Tag Archives: writing

Book structure

or, what have you been doing on your study leave?

I often ask research students about the structure of their paper, thesis, or argument. I ask this and sometimes people are ready to answer, but it also sometimes happens that people look at me blankly as if they aren’t entirely sure what the question means. That’s a shame, because I find it a really useful way to think about my own writing – and so, in order to show that I am willing to do the things I ask other people to do, I thought I’d take some time today to describe the structure of the book I’m writing.

The project is an overview of liberal Quaker theology (for, eventually, Brill’s Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series). The aim of the book is to show that liberal Quaker theology exists, that it’s coherent, that it might sometimes seem vague or diffuse but is actually a single tradition – admittedly with multiple sub-traditions and complexities – which can usefully be analysed and discussed together. In order to show this, I look for places where liberal Quaker theology can be found and try to gauge their unity and diversity in different areas.

I start off in my introduction with an assessment of what has been said so far about liberal Quaker theology, and by clarifying how I’m using those terms. I make sure everyone knows what will count as Quaker or not, what it means to say that something in the Quaker tradition is part of the liberal sub-tradition, and what I think I’m looking for when I say that I’m looking for theology. I don’t, for example, think that theology can only be done if you have a university degree in theology – so it’s important to make sure readers know what I’m on about. Having set the scene in this way, and thereby laid the foundations on which I’m going to build a tower, I start looking at my three bodies of evidence.

In this first chapter, I look at one place where I expect to find liberal Quaker theology represented in a formal way, in statements which have the approval of the whole community. Quakers don’t write creeds but do have books, books of discipline or books of faith and practice, which try to bring together the important things they think they need to record and teach people within the community. They typically revise these books from time to time, when they seem outdated or something has changed in their community. Each Yearly Meeting might have its own, and can split up the material in various ways – but they all include the sorts of theological thinking I’m looking for. In order to get a really broad picture, I picked eight different examples of these books. I describe each one and analyse some key passages from it to look for the theological material. This is the evidence: if I find theology in liberal Quaker books of discipline, it’s evidence that there is liberal Quaker theology; if it’s coherent, or I can at least trace a continuity within the change through time and around the world, it’s evidence that there is a single liberal Quaker theological tradition. I was able to find both of those, so that’s brick 1 laid on my foundation.

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A rough diagram of the book structure I describe – with a black line for my introduction/foundation, a nice solid rectangle for chapter 1, a square-ish shape at a bit of an angle balancing on top for chapter 2, a small but firm square for chapter 3, and a arching grey line down the left hand side to take it all in and be my conclusion: tower!

In the second chapter, I look at some works by individual Quakers or small groups which might be expected to be more diverse. They might be working outside an institutional context, or in a situation where a group has been specifically gathered to try and represent the theological diversity present within a Quaker community. I do find more diversity of theology, but I’m also able to show that everyone involved in engaged with some core liberal Quaker theological themes (as identified in the previous chapter). The tower is now taller and more likely to wobble, but I’ve got brick 2 balanced.

In the third and final major chapter, I extent the argument in one way – aiming to show that as well as ordinary theology, there is also academic liberal Quaker theology – and in order to do so within the space available, I compromise a bit. I let go of trying to show the full diversity and range of this area of work, and instead pick four examples which showcase some of the relevant ways of doing theology – not all, and without much spread in time or geography – and look at how each of these four examples relates to the picture of a coherent single tradition of liberal Quaker theology which I’ve been trying to build through the previous chapters. With brick 3 on, I’ve narrowed the tower a little bit, and that helps it to stay upright.

In the conclusion, I say… well, among other things, I make the structure of the book clear. I comment on how my new tower relates to other people’s towers and also talk about how it could be improved: what future work could build it taller or make it stronger? Among other things, I point out a brick I missed out on using. It’s only in the final chapter, when I look at a committee-produced document, that I bring in all the things which sit between the levels of chapter 1 and chapter 2 – things like minutes and epistles, things which might be written by individuals or small groups but are approved by large Quaker bodies without making it into a book of discipline. That could have been another brick. I left it out because I suspect it’s a difficult brick to get together – the documents aren’t necessarily easily available, they’d be in lots of places and understanding the context of each one would be time consuming – and even if I did, I wouldn’t expect it to show much that was different to both the books of discipline (which include that kind of material if it stands the test of time), and the books and other works by individuals and small groups (who are, at least at some level, the same individuals and small groups who participate in the meetings for worship for business which also produce the minutes and epistles. Differences between the highly tested books of discipline and the highly personal individual statements seemed much more likely (and indeed, I found some but none which were too damaging to my argument…!)

