Clarity, Truth and Writing

If you haven’t already done so, I strongly recommend you read Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner’s Clear and Simple as the Truth. In many ways, my approach to academic writing is a training regimen in the “classic style”. What I call the Writing Moment, in particular, embodies a core principle of this style, namely, that thought precedes speech. As Thomas and Turner point out, this principle runs counter to what a great many people have been taught (and go on to teach) about the role of writing in inquiry. They do a good job of describing this influential and somewhat pernicious doctrine:

Records are understood as a sort of external memory, and memory as internal records. Writing is thinking on paper, and thought is writing in the mind. The author’s mind is an endless paper on which he writes, making mind internal writing; and the book he writes is external mind, the external form of that writing. The author is the self thinking. The self is the author writing the mind. (59)

Like Thomas and Turner, I caution against this view of yourself (your self) as a writer. They describe the alternative in compelling terms:

Thinking is not writing; even more important, writing is not thinking. This does not mean that in classic style all of the thinking precedes all of the writing, but rather that the classic writer does not write as he is thinking something out and does not think by writing something out. Between the period of sentence and the beginning of the next, there is space for the flash of a perfect thought, which is all the classic writer needs. (59-60)

Notice that this space is one that the reader’s mind can occupy as well the writer’s. Indeed, that’s the whole point of the writing, to instantiate in the reader’s mind the “flash” of what Descartes (the patron saint of classic style) called a “clear and distinct idea”, a “perfect thought”. Classic writers don’t make a big deal of their imperfections; they know that their own thoughts, and those of their readers, are often less perfect than they would like, but they don’t show this in their writing. Instead, they do the best they can to present only ideas that they have thought through, as clearly and truthfully as they can. Simply put, they try to say only things they know are true in their writing, and they make sure that their text leaves this space for real thought to flash before the reader.

If you want to train this ability–which is, you’ll notice, as much a training of your mind (to think) as your hands (to write)–I recommend trying my rules for a few weeks. End the day with a clear and distinct idea of what you’ll write in the morning. Articulate a thought in a key sentence and relax for the rest of the evening. Then, in the morning, spend 27 minutes composing that thought into at least six sentences and at most 200 words that present it to an intellectual peer. Imagine your reader’s mind to be as spacious and brilliant as yours.

This will not just make you a better writer. By uncluttering your mind of the multiple “drafts” of your “internal writing” and distilling it, if only for a moment, into an actual thought–one that can live independent of your text–you are strengthening a mental faculty that too many of us neglect. You are learning to put the writing where it belongs: on the surface. This will free you to explore the depths of your own mind. And that, friends, is where the truth is ultimately found.

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