On the Craft of Writing w/ Dr. Anita Hannig

How do academics write for a variety of audiences? Is routine a necessary part of creating? How many times will Ryan mention Stephen King? In this episode of This Anthro Life, Adam and Ryan talk with Anita Hannig of Brandeis University about the writing process behind her new book, Beyond Surgery: Injury, Healing, and Religion at an Ethiopian Hospital.  While they are looking at writing as a craft from the perspective of anthropologists, Ryan, Adam, and Anita draw on a variety of perspectives outside of the discipline to suggest some tips for writing routine, reaching a broad audience, and writing ethnography.

About Anita Hannig

Anita Hannig is an assistant professor at Brandeis University, where she teaches classes on medicine, religion, gender, and death and dying. In her new book, Beyond Surgery: Injury, Healing, and Religion at an Ethiopian Hospital, Hannig brings in a new perspective on how women in Sub-Saharan Africa live with obstetric fistula. Her work also engages with broader questions about care, belonging, loss, medicine, and faith in Ethiopia. Hannig wrote Beyond Surgery to be accessible to a variety of audiences from academics to health practitioners to a lay audience. Her experiences writing for a diverse audience make her an asset to this discussion on the craft of writing.

“Ethnography is a way of doing anthropology that is based around bringing in the details of everyday life…You can get into the everyday life of how people design the systems.” -Adam

Hannig and her Writing Process

Hannig’s routine to prepare her for a day of writing is simple enough. She starts her day by drinking a cup of green tea, turning off her email, and beginning to write in the early morning. For Hannig, and many writers, the routine is key. In her own words,

“We have these romanticized ideas about writing, about being visited by a muse, and there is such a disconnect between the shiny books we read and then watching ourselves sit in the cold morning light typing single words into a Word document and having that be a very isolating process with nobody around, no distraction, nothing. And the grind of that and the routine of that. So it’s this idea that you have to establish this routine and you have to come back to it day by day and there is nothing glorious about it.”

That being said, Hannig has found some inspiration in other settings like in the New Hampshire mountains. When inspiration hit while she was there, she scribbled her ideas on a cabin napkin for later use. However, Hannig stresses this is not the norm. Good writing takes work that can only be achieved through the repetition of a daily routine. Hannig is not alone in this thinking. William Faulkner and Charles Dickens both had strong opinions on the need for a routine.

I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.

– William Faulkner –

“I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.”

 – Charles Dickens –

Hannig pointed out that writing tends to be a solitary act, which contrasts with the sociality of doing ethnographic fieldwork. This isolation can be overwhelming. Stephen King is known for secluding himself in his laundry room with just a typewriter when he was writing Carrie. Whatever the technique, isolation does play a role, but breaks from that isolation are equally as important in churning out new ideas and avoiding burning out. Adam and Ryan suggest going for walk as a recent study at Stanford revealed that walking can be helpful in stimulating creativity. Whether it be going for a walk or drinking some tea, establishing that routine is important. You need the ritual in order to really be productive.

Check Out These Links Mentioned During the Episode

Stanford Study Finds Walking Improves Creativity

Writing as a Craft

The repetition of writing every day will strengthen your writing as long as you are writing more than just emails. Ryan suggests making up creative stories about inanimate objects to flex your creative muscles. Just like art or sports, the more you practice your medium the better you become. As Hannig states,

“When you see a really good swimmer in the water it looks effortless… that is what good writing looks like. It looks extremely effortless and yet there is so much thought behind it, so much effort in it.”

Of course it does not help that many graduate degree programs do not focus heavily on the craft of writing. In anthropology graduate programs we are often assigned the works of seminal theorists of the field, but they are not always the best examples of anthropology writing to follow.  The problem is often in their verbosity. For,

“It is easier to write longer sentences and really sort of implode on the page. It is so much harder to write clearly, concisely, and accessibly, and to really boil your writing down to the essentials.” – Hannig

You want your reader to understand what you are saying. If they are bogged down by the complexity of your sentences, then what is the point?

Check out These Links For Working on Your Writing Craft

Storycraft by John Hart

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

On Writing by Eudora Welty

Writing Tip: Unless you are a mystery writer, do not try to surprise your reader.  Make your conclusions clear and put them up front! Do not be like Claude Levi-Strauss in Totemism!

Tips for Writing from the Author of Writing Without Bullshit

  1. Write shorter
  2. Shorten your sentences
  3. Rewrite passive voice
  4. Eliminate weasel words i.e. generally, most, probably, I’m moving towards, etc.
  5. Replace jargon with clarity
  6. Cite numbers effectively – know the science behind them
  7. Be more declarative – use I, we, and you
  8. Move key insights up – frontload
  9. Cite examples
  10. Provide signposts

“There’s this false idea that writing complexly is inhered with intelligence. Some of the best writing is effortless, but that is the most effortful writing you do. It’s like a curated experience very specifically.” – Adam

Link to the Article with the Tips Above

10 Top Writing Tips and the Psychology Behind Them

Writing Tip: Whenever you are writing a paragraph start with you concluding sentence and then go back and elaborate.

Writing for Your Audience

Understanding whom you are writing for is key. In Hannig’s case, she found herself writing for multiple audiences (anthropologists, physicians, the public) and each expected something different from her writing. According to Hannig,

“We sometimes, especially in academia, have such trouble translating between different registers.”

In bridging the different audiences, writing concise and clear sentences is still important, but the overall format and structure of the piece may need to be changed (ie. moving the theoretical discussions to the footnotes, or lessening citations in the text, moving the ethnography up front). Laurence Ralph plays with format in his ethnographic work, Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago. His writing emphasizes the story by removing theoretical discussion from the main text and moving it to the footnotes. This style allows for a more lay audience to engage with the text without feeling alienated by theoretical discussions and for academics to still have access to the theory. In addition to this technique, Ralph also includes segments of his field notes at the beginning of each chapter, so the reader can see his raw interactions with his informants. His manipulation of the standard format of ethnographies really emphasizes the potential for anthropological works to become more accessible to a diverse audience.

To Read the Passage from Renegade Dreams that Anita Read Check Out the Link Below!

Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago -Laurence Ralph (First page of the Preface)