Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Bureaucracy Isn't Boring: Notes on Sculpting Prose

Enlisting Faith is a book about the military chaplaincy, which also means it’s a book about bureaucracy. Analytically, it follows Sophia Lee’s lead in finding legal history outside the courts and, in particular, “focus[ing] on an omnipresent constitutional force in the modern American state: administrative agencies.” But, it turns out, telling people you’re writing about “administrative agencies” or “government bureaucracy” can elicit looks of horror—a reaction, I tend to think, that this research might be the narrative equivalent of standing in line at the DMV.

That would not do.

I wanted to write a book that spoke to historians while being accessible to the very people I was writing about: chaplains. As a result, after I figured out the structure of Enlisting Faith, I spent a lot of time sculpting prose. I use sculpting deliberately, because I think the work of revision is often akin to that of shaping and reshaping clay to find the right form. Each round of revisions meant cutting words to tighten chapters, breaking apart and rebuilding sentences, reconsidering word choices, and rethinking pacing through lines, paragraphs, and sections.

The winnowing process forced me to think about what was truly necessary to substantiate the argument I wanted to develop and what got in the way of the story I wanted to tell. I spent one summer methodically working through chapters with the primary purpose of trimming, and then one reader report suggested I prune some more. Which I did: reluctantly at first and then more gleefully toward the end. I made myself a sign, “is this really necessary?” and trucked on.

We often talk about being in conversation with other scholars, but when it comes to crafting prose, it’s helpful to find models. Using models effectively requires reading like a writer—setting aside the content and argument in order to dissect how an author put together a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a chapter. In this context, content is irrelevant. Any writing on any topic can elicit reactions, good or bad. Do I want to keep reading or stop reading? Am I enthralled, jarred, or bored? Why? Describing complex phenomena in simple language, evoking a sense of place, using rhythm to create energy, deploying explanations at just the right moment are techniques available to everyone, as long as we're paying attention. When I read, I'm often thinking about what I can emulate. In fact, giving myself writing exercises that borrow other authors' methods, structures, and language has helped me get out of writing ruts, even if the resulting document stays stashed on my hard drive. 

To think about chapter openings and closings, for example, I turned to Michael Willrich’s Pox: An American History. I had long admired how Willrich used opening scenes to draw readers toward his argument and ended with transitions that connected back to the opening and gestured toward the next chapter. I read, reverse-outlined, and reread the beginnings and ends of Willrich’s chapters to turn them into models or templates for my own.

The opening to chapter 3, for example, is a scene from a weekly meeting in the Office of the Army Chief of Chaplains that I built out of meeting minutes. My goal was to give readers a sense of decision-making because one argument of the book is that chaplains exemplify diffuse state power. The key was to figure out how to narrate a story that wasn’t boring, since the primary source is not exactly an exemplar of scintillating reading. The opening sentence of the chapter, “There was a lot to discuss in early November 1943,” therefore plants readers in the midst of bureaucrats at work. Hopefully the reader is wondering, “What were they discussing? Why? Did it matter?”

As I worked on creating scenes to open each chapter, I also turned to a number of books on writing. In particular, I read a lot of guides for journalists and narrative non-fiction writers. One of my favorites, Telling True Stories, is a compilation of mini-essays that delve into the craft of writing. From generating ideas and shaping characters to building narrative momentum and polishing description, authors discuss what worked and what didn’t, routes rejected and routes followed. The chapters are short, so I often read a couple before bed at night, jotting down ideas to adopt or adapt. Moreover, they reminded me that "good prose" is always a matter of "good for what? good for whom? good for what end?" As I reworked my manuscript, I often referred to these chapters when I was stuck or I though a scene or a section could be more precise or engaging.

Similarly, Jack Hart’s Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, provides an editor’s view of helping writers find their voice, develop style, alter point of view, vary sentence structure, and hone their point. While he writes based on his experience in the newsroom, most of his advice applies to historical narrative as well. Listening to an editor think aloud also gave me a way to process the comments I received from my editor, from reader reports, and from generous colleagues who read all or parts of my manuscript.

Feedback is essential to the revision process, but making it as effective as possible requires a team of readers with different strengths. I have a cadre of mentors, peers, and friends who play different roles as trusted reader-editors. Some are better at refining large-scale arguments, while others are line editors who tweak at the sentence or phrase-level. Some remind me about the value of topic sentences, while others get emails from me with subject headings such as “Please fix this sentence. Thank you.” Some are cheerleaders, others are persnickety critics. Some identify where a chapter stops working while others can parse why an explanation remains illegible. A book needs all kinds. It sounds obvious as I write it, but the key is to know who can provide what kind of feedback and then ask the right person for the feedback you need. 

In my next post, I’ll talk about how working through book revisions as a postdoc came with challenges and benefits.

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