If I’d done the reading and found something different, I would have built a different structure. I had a fair idea going into this project that I was going to find something like this, but I was also already broadly familiar with all three areas of investigation. What did change was the order and the emphasis; looking back through my research journal, I can see that I considered and rejected structures based on history (so probably these kinds of materials, but in chronological order rather than themed by type) or topic (again, these materials but themed around issues which frequently arise in liberal Quaker theology) before working out this approach. The big emphasis it places on the books of discipline came from a comment made when I gave a conference paper on the project, and although I might have got there by another route I think it proves the effort of writing a paper was worth it!

Another way to think about the structure would be as a story – this kind of investigation is like a missing-person story, or maybe actually like three lost cats. The detective first establishes what cats she needs to look for (in the introduction), then hunts down cat one (surprise! it was at home by the fire, but it’s a striped cat and is almost completed hidden on the stripy rug), then looks for cat two (which has been all over but comes home for a favourite food), doesn’t spend that long looking for cat three (but shows that it has been seen chasing a laser pointer in next-door’s living room), and concludes that the cats, although thought to be lost, weren’t actually very lost at all.

So, there’s mine. What’s the structure of your project?

Ancient Orkney places: locations in Between Boat and Shore

One of the things I enjoyed about writing Between Boat and Shore was getting to imagine my way into a world which I had already almost visited. Many of the places described are real, and the others are based on buildings from the same period or reconstructions. Here’s a quick run-down with pictures and links for readers who might be interested (some minor spoilers but nothing major, so you should be safe to read this if you haven’t read/finished the book yet).

The island on which Trebbi lives is South Ronaldsay, and the nearest modern village is Burwick. Look round that Google map and you’ll find Liddel Loch, and just south of that, a small sheltered bay. Although sea levels have been fairly stable for the last 6000 years, there has been local change and I allowed a bit for erosion and gave myself some poetic license in the details of the shoreline. As far as I can tell there’s no evidence for a village on the site I described – but the people who built Banks Chambered Tomb, also known as the Tomb of the Otters, needed to live somewhere, so I invented Otter Village.

It seems that on at least some of the Orkney islands during the Neolithic, every community has its own tomb. On Rousay, so many of them survive that archaeologists have been able to guess where the boundaries between community areas might have been – in Hedges’ (very useful) book The Tomb of the Eagles he provides a possible map for this (p106). Studying an OS map of South Ronaldsay, I felt pretty close to drawing my own, each ‘slice’ of the island with a tomb, access to the sea, fresh water, and access to the higher land as well. (The small size of the island helps with working this out, but it also gave it an advantage for real neolithic people as well as authors – at just under 50 km², it’s too small to support a breeding community of large predators: even with plentiful food, that’s a home range for just one or two brown bears, i.e, not a breeding population.)

The tombs themselves are interesting. There are at least two distinct styles found on Orkney – some divided into chambers with upright stones, and others with chambers built into the walls. The Tomb of the Eagles is an example of the first kind, but the structure is easier to see in this picture of Midhowe tomb on Rousay.

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Below a white gantry and wooden walkway in the top and right of the picture, a stone structure has a green floor, very thick side walls with a stone facing and rubble core, and thin, upright ‘flagstones’ sticking out in the central space, where the floor is mainly green.

Maes Howe, probably the most famous of the Orkney neolithic tombs, is an example of the second kind with chambers built into the walls; so is the Tomb of the Otters, although (as you can see in the diagram on this page) much smaller. Ordinary people aren’t allowed to take pictures inside Maes Howe, so here’s a picture from Charles Tait’s professional photography website.

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The block walls of Maes Howe showing how the side chambers are built into the thick walls.

The houses in the novel are based on those at Barnhouse and Skara Brae, on the mainland of Orkney. In this picture, which I took at Skara Brae, you can see the dresser – Trebbi keeps her cooking pots on one of these – and the small stone-slab box on the floor, which may (as in the novel) have been used for keeping seafood alive until it was wanted.

