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How important is emotional literacy to academic success?
April 18, 2014 11:17 AM   Subscribe

Most of the academic textbooks I've read have had a drawn-out presentation style based on psychological observations as part of an effort to project a particular voice.

I find it difficult to successfully use psychological observations in my literary style. IMHO, my style is distinctive but not really intentionally so. I also have a lot of quirks in my style that I don't think really contribute to clarity.

Anyway, sophisticated writing is not really my fotre. Chinese Studies is my preferred field of study. When I read someone like Johnathon Spence, his paragraphs seemed to be peppered with psychological observations or clever innuendos designed to ennervate undergrads who have to read his work.

I think Spence is an awesome writer with a knack for finding interesting topics to write about. However, this drawn-out presentation style seems to be the norm for university textbooks. My guess is that it's all considered part of the "tempering of the steel" that happens during a degree course.

My main question, really, is, if I NEVER learnt to write like Spence or any other psychologically-observant academic, would this limit my chance of doing well on advanced degrees? How much of academic success is based on having an impressive literary style?

Thanks for any advice with this.
posted by Musashi Daryl to Education (3 answers total)
Disclaimer: I have not read Spence, but I am aware of his work through grad school friends and know that he is a well respected historian whose rich writing style appeals to many. No one would expect a student or young scholar to write like him or any other bestselling author, so cut yourself some slack. One needs years of study and lots and lots of practice. As for his particular style, I would bet that there are other important writers in your area whose styles are different. There is more than one way to write a history, no?

Although I am not sure exactly what "drawn-out" style means in this context, the best historical accounts that I have read include biographies, culture, stories, gossip, and evidence-based analysis -- rather than just facts of who-did-what-when. I suspect that an introductory survey textbook on Chinese history would be more fact-based with much less flourish. There is room for both types of writing -- and many more.

I think if your goal is to be a prolific writer of history books that appeal to a wide audience (academic as well as general public), then yes, I do think that contextualizing the humanness (psychology/emotion) of history is helpful because we humans like to read about ourselves, no? My suggestion (and I am working on this as well): Find your own style that works for your goals and scholarly endeavors. Perhaps books on historical methodologies would help. I suggest reading widely. Best of luck!
posted by quixotictic at 12:09 PM on April 18

How much of academic success is based on having an impressive literary style?

An "impressive literary style" is not important. But writing well is important. You can write well with a simple style or an elaborate style, a psychologically flavored style or a very "neutral" style.

If you're having trouble with clarity, you may not be writing well yet. But if you're still in college, now is the time to learn to write well.
posted by escabeche at 6:45 PM on April 18

I would say that your biggest impediment to academic success is a lack of engagement with your academic peers. This kind of comes through in your questions-- in two questions mentioning the invented term "psychological observations" in reference to academic textbooks without any elaboration on what you mean and your use of "ego pain" which no one understood in a previous question that you didn't explain. Your academic life seems to exist very much in your own head rather than engaging with the material with your classmates and teachers.

Because I'm not familiar with Jonathan Spence, I looked up some of his essays he wrote at the New York Review of Books, and they are fairly engaging essays, albeit in the staid NYRoB style.

Outside of, say, critical theory, academic writing prizes clarity. Introduce the topic, define the terms for the material you're presenting and the model you're constructing, and work through the chain of reasoning that leads to your conclusion.
posted by deanc at 1:26 PM on April 19

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