Monthly Archives: March 2017

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.