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A Neolithic house at Skara Brea, similar to those I describe in Otter Village. The hearth in the centre of the house is on the lower left; there’s a large dresser and at the base of it a box which may have been filled with seawater and used to keep seafood alive; and on the right, a box bed. The sea is just visible at the top of the picture.

Also mentioned in the book are the stone circles, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness – plus a completely fictional location which is more like Seahenge, even though I know that’s later. Here’s a picture of mine showing the Stones of Stenness.

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(some of) the Stones of Stenness – three huge uprights with sharply angled, ‘scalpel like’ tops, on a grassy area, with water and distant hills behind.

And it’s the Ring of Brodgar which appears on the cover of the book itself, picture by E. James and the cover design by Fiona Pickles at Manifold Press.

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‘Between Boat and Shore’, a lesbian romance set in Neolithic Orkney, was published in 2019 by Manifold Press. It can be purchased from https://manifoldpress.co.uk/book/between-boat-and-shore/.

Paperback copies of Between Boat and Shore are now available – buy from Amazon (UK or US), or get in touch with me directly if you’d like a signed copy.

 

Study leave progress

I’m coming to the end of a six-week block of study leave – I have twelve to take throughout 2019, and I took three weeks in March and will take three more in October, so this is a significant part of the whole. I’ve been working on my next book for the Brill Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series – the last one was British Quakers and Religious Language, a middle stage between my PhD thesis and my Quaker Quicks book, Telling the Truth about God. This one is currently called Theology from Listening: an overview of liberal Quaker theology in the long twentieth century. It looks at Quaker documents which have embedded theology – a selection of books of discipline and books of faith and practice, samples of material by individuals and small groups, and work by Quakers with academic training in theology – to form an impression of the core theology of liberal Quakers.

The main argument of the book is that there is such a thing – Quakers do have theology, and while it might not be systemic, it’s clearly recognisable and fairly consistent – and that although it changed through the twentieth century (I use the phrase ‘long twentieth century’ because liberal Quakerism started a little before 1900 and I’m including some examples from after 2000), the changes were slow and did not affect all the core claims. Yes, I include nontheism in that assessment. And evangelical or Christocentric movements within liberal Quakerism – my definition of liberal Yearly Meetings is a broad one, based on history and practice rather than theology. That both prevents my argument from being circular (if I assessed the theological content of material I’d only chosen for specific theological features, I wouldn’t show anything at all except that I can read), and means that my stock of source material includes items which make a lot of liberal Quakers raise their eyebrows and ask whether that’s really liberal. Well, yes, and if I can include it and still show that there are core theological ideas shared between all this material, I’m really saying something.

No, I’m not going to share with you what those core theological ideas actually are! Mainly not yet, because I’m still writing and I might change my mind or want to rephrase some of them. And a little bit because I have to sell books. 🙂 (I do know almost nobody can afford Brill books, and have already put in a proposal to Christian Alternative to write a Quaker Quicks book based on this material – even if they accept and I get on as fast as possible, it won’t have a publication date before 2021, though.)

What I do want to talk about in the process I’m using in writing. The method I’m adopting needs to give a very wide sweep – liberal Quakerism is a broad movement, historically, geographically, and in terms of material: liberal Quakers love to write books and magazine articles and journals and blogs and make videos and podcasts and all kinds of stuff. It also needs to give context to examples, so that the changes over time and between different cultural contexts can be tracked, and pay close attention to what might apparently be small variations. And when I talk about those small variations, it’s not enough to describe them, I need to give evidence of them. So what I’m doing is taking examples – lots of them, it feels like, but actually only a very small percentage of the possible examples – and working them through in detail, with context and a close reading of the parts which seem to me to be most significant. That’s the part which makes me most anxious. Although I think carefully about what’s significant, try to explain why, and give full references so a reader can look it up for themself and see they agree, basically most readers just have to trust me that I’m choosing the parts which are important to focus my discussion.

