A few quick notes from the slush mines while I ready the posts I’ve actually been spending time with:
✶If you wouldn’t want to take the time out of your busy academic schedule to read the monstrosity of a manuscript you just sent to us, nobody else will either. Contrary to what you may believe, everybody else is just as busy as you are, and thousand page manuscripts filled with bone-crushing prose just aren’t something we really feel comfortable asking people we like to read. Frankly, we can’t pay people enough to slog through that kind of thing—not because we’re short on cash, mind you, but because there are some things not worth doing, no matter the price. Furthermore, when that book’s printed and bound, it’s going to be a doorstop. People will balk at buying it—it’ll be so long we’ll have to increase the price, you’ve probably made it so specialized nobody’s going to want to read it, and we’ll get stuck with boxes of expensive bricks in our warehouse. If we tell you to cut it by half, we don’t mean a quarter, we mean half. Seriously, any book that long has things you can cut. If you’re fluent in four languages, two of them dead, you shouldn’t need us to tell you the meanings of “proportion,” “concision” and “reasonable.”
✶I may have said this before, but, if you agree to review a promising manuscript from someone you’ve never heard of, the author is probably a junior scholar on the tenure clock, and your dragging your feet on the review has the chance to seriously ruin someone’s life. If someone doesn’t get a book published before their tenure review because you took your sweet time about it despite frantic e-mails from the valet* and his boss, they’re probably not going to get tenure. Knowing that the reason you missed your one shot at steady academic employment, the thing you sacrificed eighteen great years of your life, true love, and more profitable employment for, is because some anonymous reviewer couldn’t be arsed to actually finish their review in the six weeks they agreed to do it in has got to be rough. If you’re asked to review a book by a junior scholar, keep in mind that it’s someone’s livelihood at stake. If it’s an established person whose book you’re reviewing, be a decent, ethical human being who keeps their word and turn the damn thing in on time. You know you’re going to get drunk with this person at the next conference anyway; do you want to hear them complain about how their book was delayed by some dumb reviewer?
✶Every once in a while, read a book that isn’t academic, pretentious, or highbrow. Your writing, both Academic and “for popular audiences” will improve. Popular biographies are a good place to start; mystery novels and thrillers might be even better. Heck, seemingly everyone else in book publishing wants to get into literary YA, so I can probably get you a slew of recommendations there. Whatever. If your subdiscipline is known for bad or tortured writing (which, granted, if you’ve been in your own particular academic bubble for long enough, you might not realize how truly hideous your cohort’s prose really is), try a 2:1 academic prose:real prose ratio for at least two months. If you’re planning on writing something for a popular audience, spend a month reading nothing but popular nonfiction. Those of us who review papers and sort through the slush pile have noticed that you have absolutely no clue how normal people write and talk. Your academic papers are nigh-well impenetrable,** to the point that I have no idea whether you have an actual point that you’re doing a great job burying under the technical jargon, Latin, and petty allusions to minor distinctions, or if you’re putting up a storm of words in what you think academic prose should sound like based on how senior figures write to cover up the fact that you’re insecure in what you’re doing and aren’t confident in your points. Probably both. Trust me, cut the first half of your paper, the one in which you give “proper historical context,” cut the David Foster Wallace footnotes, ditch the extraneous side references you put in to make it clear you know who that person is, and you’ll actually end up looking smarter once your audience knows what you’re banging on about. As for popular writing…”popular” does not mean “dumb.” You can engage thoughtfully with serious issues in what will seem like a short amount of space without sounding like a kangaroo after a troughfull of espresso. Don’t try too hard, and you’ll be just fine. With all the popular nonfiction you’ve been reading, that thoughtful yet lively prose style should be coming naturally to you now, right?
✶The day will come when we look back at our current obsession with sans-serf fonts and wonder what we were thinking. You see these fonts here? You know how many of them are good for setting pages of type in? None of them, that’s how many! I don’t care if it looks hip, I don’t care if all the cool kids are doing it, I really don’t care if it makes your philosophy or humanities journal look more “sciencey,” just use frikkin’ Garamond already and spare us the eye strain! Caslon and Minion are also acceptable, Filosofia is lovely if you’ve got it, and Didot or Bodoni in certain very controlled contexts if you must. But please, don’t contribute to the Great Gotham Blight.
*Yes, I’ve been promoted by Bigbossman from Intern-in-Chief to Press Valet—the final “t” is pronounced, in proper English fashion. For those of you who haven’t seen Jeeves & Wooster starring Fry and Laurie, the significance of both the promotion and the pronunciation might be lost on you.
**And this is coming from someone who considers Simone de Beauvoir and St. Augustine bedside reading.