like to be filmed

In 1999 I signed with McGraw-Hill to write a handbook. Delayed by surgeries, family deaths, being department chair, and then having a car wreck that derailed me for months, I didn't really get started on writing the handbook for several years. At last, though, Writing Matters will soon be published.

It's standard wisdom in composition and rhetoric to speak of textbooks as something one does for money—not one's day job. My experience has been different. I wanted to write a handbook because as both a writer and a teacher I'm an avid handbook user, and I thought I could write a better handbook than what was available on the market. Over the past seven years (no, that's not a typo) as I've worked energetically on drafts and revisions, I've increasingly come to realize that the handbook is a place where I can put my scholarly insights into practice and share them with other teachers and students. Now, that's a pretty good thing. But an even better thing is the realization that the handbook and my scholarship are now in full synergy; as I write the book and talk with other teachers, I have myriad "eurekas" that go right back into the scholarship.

These are surprises. Delightful ones. When I signed the handbook in 1999, I had no idea my scholarship would so directly contribute to it, and I certainly had no idea that it would directly and excitingly contribute to my scholarship.

Nor did I have any idea the handbook would make me a movie star.

Remember those things you wanted to be when you were a kid? The first one I remember was wanting to be a nurse. That was in, like, third grade. By the time I was in high school, my ambitions had pretty much solidified: I wanted to be in a loving relationship (I probably had Troy Donahue in mind), and I wanted to be a professor, a writer, and a movie star.

As an adult I've laughed about how I achieved all but one of those ambitions. I'm in a 33-years-and-counting loving relationship with the Beloved Partner, someone far more wonderful than Troy; I'm a professor; and I'm a writer.

Now the handbook brings #4 to life: I'm a movie star. I've spent an entire day in a New York studio being filmed. Well, okay, it's not for the movies but for handbook supplements. But it was an actual studio and an actual film crew, so I've put a check mark beside that item on my lifetime to-do list. Who knew writing a textbook could involve film stardom?

And what was it like? It was groovy. If you're a ham like me, you eat this stuff up. There was a stylist who brought an enormous suitcase of supplies for the purpose of making me look presentable. That was a half-hour job or more, and by the time she was done, I could barely hold my head up under the weight of all that makeup. But by golly, I was indeed presentable. I spent the day in that studio, happy with what I was wearing: a pair of earrings that Melisa had given me; a scarf from Kelly; and a necklace that Mary made. I had my friends with me, and I had professionals making me look good. I had McGraw-Hill folks talking me through the process, and I had professionals doing a great job with the filming.


The only thing better will be seeing this book in print, at long last.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Just a hiatus?

But how long, really, can one just not blog at all?