Farewell Patrick McManus

If someone were to ask me who is the funniest writer I’ve ever read, there is little question what the answer would be. Of course, I’m not sure who would ask me that, but I’m ready when someone does.

For the sake of my setup, imagine you had actually asked me who I think is the funniest writer. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Thanks.

Wow! That’s a tough question. I’m not sure anyone’s ever asked me that, but you know, I think I have a pretty good answer.

The funniest books in print are, with little question, by a man names Patrick McManus. Or, as his close friends call him—those of us who have read his stories—Pat.

Now that you’ve asked me about Pat, I have to tell you that he’s no longer writing, because he died recently at the age of 84. He’s gone into the twilight, endlessly grousing. The world is a bit poorer because he’s gone, too.

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I discovered McManus in the back of the Field and Stream magazines that came to the house. Then I found out that many of those essays had been collected into books. That was sometime around the 6th grade.

Even as a kid, his humor could make me literally laugh out loud. He wrote with a wit and humor that was slightly self-deprecating, but mostly just funny.

His humor is generally G-rated, with the occasional innuendo that probably flew over my head as a youngster. Unlike so much of the humor in that’s out there now, he was not trying to shock his audiences, score political points, or tear someone down.

Instead McManus tells stories. He tells stories about himself—or the character that he pretends to be—through several phases of his life with a cast of familiar characters. McManus often plays the naïve straight man for the more comedic characters. He most often plays the man who knew too little, and it’s fun to watch him bumble through life.

Among the characters from his childhood are Rancid Crabtree, the old woodsman and sometimes mentor, and Crazy Eddie Muldoon, his childhood friend and negative influence. The amusingly foolish friend, Retch Sweeney, and worried neighbor, Al Finley, carry the storyline in Pat’s adult years. Meanwhile Pat’s mother, his sister the Troll, and his wife Bun, provide foils for the humor of Pat’s hijinks. As you pick up each of his stories, there are familiar people you come to know and become curious about what they might do next.

Even when McManus writes an expected storyline, he tells the story in an amusing fashion. Of course, things were better when he was a boy, but they were also harder. Except that the trails are much steeper and the air thinner now that he’s getting older. Even when you know what is going to happen because the plotline is predictable and McManus has strewn plenty of foreshadowing there is always a twist that makes the tale worth your time.

I’ve known marriage counselors who started sessions off by reading one of McManus’ short stories. If the couple doesn’t laugh, the counselor knows he is in for a rough time. If they laugh, then the ice is broken and the ground is a little softer for the plowing. The man is funny enough to make everyone laugh.

My wife (whose nickname is not Bun, else I be shot) knows when I’m reading something by Patrick McManus because the bed is shaking from my suppressed laughter. And my preteen taught can be heard guffawing when she devours his humor. McManus is a writer for all ages, which gives him a connection to his childhood dog, Strange.

McManus’ humor is where you go when you’ve had a long hard day, week, or month and need to find something to smile about. It never fails, even if it’s a story that you’ve read a hundred times before.

One of his stories, “Sequences,” has become a byword in my household. In fact, it’s an essay much like “A Message to Garcia,” that should be read by all future leaders. The message is simple: Everything is way to complicated, so you might as well just fishing. Or, more realistically, make sure you prioritize fun, because the work will never get done anyway. It has a point, but it is funny, not like this paragraph.

Even for those of us who don’t hunt, the stories that McManus wrote are funny. That’s one of the marks of a really good writer. With very few exceptions, everyone is in on the jokes because they are just good fun. I wish there were more people writing like Patrick McManus.

I’m sad that McManus is gone. He hasn’t written a whole lot lately, but mostly I’m sad that the world is just a little less funny without him. To celebrate his life, I may just do a modified stationary panic in his honor the next time I'm scared.

NOTE: If you are looking for a good place to start with McManus, The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw is one of my favorite collections.

The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw
By Patrick F. McManus

Some Lessons from Dissertation Writing

This week I turned in my dissertation. Now I wait for my defense. In the moment of euphoria before I find out everything that is wrong with the project I’ve been working on for a year, I decided to jot down some of the things that I’ve learned so far about the process.

Some of these lessons are based on advice and counsel that others gave me, but that I’ve since found to be wise. We’ll find out how well I did on the final product in a couple of months. Even if there are flaws (there are, trust me) in my dissertation, here are some things that I have learned through writing the longest academic work I’ve ever attempted.

1.         It’s never going to be perfect. – One of the hardest things to recognize just prior to my submittal of my dissertation was that there were still going to be some imperfections in the manuscript. I’ve read the completed manuscript multiple times. So has my wife. I have no doubt that there are still a few typos, missing words, extra spaces, or the like throughout. At some point you have to let it go.

