In praise of kind ruthlessness: a writer’s appreciation of the intelligent non-expert

IMG_4237In my first-year University Writing Skills class, I always encourage students to find themselves an “intelligent non-expert” whose reading skills they trust to look over their work before handing it in. This person can be a stable and worthy sounding board for ideas no matter the subject, one that can carry them through all of their studies if the relationship is good. I use two myself, and rely so heavily on them that I am a mess of anxiety if my writing hits the larger world without their respective (and respected) stamps of approval.

Of course I workshop my academic work at conferences, especially the ones in which discussion is foregrounded; I get to Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies and the Northeast Victorian Studies Association conferences whenever I can and the topic suits. But I also want my research and writing to move beyond the academy, to reach into the community and be interesting to people who might feel inclined to pick up my books for the pleasure of the stories they tell. Intelligent non-experts help open up your voice, and keep you from disappearing too far down the academic rabbit hole. (The rabbit hole can be amazing, but there’s limited room!)

This year I finished a scholarly book I’ve been working on for the last five years. Since 2014 when I got a SSHRC grant to start the work, I’ve visited the National Archives at Kew several times, taken thousands of photographs of 150-year-old memos and naval journals, delivered presentations, and written a whole heck of a lot. This summer, it came down to four chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. My dear friend Chantel, a fellow academic specializing in the eighteenth-century, looked it over for argument and structure. And then it passed to my husband, a super-smart home-maker with a taste for narrative. If a sentence doesn’t pass muster in his eyes, it doesn’t leave the house.IMG_4262

Writing is a full circle exercise for me, a big 360 review board, constantly revolving. Sometimes its wheels have spikes. “Why is ET in the margins of my paper?” I once queried regarding an article draft I received back. Julian’s answer: “I couldn’t remember what Yoda looked like.” Every year when the time comes I show this mute portrait of judgement to my students–ET’s exasperated eyes silently condemning my rotten sentence–and tell them honestly that learning to write well is a lifelong process. To reach the wider world is what we all should be striving for. It can sometimes be a cruel process. Be prepared.

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