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Notes on Style

by Amitava Kumar

Pub Date: March 27th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-4780-0627-5
Publisher: Duke Univ.

A guide for academic writers that is also relevant to anyone who cares about fine prose.

Novelist, essayist, and literary scholar Kumar (English/Vassar Univ.; Immigrant, Montana, 2018, etc.) offers a handbook on style and form that is simultaneously elegant and practical. Admiring “fresh, provocative, unpredictable texts,” the author is dismayed by what Toni Morrison called “the proud but calcified language of the academy.” As fiction writer David Means observed, “so much academic writing seems sealed up and hermetic and uninspired, shorn away from a love of subject.” Academic writers, Kumar asserts, work in a “culture of oppression,” in which they strive to fit into “the existing codes”—scholarly jargon—of their field in order to publish the articles and books that will earn them tenure. As a graduate student, he admits that he, too, tried mightily to emulate his teachers “and wrote sentences whose texture was inevitably thicker than cement.” Dissatisfied with the quality of his work, he despaired of ever attracting readers: “Couldn’t our analyses become more exuberant, imaginative, and even playful?” Kumar agrees with other writing guides—Strunk and White’s for one—that advocate clarity and conciseness, but he knows that the admonition to “find your voice” can be confusing. “Perhaps specificity is what brings us closer to the idea of voice, which I think is another word for distinctiveness.” Voice, in any case, “depends on the question you are asking” and the “zones of experience” from which a writer is drawing. Kumar appends his slim manual with 10 habits he recommends to his students, including setting a daily goal of at least 150 words, turning off the internet, making sure to exercise, keeping a bookshelf of several volumes to turn to as guides in “the critical matter of method or style,” and finishing one project before taking up another. He shares advice about craft from many writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, all of whom strive to “bring delight.” In that aim, Kumar amply succeeds.

An engaging, perceptive companion for all writers.