2.         You can’t read every possible source. – I wrote each of my chapters, referencing those volumes and thinkers that best related to my point in the text. However, as I was doing my final read through of the dissertation before submitting it, I kept on thinking of additional sources that could have bolstered my point or that I could have read. There are new books in the academic catalogs that are begging to be included in my bibliography and dozens of articles that I downloaded that I never got to read. I could have tried to read and cite more, but sooner or later you have to turn the project in.

3.         Having someone else read it is invaluable. – My amazingly patient wife also serves as my editor. She doesn’t do style manual stuff, but she does read for grammar, clarity, and typographical issues. Having her read my chapters to tell me where I made no sense or where I had errors made a huge difference in the end, I think. There were a number of places she called my attention to that were unclear and needed simple rewording to make the project better.

4.         This isn’t the best thing you will ever write. – Looking at the 358 pages of manuscript is pretty impressive. It’s the longest piece of scholarship I’ve ever written. In fact, most of the chapters are longer than any paper I’d previously written. What I had to continually fight back was the goal to make this my magnum opus. I will write something better later on, so I need to make a good effort but not think that this is the pinnacle of my scholarship. My scholarship and writing should get better in the future. That’s not a ding against my dissertation, it’s a reflection of academic maturation.

5.         Doing a read-through at the end is important. – Before I had the final proofreading done by my wife, I read through the dissertation from cover to cover in about two days. Since some of my chapters had been written about a year before, this was an important step in the editing process. By the end of the writing process I had developed some key phrases and learned to avoid others. I was able to edit the earlier chapters to reflect the language of the later chapters (chronologically) by the end. This step helps the project read more like a cohesive work of scholarship, instead of a collection of essays. I was also able to find some places where I could clarify my own explanations, which, I think, made the end product more readable for someone else.

6.         Creating a project plan with deadlines is vital. – The internet is flooded with “dissertation writing as project planning” sites. There is value in the approach. I only met a couple of my deadlines, so I had to keep revising and extending the project plan. However, by delineating the steps and what it would take to get there, I could focus on the next thing instead of getting overwhelmed by the size of the project. By having an internal deadline (with plenty of margin built in to the institutional deadline) I had something to keep me moving. Because I had looked at the institutional deadline and built my project plan based on that, I knew what I had to do to get the project in on time. This made it easier to prioritize so that I could know when I needed to lock myself away to write or when I could play another game of Monopoly with the kids.

7.         Stay on topic. – There were about a million times in the process of writing that I found interesting rabbit trails to go down. I even ventured down a few of them. I’ve got extensive notes and footnotes to prove it. However, when I was polishing my dissertation, most of the work of those rabbit trails ended up deleted from the final product. I may use some of the material for essays later on, but I sometimes spent a week on research that was interesting, but did little to support my final dissertation. A bit more discipline would have benefited me significantly.

8.         Keep notes on the side ideas. – I wasted some time along the way exploring rabbit trails. However, one of the things that I think will bear some fruit in the future is using some of that material and the ideas that I got while writing my dissertation to produce journal articles at a later date. I’ve got a list of potential topics with some sources that I can chase down now that I’ve finished my dissertation. These don’t all relate directly to my dissertation topic, but there is room for further research. I now have more ideas for the future than my life and schedule can possibly support.

There are probably more things that I’ve learned. Perhaps after my defense I’ll pick up the topic again. Or, I may discover that some of my lessons learned aren’t as helpful as I thought. I’ll let you know what the readers think.

From Topic to Thesis - A Review

There are some books that are so simple and helpful that one wonders why someone has not written them decades before. They are destined to be, if not classic, steadily useful, widely read, and often recommended.

That is the nature of Michael Kibbe’s recent book, From Topic to Thesis.

There is absolutely nothing earth shattering in what Kibbe wrote. Really, there is nothing novel at all, but that is exactly what makes this book so very important. You see, Kibbe takes the time to lay out the simple and necessary steps to doing research well in theological and biblical disciplines.

As someone who learned how to do theological research the hard way—by erring and trying again repeatedly—I would have benefitted from Kibbe’s book when I started my Master of Divinity a decade ago. As someone who has graded theology papers at the graduate and undergraduate level, I know that there are many other students who face the same struggles that I did and some of them never seem to get the knack of research.

The Methodology

Kibbe’s prescribes five steps in the research process.

