My students sometimes feel that applying the principles1 of clear writing conflicts with them developing their own personal writing style.
We can resolve this conflict if we think about our stages of learning. I particularly like using the ancient Japanese concept of Shuhari.
How does the ancient Japanese concept of Shuhari relate to modern day academic writing?
Shuhari describes the stages of learning from beginner to master:
'Shu' 守 means 'Follow'
'Ha' 破 means 'Digress'
'Ri' 離 means 'Transcend'.2
Or more simply: "Follow the rules, Break the rules, Make the rules."
When you first start learning a skill, you must "follow the rules."
After you are comfortable with these rules, you can move to the second stage: "break the rules," where you question the rules to understand how and why they work.
Once you have truly mastered the skill, you can "make the rules" or go beyond the rules. The rules are within you, but they do not limit you.
I think of this third stage as "being at one with the rules"--you no longer think consciously about them, but you use them freely as you have mastered them completely.
So how do you develop your own academic writing style?
First, you look at the stage you are in (and recognize that there is nothing wrong with being in SHU). If you are in SHU or HA, you are not ready to develop your own style yet. You must first learn these principles deeply -- internalize them-- before you can choose to digress or transcend.
We need to take the time to learn and understand before we can break out.
Developing your own style happens in RI. Try not to skip steps.
You might wonder if you even need to get out of SHU to write well academically. I am not sure you do. Maybe trying to move through the stages of learning is not the goal in academic writing. If you can write well by following the principles exactly3 then why digress? Maybe it's enough to just clearly communicate your research.
Enjoy the poem below.
Photo by Alicia Perez
SHU HA RI
The Art of Mastery
by Azumi Uchitani4
守 SHU Protect
I practice the form, I protect the form.
I respect the form. I repeat the form.
In this process, I learn the principle.
The principle is the heart of the form.
Without a solid form,
nothing can be held.
破 HA Break
I detach myself from the known,
Breaking the form of basic, with trials and errors,
I discover what works for me and what doesn’t.
It is scary to be here.
But the principle I learned never leaves me.
I trust my soul and I evolve.
離 RI Transcend
I see I have wings now.
The wings, gifted by the divine.
With the colour of my soul,
With the patterns of my skills,
With the power of my principle,
I fly with my wings, with the divine.
Yuval Harari comes to mind when I think of an academic writer who follows the principles of clear writing precisely and writes clearly and engagingly ↩