Does Your Writing Feel Unvaried? Principles for Mixing Things Up

Have you ever felt, when reading over a draft, that your writing is getting unpleasantly uniform? Perhaps the writing is too dense and conceptual for too long, or perhaps the writing sticks to a uniformly dry, professional Style, Tone, and Voice for paragraph after paragraph. Academic writing that is too unvaried runs the risk of lulling readers into a bored or “tuned-out” state of mind. This entry deploys the principle of ventilation in order to break up unvaried academic prose and create a more energizing experience for readers.

The term “ventilation,” as coined by Eric Hayot in his book The Elements of Academic Style, is about letting your writing breathe by creating a bit more range and variation in the ways you engage with your reader. You may have heard, for instance, that you should vary the length of your sentences. That’s one way of creating ventilation, but there are many others! Another method of ventilation is to interject a few simple, conversational phrases into a paragraph that’s heavy on theoretical or otherwise hard-to-access concepts. A practical way to find that conversational tone might be to ask a non-academic friend, or a friend from a different discipline, to read your work and tell you when they get lost or bogged down. Whenever that happens, try to explain what you mean to your friend, casually, while recording yourself. Talking to a real person may help you find another register that would be helpful to include alongside denser material.

Hayot offers a series of polarities that you can practice moving between in your writing in order to ventilate it:

scholarly diction – casual diction

long sentences – short sentences

direct language – figural language

impersonal voice – personal voice

different modes of reading: deconstructive – thematic – historical – etc.

Or, consider other ways you might inject a new tone or way of thinking from time to time, perhaps by including: a joke, a concrete example, a visual, a personal reflection, or any other new element that gives your reader a way of engaging differently than they have been.

Consider two paragraphs and their relative levels of ventilation. Both of the paragraphs below are about monsters and monstrosity. But which one creates the kinds of stylistic variety that are the hallmarks of ventilated writing?

From: Parasites and Perverts by Jack Halberstam (p. 3)

Many histories of the Gothic novel begin with the Gothic Romances of the later eighteenth century by Mrs. Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, and Matthew Lewis. While, obviously, there are connections to be made between these stories of mad monks, haunted castles, and wicked foreigners and the nineteenth-century Gothic tales of monsters and vampires, we should not take the connections too far. I will argue in this book that the emergence of the monster within Gothic fiction marks a peculiarly modern emphasis upon the horror of particular kinds of bodies. Furthermore, the ability of the Gothic story to take the imprint of any number of interpretations makes it a hideous offspring of capitalism itself. The Gothic novel of the nineteenth century and the Gothic horror film of the late twentieth century are both obsessed with multiple modes of consumption and production, with dangerous consumptions and excessive productivity, and with economies of meaning. The monster itself is an economic form in that it condenses various racial and sexual threats to nation, capitalism, and the bourgeoisie in one body. If the Gothic novel produces an easy answer to the question of what threatens national security and prosperity (the monster), the Gothic monster represents many answers to the question of who must be re- moved from the community at large. I will be considering, therefore, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Gothic as separate from eighteenth- century Gothic, but I will also be tracing Gothic textuality across many modes of discourse.

From: Monster Theory by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (p. 4)

The monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence. The monstrous body is pure culture. A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymo- logically “that which reveals,” “that which warns,” a glyph that seeks a hierophant. Like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself: it is always a displacement, always inhabits the gap between the time of upheaval that created it and the moment into which it is received, to be born again. These epistemological spaces between the monster’s bones are Derrida’s familiar chasm of différance: a genetic uncertainty principle, the essence of the monster’s vitality, the reason it always rises from the dissection table as its secrets are about to be revealed and vanishes into the night.

Both of these paragraphs, which both deal with a very similar set of ideas and produce important insights, are quite different stylistically. The Halberstam paragraph is much more consistent in its Style, the weight of its sentences, its tempos, and its modes of thinking. The Cohen paragraph is more ventilated—which is not to say that it is more or less complex than the Halberstam. Rather, it mixes its dense sentences with ones that sum things up in a breezy way, e.g. “The monstrous body is pure culture.” It shifts between metaphor, declaratory assertion, theoretical association, and etymology.

The Cohen paragraph is a particularly heightened example of ventilated writing. Most academic paragraphs do not include as much stylistic variety as this one, and ventilation will not be your goal in every paragraph you write. Jack Halberstam has many ventilated paragraphs—the one above is simply doing a different job. So, your writing may not look like Cohen’s most of the time, but hopefully when you read it you can get a sense of how the reader’s experience is affected by ventilation. Peppering your paragraphs with some of these change-ups, even sparingly, can go a long way toward creating a reading experience that’s less of a slog.

If this entry, inspired by Eric Hayot’s book The Elements of Academic Style works for you try “Do Your Paragraphs and Sections Build Toward an Argument? The Uneven U as a Tool to Check, another Hayot influenced revision strategy.”