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Model Writers

Based on an endorsement by Liz Covart, I’ve been reading Roy Peter Clark’s How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times. It’s a guide to brief writing (defined as under 300 words for his purposes) in which Clark, a longtime journalist and editor, has broken down the writing process into very manageable chunks. He includes in the books examples, some as brief as tweets, some entire essays, and a few excerpts from considerably longer works. Though geared for short pieces, the advice applies well to all forms and genres of writing.

At the moment, I’ve been pondering his advice to consider models of good short writing. “Using testimony from the writer or careful analysis of texts,” he writes, “identify and adopt the methods of the best short writers” (41). As a scholar of eighteenth-century print culture, I noted in the margins, “how Franklinian!” And it’s advice I’ve heard for many years (not just from Franklin), and given out to students: the more you read good writing, the better to apply those ideas in your own work. For me, though, it’s rarely been a conscious process—whatever ability to write I have, it comes from somewhere, and one of those sources is reading. But I don’t know how much I’ve thought about the question consciously, so Clark’s chapter on finding good models caught me short. Whom do I follow?

In the short-form world of blog posts (ca. 1,000 words) and Twitter, I could probably identify several as models, though probably more for how they’ve crafted a voice through the sum of their work rather than any individual posts. So here follows a list of nine from whom I think I’ve learned more than a little something about how to craft a writing identity and persona on Twitter and in the blogosphere, alphabetized to obviate the requirement that I rank them.

I’ve left off of this list the small group of academics and journalists whose dry wit I aspire to, but rarely quite match. (Buy me a beer sometime and we can talk about my “anti-model list.”)

For longer work, I have to think harder about making my models explicit. If someone asked me in conversation, I would probably start by discussing some authors whose prose I admire, such as John Demos, Jane Kamensky, and Jill Lepore (the latter two of whom, of course, trained with Demos at Yale on their way to becoming world-class historians in their own right). I’ve also long enjoyed the work of scholars of the American Revolution including Pauline Maier and Alfred Young. I think it’s telling that all five of these scholars are known in particular for their skill with narrative, that is, their ability to make history come alive through storytelling. It’s certainly a skill that I’ve been working to develop more thoroughly, and to think about how to do well even in otherwise analytical, thesis-based writing. I’d be harder-pressed to name the scholars whose analytical writing I model myself on, but I suspect it’s because I think about it less explicitly. That’s something to mull as I work and write this summer.

With all of these examples, however, I have rarely undertaken the Franklinian practice of explicitly modeling my writing on someone else’s, as he did when he chopped up essays from the Spectator and tried to re-write them in his own words. I suppose I’m unlikely to do that (in part because of the various demands on my time that frown on such open-ended exploration). I might, however, take up Clark’s “grace notes,” the set of suggestions he offers at the end of each chapter. Writing this was not among his notes at the end of this particular chapter, but it’s nonetheless a useful exercise.

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