Writing vs. Editing

Lately, I have found my conversations with authors obsessively returning to the difficulty of establishing a “writing moment”. It’s my obsessiveness that is work here, not theirs, to be sure. I’ve come to realize that almost all of my advice about composition presumes that the writer is working in a particular way. If the writer won’t work in that way, my advice won’t work for them either.

Imagine a piano teacher who trying to teach a student how to improvise. Presumably, the teacher will encourage the student to practice simple forms without sheet music. Now, suppose the student insists on writing all the “lessons” down in musical notation and then goes home and practices exclusively from the sheet music. The teacher would get increasingly frustrated because the student is refusing to have a very relevant experience. Indeed, the student is refusing to DO the very thing that the student is trying to get better at. That’s a profound contradiction.

I feel a bit like this when working with writers. Without quite knowing it, they come to me for advice on their editing, not their writing. They want rules of grammar for their sentences and content guidelines for the various parts of their paper. They want me to help them improve their product, not their process. They are understandably impatient when I tell them to sit down and write a paragraph for eighteen or twenty-seven minutes about something they know. “But I’ve already written hundreds of pages of paragraphs!” they exclaim. “Just help me fix them!”

But it really is true that I can’t help them if they aren’t working in formal writing moments. They have to decide the day before what they want to say. And then they have compose a a paragraph the next day during a predetermined amount of minutes. This is what I can help them become better at. That is to say, I can help them become better writers.

(I just realized I’m going to need to say much more about this. The importance of editing has long been a dogma of writing instruction. It’s true in the sense that all good writing requires re-writing. But I think we have to push back against the idea that it requires a lot of obsessive worrying and editing and “polishing”. The important thing is confidently getting your thoughts down on the page in the first place.)

How to Know Things

I’m working on a lecture that I want to hold in a few weeks. Here are some stray thoughts about it.

The present has been called “the post-truth era”. We are awash, it is said, in “fake news” and “alternative facts”. But something was amiss already in the middle of the twentieth century. Norman Mailer insisted on the existence of a “real world, where orphans burn orphans and nothing is more difficult to discover than a simple fact.” He was a novelist, of course, and twenty years earlier the poet Ezra Pound had defined literature simply as “news that STAYS news”. Today, we seem starved for facts that stay facts.

In this lecture, I will offer a number of practical strategies for surviving in the real world without getting burned by misinformation. Some of these simply involve building a certain habit of mind–cultivating a healthy skepticism and adopting a critical posture. But some of them also require an understanding of the sources of information and developing a technical facility with databases. The library has always been there to help us sort the true from the false and the truly new from the fake innovation. These days, perhaps more than ever, you will not regret knowing how to use one.

This does not just mean learning how to use our newspaper databases, although this is an excellent place to start, finding the actual “version of record” and tracing the development of a story over time as more and more facts come to light and early reports are corrected.

Many facts and figures that are reported in the media can be verified using the Library’s databases. Sometimes it’s a very simple matter. Also, recent events and facts can be compared to historical records of the same facts, letting you decide whether the purported “news” really is news. For example, if there’s a spike in demand or a dip in employment in any given month, is that something that the current government should take credit or blame for, or are we just seeing a seasonal variation that comes around every year?

Basically, I want to show that being an academic, and even just being a student at an academic institution, should make you “smarter” than the media. This mainly means not just accepting claims as true as they appear on your computer screen. Rather, a few simple checks can be carried out to see if what you’re being told even make sense.

In his usual hyperbolic fashion, Mailer explained the need for this sort competence: “we act in total ignorance and yet in honest ignorance we must act, or we can never learn for we can hardly believe what we are told”. One of the things we can do, one of the acts that is always available to us, is to go the library and read. We might construct and answer to Mailer’s complaint: we can, albeit with a little difficulty, believe what we read.

Social Knowing I

Randy Westgren raises an important issue in a comment to a recent post. “How is it that a group shares knowledge?” he asks. I want to try to answer this question in way that transcends (or perhaps just sidesteps) longstanding disputes, both among so-called “analytic” philosophers themselves, and between the analytic and so-called “continental” schools.

I sometimes think I’ve solved “the problem of knowledge” completely. But I’m well aware that I did so at the cost of stepping outside the bounds of proper philosophy. The point, of course, is that no matter how much doubt a philosopher is able to occasion, people know things anyway. They come to know things all the time, and, yes, they sometimes share what they know with each other. “The problem of knowledge” may persist in theory, but it is obviously solved in practice every day. How, Randy asks, does this happen?

He is rightly worried about the state of “scientific” claims about the ordinary lives of people. His friend Brian Wansink has been severely criticized, not least by the always trenchant Andrew Gelman, for deploying dubious methods of analysis in an attempt to qualify his ideas about what causes us to eat more or less healthily with “science”. Many of these ideas sound reasonable, and Wansink himself seems like a sincere and intelligent person. So there is a certain measure of sadness in seeing his work, as Randy puts it, “tarred and feathered”.

“Wansink may be right about many things that he shares with his audiences,” Randy reminds us (both Andrew and I have said similar things), “but his statistics-based accounts do not warrant justified true belief. Likewise, the brickbats thrown by statisticians are not sufficient to count as justification that Wansink is wrong about everything.” So where does that leave us? What are we, finally, to think?