 

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  1.  Finding Direction – At the beginning of the research process, Kibbe warns his readers not to start with a definite thesis, but he argues that establishing a general topic is the first step. During this phase of the research process, only tertiary and primary sources should be used. In other words, if the topic is Calvin, then only read John Calvin or survey/textbook/reference level works about him. The primary sources will tell you if there is something to argue there. The tertiary sources will tell you where you’ll need to look for more information. This step takes time, but it is important to become familiar enough with the topic to know whether there is an argument to be had.
  2. Gathering Sources – The next step is to get together the stack of sources that will be used to support any argument. This is a simple, but time consuming process of finding the books and articles that relate closely to the broad topic and then skimming them to figure out which ones should be checked out, copied, or purchased.
  3. Understanding Issues – Having skimmed and accumulated a stack of sources, this is the phase of research where the student figures out what is going on in scholarly discourse related to the general topic. With note taking tools in hand (though one must only write in sources that one owns), the scholar descends and reads the primary and secondary sources that relate particularly to the topic. In other words, this step requires a lot of reading, but it should be focused reading on the specific topic. During this phase, the researcher will likely return to the “Gathering Sources” step as a pattern of citations form within secondary literature; if everyone is citing something, there is probably a reason why.
  4. Entering Discussion – It is at this point, after some fairly robust, systematic research the researcher formulates a thesis. The thesis should be something (reasonably) new to add to the conversation, fits within the existing conversation, and the researcher can explain why the first two are true. This may sound a bit difficult for a beginning student, but by the time a student has completed steps 1-3, he or she should be able to say that someone’s contested position is right or wrong or that a previous scholar missed something in the debate. This isn’t a search for novelty, but for scholarly contribution. In other words, this step is what helps differentiate a summary of the topic from an argument for a position.
  5. Establishing Position – The last step involves actually writing the paper. Now all of the research is carefully woven into a coherent argument that evaluates differing opinions, stays on thesis, and supports the researcher’s thesis.

These five steps form the meat of Kibbe’s book. They are also the gold standard for how a theological student should do research. If time is available—and if it is appropriately used—then Kibbe’s research methodology will lead students to a high quality research paper.

Further Discussion

In addition to the value of the stepwise research methodology, this book is helpful because it offers definitions for types of sources, gives appropriate instructions for using web-based sources, and offers some no-nonsense advice to students from the perspective of a professor. Appendix A is a list of ten things that students should avoid; I have observed students doing most of them before!

I will note that the instructions Kibbe gives in this book are from the perspective from a Bible scholar and not a theologian. As such, some of his recommendations for “theological sources” in the back will likely never be the main point of concern for someone in a Systematic Theology course. They are excellent for those doing focused exegesis, but the list would look significantly different if this book were written by a theologian.

Likely, also, a theologian would have placed the stage of defining a thesis a bit earlier in the process. Of course, it may that by the end the thesis must be reversed or altered, but it is not always necessary to wait until quite that much research has been done before deciding where to go next.

It is one of my pet theories, based on my own ongoing PhD studies, that there are generally distinct personality types that migrate toward theology, history, and philosophy instead of language and biblical studies. This sort of research is excellent, and it will fit best with the meticulous nature of many that are already biased toward biblical studies. The other group tends to be more comfortable slinging guns in research and may find Kibbe’s methodology constraining, however excellent it is.

Conclusion

Whether you are a student in theological or biblical studies, this is a must-read book. Especially if you are early on in your studies. Even if you will never quite be able to implement such a rigorous approach to research, this is a good read because it tells you how it ought to be. If you are thinking about heading toward seminary, then this is a book you should read before you get there.

If you are a professor at a seminary or Christian college teaching anything like Christian Studies, Religion, Bible, or Theology, then this is a book that should be on your syllabus recommended for every student in every class. Kibbe says what you were thinking and he does it clearly and in print. This would also be an invaluable text in an early course in an MDiv curriculum or a writing course.

 

Note: I received a gratis copy of this book from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

A New Help for Stylish Writing

Style manuals are both bane and blessing to writers of all types. I like Strunk and White’s classic volume, The Elements of Style. I’ve also benefited from Joseph Williams’ Style and A.P. Martinich’s Philosophical Writing. However, many times I wonder why some rules exist and whether they are always helpful. 

Sometimes the rules in style manuals seem to be more focused on obtaining polite compliance with convention rather than improving communication.

With that in mind, Steven Pinker sets out on a more helpful quest in his recent book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century! This book is neither reference manual nor remedial writing guide. Pinker states, “Like the classic guides, it is designed for people who know how to write and want to write better,” as well as “for readers who seek no help in writing by are interested in letters and literature and curious about the ways in which the sciences of mind can illuminate how language works at its best.”

