Getting traction as writers

This exercise is interested in the difference between what we academic writers need to get traction in order to write and what our readers need to have traction in their reading of our writing. The joke about all undergrad papers starting with the phrase “Since the beginning of time, humans have…” is about the disjuncture between what they needed for traction and what pitches us out of a piece.
Almost all of us will have a few habitual things we do in order to start a run on a piece of writing – throat-clearing phrases, stylistic set-pieces, or opening “moves” specific to or popular in our discipline. Sometimes there are whole paragraphs or pages that are essentially just us warming up or figuring out how to get toward what we want to say. A lot of the time we only relate with these traction-getting writing habits at the editorial stage, and sometimes there’s a bit of a sense that we should not write them in the first place. This is understandable, because these traction-getting habits often feel clumsy, and sometimes they actively spin us as readers away from a writer’s central point. But we can use our own traction-loops to consciously and deliberately get traction when we’re spinning our wheels in our writing. And being able to identify them then allows us to more carefully edit our own work later.
I think it’s also important to be kind to our traction-tools, because for many of us, it is through writing that we figure out what we want to say. So having some warm-up drills that allow us to access the floating, flowy space where we think through something in the act of writing it is actually excellent and really important. It’s like singing scales before starting to learn a new tune. But we also want to find a bit of intentionality with traction, because the forms we use do also shape the possibilities for the paths our thinking takes. So this exercise is also meant to be used when you’re a bit stuck and could use some help moving to the “rough ground,” moving past your usual loops.
If your traction-getting habits are of paragraph-length, you might need an outside reader to help you identify them. They can tell you something like, well, you always start with a long thing about a teevee show that made you think something, but then you get in to something really interesting and it’s not about the teevee show at all. Or, you start every piece of writing with a long disclaimer about how you don’t have any time to write and so you’re just going to get this out there because it feels urgent and you hope people will forgive the mistakes. Etc. This exercise won’t help much with longer things like that, but it’s worth doing a bit of introspection on your own writing – with care and compassion – to identify those bigger repetitive patterns.

For this, we’re just working with the smaller, sentence-level catchphrases. So.

1. Identify a core concept/issue/problem that you’re working with or thinking about. Pick one of the below traction-getters (or if you already know what one of your favorites is, pick it!) and start a sentence with:

What this means is …
What this entails…
This is to say…
So,…

2. Then, start your next sentence with:
The most obvious things about [x] is…
What’s really important about this is…
That is to say…
At its core…
This goes beyond…

3. Next sentence:
Underneath this [concept/problem/issue] there are at least three supporting …

4. Next sentence:
[This concept/conversation/orientation] occludes, renders unspeakable, relies on turning away from …
If we don’t think about [x], we cannot do/understand/think about [y] or This bad thing happens.

At the editing phase you can just take out the bit that was giving you traction – usually the first part. It was just there to get you moving, and actually you likely have a perfectly lovely and clear full sentence immediately following. Though now that I’m thinking about it, there should be an exercise about giving readers traction; I will think about that.

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