I want to be William Germano when I grow up

indexindex 2William Germano’s books beautifully illustrate good non-fiction writing, at the same time they tell us how to write it and how to publish it. That alone makes them worth the read. In both of these volumes, he masterfully creates a narrative voice and shows (not tells) us about his subject matter. I had fun reading his books. I learned important things and remembered them. And, perhaps most importantly, I trust his knowledge and experience. Not because of his credentials on the back cover, but because his mastery of the subject matter and the skill with which he gives it expression inspire my confidence. Here’s an example:

Some passives we’re glad we haven’t had to see:

  • In the beginning the heavens and earth were created by God.
  • Arms and the man are being sung by me.
  • Ishmael is what I’m called.

The passive is a buffer, not only between the reader and the writer, but between the writer and her own ideas. I wonder if anyone experiences the world as a series of passive engagements. (“Yesterday, as the garden path was being trod by my feet, a beautiful butterfly was seen by my eye.” Which sounds like a case for Dr. Oliver Sacks.) Academic writing often places the reader in just such a world, one where no feet cross any paths, no eye sees any butterfly. If your dissertation was worth writing, it’s because you found a path you had to follow, and on the way you came upon something you want to tell others about. Do that. (Germano, From Dissertation to Book, 115)

Germano doesn’t give us a staid rule for whether or not we ought to use the passive, but shows us why to do so is often ineffective by asking us to draw on our literary and life experience, making us laugh in the process (and surreptitiously helping us see how ridiculous such expressions sound), and then bringing the lesson right home with a frankness that makes you say, “Oh yeah… That’s so obvious!” From Dissertation to Book has a lot of great concrete things you can do to revise your prose. I recommend reading it early on in the process so you can absorb it as you write. It can also be helpful when revising projects beyond the dissertation. Getting it Published gave me a great insight into the academic publishing industry, everything from what publishers do, to book contracts, to preparing a manuscript, which helped me a great deal when publishing my first book, and continues to help me as I guide other scholars through the process.

From Dissertation to Book, Second Edition, by William Germano, University of Chicago Press

Getting it Published, Second Edition, by William Germano, University of Chicago Press

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