Revisions

Nabokov used to tell his students that “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” By a similar token good writers, serious writers, even if they’re minor and not especially creative writers like us, are rewriters. This raises the interesting question of how “revision” fits into the writing process.

Revision of course plays a major role in writing instruction. (See, for example, the late, great Scott Eric Kaufman.) But this doesn’t mean the same thing for all writers. Anne Lamott famously promotes the idea of writing “shitty first drafts”, with the implication that good and great writing only emerges through revision. Jonathan Mayhew, however, has challenged this idea. “At some point the writer needs to learn how to write,” he argues, “not just revise.” I side with Jonathan on this. Especially for academic writers, I don’t think it’s a good idea to let our ideas tumble out of us inchoately (and often simply incoherently) onto the page, leaving it to our future selves to clean up the mess we’re gleefully making of the present. I think we should sit down and write the best paragraphs about things we know that we’re capable of in the moment. Like Jonathan says, that’s the only way we’ll actually become good writers.

The first drafts will not be perfect, but they will not be shitty either. Revision will still be necessary, but much less. The experienced writer will avoid certain kinds of mistakes on the first draft. After all, if you can’t write, you won’t be able to revise either, because re-writing is still a form of writing. A good writer needs to know the feeling of composing a good sentence, once in a while, on the first try. I’d much rather have a model that emphasizes the development of the writer’s competence.

Too many writers fail to really enjoy this “feeling of composing a good sentence”; they don’t give themselves the time to really experience what writing is. Instead, they write their first draft to a low standard (having deliberately freed themselves of a higher one) and then struggle valiantly to clarify their own confusion in later versions, often leaving them exhausted and uncertain they ever knew anything at all. This is a tragedy because a good writer should feel sane and strong while writing — perhaps the sanest and strongest they can be. Writing a scholarly paper should, for the most part, be an entirely lucid experience — the experience of knowing what you’re talking about. It should not be the experience of roughing something out that you’ll have to polish up later.

So where does that leave revision? Well, if you’re following my rules, your draft (at any stage) will consist of a series of orderly paragraphs, each of which says one thing and supports, elaborates or defends it. You can identify they paragraph by its key sentence and position it in an outline. Already there, you can “revise” (or re-vision) your text simply by imagining the same paragraphs in a different order, the same claims arranged in a different sequence. You can also imagine the claims sharpened a little or broadened a little — giving them a more definite point or a wider scope. And you can make separate, independent judgments about whether the reader will find these claims hard to believe, understand or agree with. Now you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Importantly, this revision of the key-sentence outline has set up a re-writing task. Print out your current draft (perhaps just as a PDF to open in a separate window) and make a separate document with all your (revised) key sentences in the (revise) order you’ve settled on. Beside each sentence there will be a simple marker (“S”, “E”, “D”) telling you whether to support, elaborate or defend it. You’ll probably have around 40 paragraphs if you’re writing a standard paper in the social sciences. That means you’ve got 20 hours of work in front of you. Make a plan to (re)compose each paragraph carefully and deliberately in a 27-minute writing moment, using the material in your original draft (where an earlier version of the paragraph already exists) as your notes — perhaps supplemented with other notes or sources. If 27 minutes seems like too much time (perhaps this is your third or fourth revision?), try 18 or 14 minutes. But in all cases physically re-write the paragraph. Type it in. Don’t copy and paste. Pass your text through your own hands. It will be good for your style.

I don’t just mean that it will be good for the style of the text you’re working on right now. I mean that it will make you a better writer. It’s not that all good writing has been rewritten many times in this way. (Some good writing does in fact emerge from the revision of shitty drafts.) It’s that good writers are the product of continuous, deliberate practice. They have written and rewritten the same ideas many times. They have become good at writing down what they know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. And, as Ezra Pound reminded us long ago, “one definition beauty is: aptness to purpose.” Don’t just improve your text through revision. Improve your writing through rewriting.

Sentences, Paragraphs, and Essays

“…it was to me as if someone were to use a precision instrument to open crates.” (Hermine Wittgenstein)

Let’s say that we write sentences, compose paragraphs, and arrange essays. I know that we often say that we “write” paragraphs and essays, too, and even whole books, but, if you think about it, it’s actually only ever the sentences, properly speaking, that we write. The experience of expressing a thought is not the same thing as that of supporting, elaborating or defending a claim to know something. Nor is the experience of reading a sentence the same as that of reading a paragraph. With each sentence a thought comes into view, and a paragraph puts these thoughts together. Now, some writers, to be sure, challenge us by putting all their thoughts into one sentence that runs on for the whole paragraph. For them, writing and composition are essentially indistinguishable. But very few writers let their sentences run on for a whole essay or chapter or book. (You’d have to be the daughter of James Joyce’s biographer to attempt such a thing!) Still, even if you pepper your papers with periods, you may not be writing, composing, and arranging as deliberately as you could. Let me try to explain.