Contrary to many of those who wring their hands over the prospects of style with each passing generation, Pinker paints a more positive outlook for the English language. He notes that much of the handwringing over grammar is generated when convention has shifted and the norms of an earlier style guide violated. This is much less significant than some grammarians would allow us to believe.

Pinker recognizes convention, but instead of placing grammatical rules as the primary objective for good writing, he offers style as the summum bonum of a solid sentence. 

There are three reasons style matters. (1) It gets the message across. (2) It earns trust by demonstrating the author’s concern for accuracy and clarity. (3) It adds beauty to the world. Thus the most important question is not whether a passive voice is used, but whether the intended meaning is conveyed in a comely and precise manner.

Summary

The book is divided into five chapters. In the first chapter, Pinker reverse engineers several passages of good writing. For each he shows why they convey their message and some critical aspects that readers can appropriate. This is certainly not exhaustive, but here Pinker is training his reader to be a better reader. Chapter two outlines the way classic style, with its conventions, is helpful to communicating meaning. Far from establishing a deconstructive attitude toward language with a cry to abolish syntax, Pinker calls for doing the basic things well. Those fundamentals of style, after all, are conventions that often point toward the way communication occurs.

Pinker’s third chapter treats “the curse of knowledge,” which is the real problem authors have when they know much more about their topic and its back story than the reader. Confusion is often sown instead of clarity because of technical terms and assumed knowledge. The point of this chapter is important, since specialization in disciplines often makes interdisciplinary communication and presentations to popular audiences difficult.

Each of the first three chapters are relatively short and simple. Chapters 4, 5, and 6, however, are much larger and more cumbersome. The fourth chapter moves beyond a basic discussion of style into linguistics. Following his own advice, Pinker does well in explaining terms as he goes along. He proposes an alternative way to diagram sentences than the horizontal arrangement with slanted lines branching off to show parts of speech. Instead, according to Pinker, language functions more like a tree, branching downward from initial concepts into new realms of meaning. He makes two significant points in this discussion. First, visually representing grammatical constructions can be helpful and sometimes improve understandings. Second, the “traditional” sentence diagram is somewhat limited because it misapplies categories at times. The neat rules set up for parts of speech and there function have messy exceptions. Understanding the way the human mind processes the web of meaning in texts can help writers to create more clear prose.

In Chapter 5, Pinker examines how to apply the concept of “arcs of coherence” to ensure writing conveys its meaning. Since these ideas are best represented in the negative, this chapter spends a great deal of time unpacking examples of bad writing, showing how a lack of clarity comes from placing the pieces of language in an irregular order. His discussion here is much like that in Williams’ Style, but he presents the concepts based on cognitive linguistics instead of preference, which give more weight and import to his recommendations.

In the final chapter Pinker goes after the sacred cows of many grammarians and presents some of his own norms. Here is uses historical research to show that many “rules” were merely preferences put into style manuals and grammar books to help establish some standards. In many cases, restrictions that are necessary to assist elementary writers learn the craft were transferred as inviolable truths necessary for communication. Pinker shows how some of these are unnecessary. At other times, language has changed and so the rules should be modified, requiring a redaction to the grammatical gospel according to Strunk and White. Still, in this behemoth chapter, there are a number of clear rules Pinker sets down that writers should follow to ensure clear communication, recognizing that some of the rules are provisional and linked to contemporary English usage. Pinker concludes the volume with an encouragement to lighten up on grammar and not nitpick, the fate of the world does not depend on the use of the Oxford comma. This, perhaps, is the most significant takeaway from the book.

The Sense of Style starts punchy and drags a bit toward the end. There are a dearth of section headings and breaking places in the many pages of careful linguistic explanation. This makes the book tough slogging after the first three chapters. 

Evaluation

Pinker makes significant contributions to the style discussion. First, he presents some of the cognitive linguistics data that help make sense of prose structure. This is done in a clear manner that communicates well and is helpful for contemporary writers. Second, he affirms beginning with basic style manuals, but shows how good writing may and should move beyond. This is helpful as an academic and popular writer. Third, Pinker demonstrates good writing throughout. The prose is punchy and alive. It is interesting, even when the content is heady and a bit dry. This is a demonstration of how to make bland content flavorful without being gimmicky.

I affirm this book and recommend it for good writers that want to get better. This will not be the first manual I pull off my shelf, but I hope I am a better writer for having read it and will likely read it again in the future.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Advice for Writing Papers at Seminary

It is paper season at seminary. As both a writer and grader of papers, I offer four suggestions for improving academic paper writing. There are points of writing that people may quibble over (e.g., the use of 1st and 2nd person), but a quality paper is a possibility if students exercise due diligence and consider a few basics. 

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