40, 18, 11, 5, 4, 3, 1

It should be possible to write a journal article in about forty paragraphs. What this means is that writing down forty (carefully chosen) things you know (in the right order) should suffice to present a discovery you have made to your peers. When I say it should “suffice”, I mean exactly that: forty paragraphs should be enough to get your point across. It should give your peers an adequate basis on which to decide whether you are right or wrong. It should either impart your knowledge to them, or give them an occasion to correct your errors. That is, the writing and reading of those forty paragraphs will help make someone smarter.

Now, imagine presenting the same result in exactly 18 paragraphs. Why might this not be sufficient when forty paragraphs was sufficient? What would you be forced to leave out? When you think about it, you’re actually just reducing the amount of people that might engage meaningfully with your text. They will still (if you write it well enough) be able to discern what you are trying to say, but they will not be persuaded, either because you don’t present enough evidence or don’t tell them enough about your methods. Or perhaps you just leave out the discussion section and therefore give no indication of what the consequences of your discovery might be, whether for theory or practice. But a smaller group of very like-minded readers might not need any of this information. They would perhaps just have skipped over the paragraphs you’ve left out anyway.

Next, imagine 11 paragraphs. Then 5. In each case, think about what you would be leaving out.  And, more importantly, who you are leaving out. Who are you now not trying to convince. Who is becoming more of a spectator of than a participant in your discourse. Actually, at five paragraphs you are essentially writing an abstract (albeit an extended one) or synopsis. You are presenting a distillation of your discovery and implicitly telling the reader to ask you for more information.

So think about this text now as one that raises a series of questions and make sure you know the answers. (Don’t make the text a series of questions, though. Make it a series of facts that naturally stimulate questions.)

Now reduce your text by one paragraph. Then do it again. 4, 3, 2 …

Finally, imagine your paper in a single paragraph of at least six sentences and at most 200 words.  A good idea can be presented at these different levels of abstraction. I encourage you to develop your ability to scale the paper in these ways. Impose a set of constraints that are, from the point of the view of the idea itself, arbitrary.  Then make the most of the conditions you’ve given yourself.

But don’t let your time investment be unconstrained. Always think 27 minutes per paragraph. You don’t want to get good at something that takes forever to do well. You want to become good at writing down what you know in the moment.

The Start

Sometimes the best way to get started on a paper is imagine–i.e., draft–your introduction. Don’t overthink this. And don’t spend too much time worrying and working on it. Just do it. Spend a few minutes at the end of the day deciding what you will say (construct the key sentence) and 27 minutes the next day writing what you know about it (composing the paragraph). Here are three exercises that can be done in this spirit:

  1. Write a paragraph about the WORLD that your research is about. What is going on in society that your research tries to better understand? DO NOT write about your research. Just describe the world as it exists independently of, but relevant to, your research. E.g., “The Internet has changed the way citizens engage with their governments.”
  2. Write a paragraph about the SCIENCE that informs your research. Tell your reader about the underlying consensus or constitutive controversy that supports thinking in your field. Here, again, DO NOT write about yourself or your own research. Write about what has come before you. E.g., “It is well established that the technologies people use to communicate have profound effects on their sense of self.”
  3. Write a paragraph about your PAPER. E.g., “This paper shows that social media is eliding the subject of governmentality in Western democracies.” followed by a couple of sentences about your methods, two or three that summarise your analysis, and a couple more that suggest the main implications. The basic structure should be: “This paper shows that … It is based on … The data suggests … This has important consequences for …” (Remember not to write more than 200 words altogether.)


Bonus exercise

Write a paragraph that asserts your CONCLUSION. You might simply remove the words “This paper shows that” from the key sentence of paragraph 3, which should leave you with a declarative sentence that states your result. Draw the substance of your paragraph from your analysis. That is, base your assertion on your data. Write the strongest statement of your conclusion you are capable of. Imagine the friendliest and most knowledgeable reader you can. This is how you would say it to yourself or your co-author.

Explanation and Understanding

Randy Westgren dropped me a line about my post on knowledge and imagination. He was kind enough to let me quote from his mail. He began by reminding me of the “distinction between understanding and explanation in the philosophy of science.” This always gets my attention because I wrote my master’s on the philosophy of explanation. I was therefore particularly attuned to this point that Randy made:

Understanding is meaningful only with respect to the audience. An explanation of solar movements or social movements to primary school students – to help them understand – must necessarily be less comprehensive and either more or less abstract than for an audience of doctoral students. An explanation of a phenomenon in science has a goal greater than understanding; one seeks to explain causes, regularities, or other parts of the phenomenon.