Sentences are written and read at more or less the speed of thought. A sentence expresses a thought — it says something — and writing a sentence is basically a matter of deciding what to say. You do well to notice what “writing” is in precisely this sense. Try it. Have an idea and write a sentence that expresses it. Now have another. Write another sentence that expresses another idea. You can keep going as long as you like. You can try bigger ideas, more complicated ones, which will need bigger words or longer sentences or both. In any case, a “thought” is the sort of thing that can be put in a sentence, which, if someone were to read it, would, ideally, occasion that same thought in their mind. (If it can’t be expressed in a complete sentence it isn’t a finished thought.) Each sentence in this post is my attempt to get you to think what I’m thinking as I write it. If you’re thinking about sentences and about writing them, I’m doing my job.

Paragraphs are more complicated because they require the reader to put several thoughts together. A paragraph takes about one minute to read, after which the main claim will be believed, understood, or rejected by the reader, who will then move on to the next paragraph. The main claim is itself expressed in a sentence, which we call the “key sentence”, and which also of course expresses a thought. So you might think that a paragraph, too, expresses a thought, just using sentences instead of words. I urge you to distinguish between a thought here and a claim. It is one thing to think of something and quite another to assert a claim. The thought that is expressed in your key sentence is a claim that uses the thoughts expressed in the other sentences in the paragraph for support, elaboration or defense. It’s important to make sure that each sentence can be thought on its own, even if some of them, and especially the key sentence, suggest difficulties that require further thought. The paragraph puts all those thoughts together in a composition that resolves these difficulties in some interesting way.

Needless to say, the arrangement of paragraphs into essays is a still more complicated business. Each paragraph has to be composed and then arranged, and then, usually, rewritten, sentence by sentence, to occupy its final place in the essay. But given that the sentences are well written, and the paragraphs have been carefully composed, “writing” an essay is really just a matter of arranging a series of claims in the right order. These claims are represented by your key sentences, which can be arranged in a surveyable way simply by listing them one after the other. You can then ask yourself, “If I were to successfully support, elaborate or defend each of these claims, and presented them in this order, would my reader find my argument compelling?” An essay, remember, is ultimately just an attempt — you’re trying out a line of argument on your reader. The question is whether you can see see it clearly just by looking at your key sentences, as “dots” to be connected by the “lines” of your paragraphs. Obviously, your reader will have to make those connections too, so you must arrange your claims in an accessible order, with direct lines from one point to the next as often as possible.

While I recognize that this distinction between writing, composing and arranging is somewhat artificial, I think much of the difficulty of writing stems from not observing it in practice. We think we have to “write” our essays in the same sense that we “write” our sentences. This suggests that we have to have the whole essay “in mind” in the same way that we have the thought that a sentence expresses in mind as we write it. Or we may think that we should compose sentences with the same care that we compose paragraphs, meticulously considering each word as it passes through the mind of the reader. Or we think that a paragraph is simply an arrangement of sentences — merely a series of thoughts to get through — rather than a moment of the reader’s intellectual composure. Some of these misunderstandings make writing more difficult than it needs to be, while some of them produce writing that is harder to read than it should be. Writing well means knowing when to just write, when to compose, and when to make an attempt at arrangement. By making the right decision about what to do, not only are we more likely to succeed, we’re more like to enjoy the work. And that’s actually the best reason to think carefully about what you are doing when you’re writing. It will make you happier while you’re at it.

The Literature

“Appreciate your finitude.”

Each of us knows a great deal. And there is a lot that we don’t know but is known by others. These are the things we learn by doing our literature review. Many researchers find this task daunting and, in this post, I want to try to summarize the advice I give to them.

Begin with a small set of papers that you have a close connection to. You may have authored or co-authored some of them yourself, or you may have worked closely with the people who have authored them. They may be written by members of your department or people who have collaborated with your colleagues. Ideally, you have met the authors of these papers and have a good understanding of the sort of research they do. You have a concrete image of where they work and how they go about their research, and you are, of course, at least moderately impressed with what they have accomplished. When you read one of their papers, you can form clear images of the facts they represent and you have a well-grounded opinion of how likely their results are to be correct. You don’t have to be entirely convinced of their claims. But you do have to find them interesting, and you have to respect the research they have done. This list of papers can be quite short; even two or three can be sufficient, but I would suggest finding between six and twelve. Put them at the center of your search.

Locate them individually in the various databases that you have at your disposal. Here at CBS, at would recommend you find them in Business Source Complete, Web of Science, and Scopus.* Once you have found the articles, look at the bibliographical data that the database provides for them; notice that there is an abstract, some key words, a journal, and of course the authors. These are all going to be useful to you when you are looking for similar articles, since “similarity” here is just a reference to the data that the entries in the database share with other entries. Using your awareness of these similarities, you will be able to design searches that quickly and accurately locate literature that is relevant to your research.