The advantage of this method once I get into it is that it does give both depth, via the detailed work on examples, and breadth, via a series of comparisons which I can build as I work through a series of examples in a chapter. It wouldn’t work for every topic, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for others, but it does provide good evidence for the kind of argument I’m trying to construct. It lets me look in detail at a specific writer and their theological ideas within the context in which they’re working – so, for example, today I’ve been writing about Rufus Jones and his book Social Law in the Spiritual World. I can take the time to tell the reader a bit about Jones and to describe the overall argument he is making in his book – I’m not just dropping in a quotation to support some wider point and hoping that the reader knows who is he and what he thinks, risking something being misunderstood because it was too far out of its original context – before digging into some of the specific things he says and comparing them with the work of other, later liberal Quaker writers. If you do know who Jones is, it won’t be a surprise that many of the ideas which appear in later liberal Quaker writers are also in Jones, since he was one of the most influential early liberal Quaker writers. But by dealing just with the one book, and not trying to include all of his writing or compare him in detail with many contemporaries, I’m able to look at his specific claims and how he puts himself into the broader picture by referencing psychologists and other scholars active at the time.

I also enjoy it. I like the business of writing anyway – research and reading, taking notes, shaping material into arguments, looking for the thread which will structure my book, and then actually writing it – and I’ve been having a good time on my study leave. I’m going to miss it when I go back into the office on Monday, and I’ll have to give myself a firm pep-talk about how I also enjoy teaching, working with colleagues, having meetings, and all that stuff!

Seeking and answering spiritual questions

In her work on spiritual autobiographies, Gil Skidmore has identified stages which writers typically describe. One of these is a stage in which the spiritual search coalesces around a particular question.

Gil and I recently ran a course together in which we looked at spiritual autobiographies, blogging, and other ways of sharing. As a writing exercise, I asked people to consider writing a tweet (or some other short statement!) in which they compared themselves to one of the historical writers Gil had described, or fitted their own spiritual life into the stages she identified. For one of my answers, I wrote:

My spiritual seeking centred on two questions. Firstly, why is it so hard to talk about God? Secondly, if it’s so hard to talk about God, how does everyone know he’s a He?

Writing out the questions like this made me realise that, although it’s taken me perhaps fifteen or twenty years, I have now answered them. The answer to the second question I would summarise with the single word ‘kyriarchy‘. The answer to the first question I explored at full length in my book, Telling the Truth about God. There are definitely more things to say about both of these questions, and many related issues, but over the past few years I’ve become gradually more and more relaxed about them. I’m still interested, still happy to have these conversations, but the urgent drive I once felt to start those conversations has faded.

I also realised recently that an answer I’ve had for a long time, ‘I’m a writer’, has finally met the right questions. It’s no longer the answer to future-focussed questions like, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ or ‘what do you aspire to be?’; no longer the answer to counter-factual questions like ‘what would you do if you weren’t doing this job?’ or ‘if you had a million dollars how would you spend your time?’; no longer the answer to inner-world questions like ‘what is your favourite hobby?’ or ‘what is your vocation?’ Instead, it’s a real answer to here-and-now question, ‘what do you do?’ and I have the ISBNs and Goodreads profile to prove it.

This does lead to the question: what next? I have some ideas – actually, I have a list of 17 ideas for things I want to write, including more novels, more books about Quakers, more academic articles about how multiple religious belonging works, and more poetry. I also know what some of the next questions are going to be, although I don’t know which ones will end up being the next stage of my spiritual journey. Some which are in the air for me include:

  • How will my own journey of multiple religious involvement develop? Will I drop or come back to Buddhism, especially the Community of Interbeing? Will my connection with Druidy, especially OBOD, weaken or strengthen as I approach the end of my Ovate work? Are there other things I want to explore? How will my relationship with Quakerism develop as I spend more time teaching and writing about it? (And now working on the revision of my community’s core text?)
  • How will my commitments to social justice, climate justice, and resisting climate collapse develop? At the moment these are areas where I read and retweet and think and sometimes discuss or facilitate discussion but rarely write or teach in my own voice. (Unless writing a novel full of LGBTQ+ characters counts.) For a little while I thought I might end up being much more politically active – but then I moved and still haven’t found my place in local campaigning. I also haven’t found a specific topic or piece of work where I feel there’s both leading to act and space to make a difference, but I am looking for that. I feel like I’m tuned in and waiting for a signal to find out what I need to do.
  • What are my questions? In a meta way perhaps this is the biggest question!