This reminded me of a distinction I struggled with in my thesis: the difference between explanation as a rhetorical event and as logical structure. It is true that we sometimes say we will try to “explain something” and mean by this that we will try “get someone to understand” it. Even philosophers, I discovered, have a hard time keeping this straight, but I will insist that this use of the word “explain” has nothing to do with the philosophy of explanation. It certainly makes it difficult to make a sharp distinction between explanation and understanding.

And I think we need this distinction.  “Turco and Zuckerman,” Randy suggested, “are content to say that understanding is good enough for sociology, in many cases.” I’m not sure that’s the right emphasis. On my reading, they were arguing that understanding is necessary, but not sufficient. They were not lamenting the demand for explanation, but the abandonment of understanding.

Randy also suggested that there is “there is a great deal of room for scientific inquiry between law-based explanation and Verstehen.” My view is that the classical “deductive-nomological” account of explanation provides a regulative ideal for explanation, which can only ever be approximated in practice. In real life, nothing is fully explained, no explanation is complete and “understanding” covers the remaining intellectual real estate. Or rather, let’s say that explanations construct a series of extensionless points around which our understanding operates.

I think understanding should be seen as a minimal condition of knowing. I agree with Randy that explanation sets a somewhat higher standard. Or, rather, perhaps it just sets a different standard. Does the relativistic explanation of the precession of the perihelion of Mercury hold to a “higher” standard than our historical understanding of the progress achieved by the civil rights movement?

Sometimes we have to make do with “merely” understanding something. Sometimes we have an actual explanation. Sometimes we have a partial explanation and an understanding of its partiality. Or an explanation along with an understanding of how it might be falsified. I guess I seek an understanding that always tends towards (or at least strives for) explanations. You don’t have to explain Hamlet’s actions in order to understand them. But you build your understanding as you pursue an explanation for his actions and inaction.

Intuition and Immediacy

“In whatever manner and by whatever means a mode of knowledge may relate to objects, intuition is that through which it is in immediate relation to them, and to which all thought as a means is directed.” (Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason)

I’ve always like Kant’s definition of intuition. It is that through which we know objects immediately. There’s an interesting tension in that definition since a medium is something that a thing passes through. So intuition appears to be that through which something passes without passing through anything. “The medium of immediacy,” as I sometimes call it.

These days, however, we lack immediacy. We have a tendency to appeal to empirical data to support claims as though we have no immediate access to the objects in question. In the social sciences, this leaves a somewhat uncanny sensation. But I would argue that in the philosophy of science, evidence is almost absurd. Our thoughts, as Kant points out, should be directed not at objects (represented by data) but at intuitions, i.e., at those aspects of objects that are immediately present to us.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about literacy lately and this uncanniness (and absurdity) is never far from my mind. Even such concrete questions as “what is a research paper?” has been turned into an empirical question requiring detailed ethnographic study of scholars, teachers and students to settle. Shouldn’t it be the most ordinary object in the world to a scholar? After all, it’s something each of us encounters every day, and makes sense of everyday. Do we really need a science to tell us what we’re doing when we read and write a research paper.

Kierkegaard said that faith is immediacy. I think we have, in a profound sense, lost our faith in scholarship. Our constant search for empirical answers to questions that we should already know the answers to, indeed, that our very ability to read and write presupposes we know the answers to,  is a testament to confusion. Our obsession with “new media” is certainly a sign of it. I think it is time we approach the problem more immediately. We need to start saying plainly what is on our minds.


The Rules*

1. Always decide the day before what you will write and when you will write, one key sentence and 27 minutes at a time.

2. Never write about something you just learned this week. Always write about something you knew last week at the latest.

3. Always write a single paragraph of at least six sentences and at most 200 words in support, elaboration or defense of a single well-defined claim expressed in the key sentence.

4. Never write a paragraph that you have not planned the day before. Never write at a time you did not plan to.

5. Start on time and finish on time. If you start late, still finish on time.

6. Always take a three-minute break after writing the paragraph. In this break you must do something that is not related to either your writing or the rest of your day’s tasks.

7. Do not write from your sources. Write from your notes or from your memory.

8. Do not leave “chores” like proofreading and referencing “for later”. They are part of the activity of writing the paragraph for 27 minutes.

9. Read your paragraph out loud sometime in the last five minutes of each 27-minute writing moment.

10. Do not write more than six paragraphs per day. That is, do not write for more than three hours each day.

11. Do not render any absolute judgment on your paragraphs. At most once a week, simply rank them from best to worst.

*To be followed by the scholar seeking to become a better prose writer during eight weeks (40 days) of deliberate effort directed to that end.

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