In my academic work, pretty much all writing is actually a conversation. What has this person said about this issue? What has that person said about that? Academic writing is not to be an exercise in mere opining. It is an entry into great conversations. And when that works well, well, it can be rather exciting.
I recently wrote a paper that was exactly that: a delight to write. I had completed a good bit of reading and research in preparation for it, and the paper nearly wrote itself. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I feel as if the heavens have opened and I have been given a gift: the ideas came flowing in, and I couldn’t write fast enough. When that happens, I have the important task of noting which ideas I am building on, and which ideas I am refuting, and which ideas are my own. The first two bits are really quite easy; it’s the last that is somewhat vexing. When I’ve read reams of material, I want to make sure I give all the authors I’ve read their due: I want to make sure that it doesn’t appear as if my seemingly novel idea is novel when, in fact, it builds on the thought of another. Sometimes in the flurry of writing, I’ll make a note: “citation needed.”
When editing time comes, this note-to-self is most trying: “citation needed.” It demands that I get back inside my head: was I referencing something I remembered someone saying; was I uncertain about the idea and wanted some support from another thinker; did I simply need to think more about the matter under investigation? When I’m editing, and hit this, I feel like I am doing nothing but grunt work.
But here’s the thing. When I was a teenager, I spent a summer working for a construction firm, and did nothing but grunt work. I tamped dirt in preparation for cement; I hauled about forms that shaped a place for the cement to land; I pushed wheelbarrows full of cement. This work was not intellectually challenging, but it was incredibly important. Without a solid foundation, a house is soon uninhabitable.
Without solid ground-work nothing holds together. The same is true with writing. The preparatory work makes the writing a pleasure, and the need to acknowledge those who have fed you is an ethical obligation. Yesterday I spent a number of hours chasing down a handful of references. It isn’t as heady as experiencing an idea arrive in my lap, but it is just as important: ideas don’t arrive without further ado. They are the gift of my conversation with scholars who have proceeded me. I honour them by making sure I give them credit that is due.
A day spent tracking down quotations and making sure that commas and footnotes are in place isn’t my favourite way to spend a day. But I take a certain satisfaction in knowing that when I take care to credit sources informing my ideas, I am doing a good thing; the right thing, really. I expect it of my students, and when I expect it of myself, I remind myself that I too, am a student. There is certain giftedness in this realization that I will always be sitting at the feet of masters who have generously made space for me to say my piece in this conversation that is life.