What questions, if any, have guided different stages of your spiritual life? Do you have any questions for me? (Would you like to ask them on has-existed-for-years-but-suddenly-reached-my-social-networks social media site Curious Cat?)

Archaeology and nearby possible worlds

I very nearly trained as an archaeologist. I wouldn’t actually have got into an archaeology course at university (you need a science A-level, usually chemistry preferred, and my circumstances did not include this). But I have been reading about archaeology since I was a teenager, was a member of a young archaeologist’s club, lived with archaeology students and occasionally crept into their lectures, borrow from the archaeology section of my university library, etc. This isn’t a way to get a rounded education, since one inevitably focuses on what is readily available (I have read more popular books which debunk the term ‘Celtic’ than any one person ever needs) and on some particular interests (stone circles are where I started, and although I’ve branched out I’ve never really got far from British prehistory). However, I have learned enough that the questions, the methods, and the approaches tend to shape my ways of thinking about other things, and enough to feel able to write fiction set in some periods of British prehistory.

I once tried to explain this, in a sentence, to a group who were mostly historians, and not at all philosophers. I wanted to say, “in a nearby possible world I became an archaeologist” – possible worlds are, so to speak, different legs of the trousers of time, worlds in which things happened which didn’t happen or came out differently in this, our actual world, and the nearer they are the more likely they are to have happened (except that, as it actually happened, they didn’t). I tried to translate that into more ordinary language in something of a hurry, and it came out as “in another life I was an archaeologist”, which I think mislead people into thinking that I had really worked in archaeology at some point. I didn’t – but I can cope with a bit of historian-talk about primary and secondary sources and that sort of thing, which was what I think I was really being asked.

Archaeology has its own related discipline of nearby possible worlds: archaeological reconstruction. Actual archaeology can only reveal what was left behind, and interpret it as far as possible. Depending on the conditions, there tend to be more hard things – lots of stones, some bones, pottery, burnt things – and fewer or no soft things – very little wood, not much flesh, almost no fabric. Especially before writing, but even after that, there are also only clues to the intangible: a statue of a deity but not a religion; a tomb, but no account of the meaning of death; jewels in this grave and weapons in that but no way of knowing how they related to gender, status, or anything else. An archaeological reconstruction, then, has to go beyond some of the facts into conjecture. Some people have build replica houses from the Iron Age, for example – what an Iron Age house might have looked like in a nearby possible world. It smells of straw and smoke and it evokes an aching feeling of genuine connection with the ancient past, but all it really tells you is what some people now managed to build when they tried to build a house the way it was done in the Iron Age. Clues: nobody sleeps there and there’s a safety rope around the hearth.

As well as finishing a novel which is set in neolithic Orkney, my very own attempt at house building in a long ago but nearby possible world, I am setting out on a new project to write about Quaker theology. Perhaps that’s less like real archaeology and more like digging for a treasure which people keep telling me doesn’t exist – or maybe some of them suspect it’s cursed! My worry isn’t so much about ending up in another world as the dangers of bringing to light, making explicit and visible, something which functions best or is best preserved when it’s left well alone. If you lift a piece of Bronze Age wood from Flag Fen, you need to be ready to preserve it by another method before it dries out and crumbles to dust. If I lift out theological ideas and worldviews from little scraps and throwaway remarks and writing which was meant to be about something else, how do I make sure that I look after them faithfully and don’t twist them out of shape?

Heteronormativity and the Edges of Genres

A while ago I spoke to a student who was researching the effect Section 28 had on people who were students while it was in force. I thought of various effects it had on me – on the way homophobic bullying was treated in my school, on the sex education I received, and so on. One of things this sort of legislation aims to do is to reinforce heteronormativity, a picture of the world in which straightness is normal and other sexualities are deviant or perverted. Recently I’ve been thinking about a place where I still have some heteronormativity to root out: understandings of genre.

