“Quantity, intelligently managed, produces quality.” (Jonathan Mayhew)
Here are some quantitative measures that can be used to understand what we mean by “quality” in a prose text. A scholarly prose paragraph can
- be written in 27 minutes,
- sustain 9 minutes of direct criticism
- be read in 1 minute.
That is: Spending 27 minutes attending to the composition of a prose paragraph is a meaningful use of your time in scholarship. Moreover, after writing it, you are able to listen to a peer critique it for nine minutes, learning from this critique and improving the paragraph. When finished, a reader is able to extract the intended meaning from it in one minute (even if the reader is not persuaded by it, the meaning should be clear). The paragraph should look like something that was written during 27 minutes of deliberate effort (not dashed off in five) and has survived (or benefited) from 9 minutes of knowledgeable peer criticism, aimed directly at it.
Why we so often tolerate writing, in our students and in our colleagues, that doesn’t even pretend to live up to this standard is beyond me. Obviously, I’m not talking about blog posts and tweets. I’m not saying all our communication should happen through carefully crafted prose. I’m saying that our core claims to know things should be thus composed, somewhere in “the literature”. And I say this in full recognition that I, too, have been negligent in putting my knowledge out there in this form. Occasions, I want to say, conspired against me until now. I’m starting to feel free enough to get this done.