Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Prose Effect

People sometimes discern an almost religious fervor in my writing advice. It is true that I believe in better living through better writing. Indeed, I think better prose makes the world a better place. I don’t mean this quite in the sense of the so-called Maharishi Effect, i.e., in the sense that better prose might have some direct influence on the state of the world, but I do believe it in the sense that is the probably real basis for belief in such an effect.

The Maharishi Effect is usually described as a paranormal one: if 1% of the people living in a certain area practice transcendental meditation then this will have some positive effect on the surrounding environment. I suspect that if there is any measurable effect then it stems from the pleasantness that the meditators spread throughout the community, not on some occult force.

I believe that the same thing is true of conscientious writers. People who “sit down” every day to write carefully formed prose paragraphs about things they know don’t have a direct, magical effect on the state of discourse. But their writing and their reading will be “stronger” than it might otherwise be and will therefore pull discourse in the direction of rigor and clarity. You don’t need everyone to articulate their ideas in paragraphs of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words, composed 27 minutes at a time. But I think it is worrisome to imagine a world in which no one does it–a world in which everyone throws together their ideas in tweets and quickly written Facebook posts, always as a reaction to some current event, not on the basis of some well-established fact.

Those reactions, what are sometimes called “hot takes”, do of course have a place in discourse. But that place is granted precisely within the context of more permanent expressions of stable fact. If we really do live in a “post-factual” society, it is because our hot takes never run into anything but other hot takes. They don’t encounter the cool azure of reason.

To return to my analogy: if 1% of a population is meditating, then they bring a particular calmness with them into the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day. When emotions run “hot”, they encounter these people and are soothed. Likewise, outraged Tweets need to run into the moderating force of a well-crafted paragraph. This will make everyone think and feel more clearly about the matter.

Just a Minute

Here’s a simple way of thinking about your competence as a scholarly writer. Each paragraph should require no more than a minute to convey an idea to a properly trained reader, i.e., a competent peer. Obviously, it is a minute within a particular context. So, when you are writing a paragraph for the middle of your paper, you are trying to convey an idea in one minute, but in the context of, say, nineteen ideas that have already been conveyed in the preceding nineteen minutes. It remains useful for you to think of each paragraph as as attempt to accomplish something in your reader’s mind using a single minute of the reader’s attention.

How to Know Things (Lecture)

Wednesday 29 March 2017, 17:10 – 18:50, Solbjerg Plads, SP213

 Almost a century ago, the poet Ezra Pound had defined literature simply as “news that STAYS news”. Today, we seem starved for facts that stay facts. Indeed, our age has been called “the post-truth era”. We are awash, it is said, in “fake news” and “alternative facts”. How are we to know anything at all?

 

The library has always been there to help us sort the true from the false, the truly new from the fake innovation. Knowing something requires you to find your footing in “the literature”, the push and pull of discourse. Being knowledge-able (able-to-know), means being able to make up your mind, speak your mind, and write it down. This lecture will show you how a university education can help you get good at these things.

I will offer a number of practical strategies for informing yourself about the current state of the world. 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. These days, perhaps more than ever, you will not regret knowing how to use your library.

This lecture is open to all CBS students and faculty. Sign up by clicking here.

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.