Romance fiction is a big field. Paranormal romance, sci-fi romance, historical romance… but if you asked me to describe a typical romance story, I’m pretty sure I’d give it a man and a woman as lead characters. I’m told human brains think about categories by having some core examples, the ones which are most typical, and some around the edge which are harder to say, and then some examples which are outside the category. For example, the category ‘fish’ might have a goldfish in the middle, and an eel near the edge, and a dolphin just outside. Genres probably work the same way – for ‘fantasy fiction’, Lord of the Rings might in the middle, Star Wars near the edge (and also on the edge of sci-fi, because genres can overlap), and James Bond novels just outside. (It’s not technically magic, but…)

When I first met romance stories which were not about straight couples, they weren’t called romance – I was in a fanfic community so they were called slash stories (or femslash if they involved women or lemon or something else; language on the internet is rarely stable for long). Because the characters involved had been created by someone else, and were often canonically (i.e. according to the creator) in heterosexual relationships or at least assumed to be straight because of the prevailing heteronormative culture, there was a sense of subversion about writing slash stories. It was a genre, but one you found online and not one you could look for in the library, or even on Amazon, which started to get big about the same time I was writing slash fanfic regularly.

Online shopping creates many problems, but one problem it solves is how to buy things you think won’t be stocked, or would be embarrassed to ask for, on your local high street. I remember ordering Swordspoint and some other, not quite so good, novels with gay or lesbian characters – things I knew weren’t in my local library, which I’d scoured for LBGT+ content as one of my responses to Section 28, but which were recommend by friends in the fanfic community. I don’t remember any of them being labelled as romance – Mel Keegan, for example, was called ‘gay adventure’, and other things didn’t even name LBGT+ content on the covers.

This has changed in recent years, and some forms of LBGT+ romance have their own subgenres on book recording sites like Goodreads. (Why MM and lesbian rather than other words, and in the absence of other categories? I don’t know. Probably history, cisnormativity, bi invisibility, and lack of standardisation across different sites all play a role.) It’s still taking me a while to internalise good language for describing this, though.

I got thinking about all this because I wrote a novel about a romance between two women, so it looks like I’ll get lots of chances to practice. How do you describe these genres? What do you think are the middles/edges/not-quites of genres?

When do the rules of writing matter?

“All teachers are English teachers.” This phrase was, as I remember it, one of many irritating things said to my father by his managers during his career as a secondary school science teacher. As I understood it as a teenager, it was used to justify asked him to mark not just the scientific content of homework, but also to comment on the spelling and grammar of every answer.

I thought of it today because I was peer-reviewing a journal article, and had just finished reading and annotating a draft PhD thesis, and was thinking about jokes I might make on Twitter about what Quakers might put in our new Book of Discipline. Generally, this is an area in which I am very lucky – the patterns of speech and writing which are characteristic of my background are also regarded as very close to ‘standard English’, at least in Britain. If I just write whatever occurs to me, most people will regard me as ‘correct’ (and my girlfriend will tease me about sending what she regards as overly-correct text messages). I also enjoy writing, and I think about it and practise a lot, all of which helps me to improve. Even so, there are some mistakes I still can’t avoid making, or things I can’t be sure about – practice or practise? I’d have to look it up. Again.

Knowing that, I aim to be open to other people’s writing styles, and to get the right one for the situation. Blogging is not Twitter is not messenger is not a journal article is not a conference paper and so on, and txt spk is just a form of communication, not a harbinger of the death of the English language. I aim not to form excessively negative (or positive!) judgements about people just because of the way they write. I still find that it leaves an impression, though – when I found an apostrophe (confession: I needed spell-check for the word ‘apostrophe’… but) when I found one in a non-standard place in the first line of an article, it did make me wonder about the rest. I don’t think it affected my final opinion on the whole piece – but then I would think that, wouldn’t I? Maybe it did. I’d certainly encourage the author to ‘correct’ it before publication.

Another confession: blog posts are a genre of writing in which I often set out without knowing where I’m going to end up. This post could end with a recommendation – make sure you are communicating in a clear and contextually appropriate way, kids! But it could end with questions – which rules should apply where? is someone about to remind me about their rules against starting sentences with ‘but’ or in favour of capitalisation after a question mark, even mid-sentence? is it time for academia, and perhaps other places, to be less picky about issues (like the grocer’s apostrophe) which don’t affect communication? if groups want to be more inclusive (like the Quakers and the new book), should we accept, or even actively seek out, things which are written in less-traditional styles?

I like questions. Let’s go with that.