I’ve long wanted to answer this, not so much for use by “the man on the street” (who might be looking for dietary advice) but by students and researchers at universities. What is a good way to come to know things in an academic setting? Over many years, I’ve come to settle on a three part definition, which includes both individual and social competences. At the end of the day, being “knowledgeable”, i.e., having the ability to know things, is the ability to (a) make up your mind about something, (b) speak your mind about it, and (c) write it down. We might say that knowing something, at least at a university, is a philosophical, rhetorical and literary competence.

Randy rightly mentions “justified, true belief”, which is the core (or beginning) of most philosophical definitions of knowledge, mine included. And here the Wansink case puts us in a kind of bind. Many people (including some of his critics) believe Wansink at some level. Smaller plates mean smaller servings which means fewer calories which leads to weight loss. Moreover, people of course believe these things because they think they are true. And they may in fact be true. (We don’t know that they are not true at this point.) So what they are arguing about is “justification”, the validity of the reasons that Wansink offers to believe something. We seem to be justified neither in believing nor not believing.

But we can ask ourselves another question. It’s one that has less to do with how we make up our own minds and more to do with how engage with those of others. Am I able to hold my own in a conversation with other knowledgeable people about healthy eating habits? If Wansink can do this, I’m going to let that count in his favor, even if his justifications don’t always hold water. (Boxers can “hold their own” and still lose the fight.)  Now, during the discussion, there was some question about whether Wansink was engaging in the debate in a knowing or hapless way. But I think at the end of the day, he found his composure. He acknowledged the criticism and seems, now, to understand it.* I have gained some respect for him throughout this. (Having Randy Westgren vouch for you, of course, also helps.)

Finally, we ask whether Wansink is able to compose coherent prose paragraphs about his subject in a reliable manner. This I think he has demonstrated as well. So I want to say that Wansink, however wrong he may be, either in his methods or his conclusions, is a knowledgeable food scientist. This judgment is not a trivial one, I want to stress. I have elsewhere been trying to engage with social scientists on other matters and have found them completely unwilling or unable to discuss their research sensibly. These people have led me to conclude that, however right they may ultimately be, they are not actually knowledgeable. They lack the ability to actually know the things they happen to believe.

The reason for this is that they have not mastered the social situation of knowledge. They hold beliefs that they are unable to share as knowledge. It is very important for scientists and scholars to develop this ability to share their thoughts and beliefs in such way as to contribute to the shared project of knowing. And that’s certainly an ability that I am here to help scholars develop.

Thanks, Randy, for the opportunity to try to hold my own with a knowledgeable person on this. It makes my work stronger. More later. (I think there’s a part II in me.)


*Update: I’m not so sure about this any longer. I had not been following the discussion closely enough it seems. Andrew summarizes the strange communication here.

Foreign Windows

“We’ve analyzed lots of orders and restaurants. What we find is that if you sit near a window, you’re about 80 percent more likely to order salad; you sit in that dark corner booth, you’re about 80 percent more likely to order dessert,” Wansink said.

The other day, I was explaining Writing Process Reengineering to a PhD student. I told him to articulate a key sentence at the end of the day and pick a specific time on the morning of the next to write. I told him not to let himself write at any other time. If the moment passes, he is not to write that paragraph at any other time the same day. He must make a new decision for the next day. And then do a better job of keeping his appointment.

He was puzzled about why. I told him it was jarring to his unconscious (the unconscious component of his prose, if you will), not just to be told it would be writing and then not get to write, but also to be forced to write at some unanticipated moment later that day. A double shock. I told him he would find his unconscious working more reliably if he kept his promises to it. He politely wondered whether I had any science to back that up. I did not claim that I did. I just asked him to take my word for it. To try it.

Andrew Gelman’s relentless critique of Brian Wansink is a good example of why I do this. It’s something I slowly realised after Freddie deBoer once pointed out that Arum and Roksa’s study isn’t, perhaps, as credible as one might hope. I realized I didn’t really know how credible it is. And I realized I didn’t really care. I had just found it useful to be able to cite a study that shows that writing makes you smarter and group work makes you stupider. It was a simple and effective way to present views I already held. Putting it the way I did, however, might have slightly overstated Arum and Roksa’s result. I didn’t really seem to care about that either.

Likewise, Wansink’s research, as Andrew keeps emphasizing, might very well be suggesting perfectly good health advice. The problem is just that he puts numbers on it and therefore might give the wrong impression about the effect size. Eat your rice on a black plate and you’ll probably eat less. But you’re probably not going to lose exactly 18 pounds. (And certainly not some even more precise number to three decimal places.)

I think I’m going to renounce science altogether in my area of expertise. I know what works for my own reasons. I’m not going to pretend to have “scientific” reasons to back me up. In fact, I think we should stop demanding scientific reasons for everything we do. Let science be what it can be. Mostly, we have to get by without it.

Tell your unconscious what you’re going to do the next day and then do it just as you said you would. I’m pretty sure that’s not going to do you any harm. And I’m also quite confident you’ll find it improves your writing. I could be wrong. But I’m not wrong about the science because I’m not claiming there is any science. If someone does come along with a study that shows I’m wrong, I will look at it very closely. But I promise I will not cite a study that confirms my views and say “See! I told you.” I’ll only do that when you come back to me and tell me my advice worked for you. As Van Morrison sings…

And if you get it right this time
You don’t have to come back again
And if you get it right this time
There’s no need to explain