But the entries, especially in Web of Science and Scopus, also let you think of each article as occupying a node in a network of citations. In addition to the bibliographical data, an entry usually contains the full bibliography of the article itself (its reference list, its list of sources, its “cited references”). It also links to a list of “citing documents”, i.e., all the articles in the database that have this article on their reference lists. Finally, they give you the option of searching for “related documents,” which is a long list of all the articles that share at least one reference with the article in question. (These can be organized by “relevance”, i.e., in order of how many references they share.) With this information, you able are able to position an article in the discourse to which it contributes.

While a citation network may be large, it is not infinite. More importantly, it has a center and a periphery, as well as a past and a future. In the center is that short list of articles with which you are already very familiar and should be quite recently published. Behind them lie all their sources, which we can imagine as one long, shared bibliography; but, instead of putting it in alphabetical order, let’s arrange them by publication date, with the oldest at the furthest remove from your core papers. Also, let’s group them along a center line so that the papers that share references (or are otherwise topically related) are closest to each other, and those that don’t are further from the line. This will produce a sort “wake” trailing after the core articles and shading off into the “ocean” of published papers that are not directly cited but are nonetheless related to the articles you do cite. By a similar token, there will be papers that are contemporaneous with your core, and very relevant, but (since they were published at around the same time) will not cite your work (or that of your close colleagues). And there will be papers that are at quite a remove (either conceptually or bibliographically) from your core, but more or less related to the papers you cite, or the papers that are related to those you cite. An illustration might be useful:


But nothing is entirely static in research. The literature is constantly growing and it’s important to have a way of navigating on the ocean of scholarship. Obviously, your own research (and that of those core peers, whose research you are very familiar with and probably read about in draft and pre-print form) will follow a line proceeding from the (present) center of your research. Closely related to this line will be (future) papers that cite your core articles (albeit sometimes just in passing) and, again, the (future) papers that are related to those articles by way of shared references. We now get a diagram that looks a bit like this:

The key to all of this is to appreciate the finitude of the problem. While there is a lot to know, there are only a handful of very relevant articles, and a manageable amount of less relevant ones, before we finally reach your research horizon, beyond which you can safely remain ignorant of what goes on (until you get there yourself, of course). The ocean is a big place, but you’re only ever sailing in some local part of it. Don’t be afraid today of what is really just part of the adventure tomorrow. “Here be dragons,” is a myth born of ignorance. Uncharted waters are just places you haven’t yet explored.

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*Update: Patrick Dunleavy, whose views on writing and publishing are always worth taking seriously, has taken me to task on Twitter for this recommendation, calling it “outdated”: “Leaving out Google Scholar,” he argues, “‘costs’ your advisees. They’ll miss all grey literature (pretty vital in business studies on new topics), plus all books, book chapters & most conference papers.” Jo Jordan came to my defense: “But starting them on Google Scholar,” she countered, “condemns them to muddle and an inability to use IT to manage their databases. Need to see some total costings here.” I think that gets it mostly right and it reminded me of what Bill Evans says about keeping things “simple and real”. That’s the spirit in which I wrote this post. But I’ll have to write one specifically about Google Scholar at some point.

Philosophers and Poets

Wittgenstein said that “the civil status of a contradiction” is the philosophical problem (PI§125). The philosopher’s problem is to sort out how we got into a contradiction and how we might proceed — how we “can go on,” as he put it. Following Ezra Pound, I have long argued that the poet’s problem can be expressed analogously as “the civil status of seduction”. In his writings on the Troubadours, Pound argued that they struggled to find fit words to express the sufferings of lovers otherwise embroiled in a variety of ambient intrigue, including their, let us say, official or “civil” unions, their formal marriages. “Courtly love” was the sort of passion you could pursue in a royal court, while observing your official duties. “Official wisdom”, we might say, is the logic of mainstream science. Poets and philosophers, in any case, use language to make the complexities civil, public life explicit. They make them subjects and objects of discourse.

So, just as you can think of yourself as a “boxer” or a “dancer” when writing, perhaps you can think of yourself as a philosopher or a poet. In fact, there may be some natural overlap between these categories. Boxers, let’s say, “contradict” each other, while a dance is always at some level a “seduction”. A philosopher is trying to “win” the argument by arriving at some truth at the end of a deduction or chain of reasoning. I will leave it to Ezra Pound to explain the problems of the thirteenth-century troubadours:

After the compositions of Vidal, Rudel, Ventadour, of Bornelh and Bertrans de Born and Arnaut Daniel, there seemed little chance of doing distinctive work in the ‘canzon de l’amour courtois’. There was no way, or at least there was no man in Provence capable of finding a new way of saying in six closely rhymed strophes that a certain girl, matron or widow was like a certain set of things, and that the troubadour’s virtues were like another set, and that all this was very sorrowful or otherwise, and that there was but one obvious remedy. (Literary Essays, p. 102)

My students no doubt struggle to find a new and distinctive way to conceptualize, analyze and discuss a topic in five coherent paragraphs. But formal requirements, I try to tell them, can be your friend. In all cases, we are trying move the other. As writers, we try to move our reader; but we are not just trying to move them anywhere, we’re not flailing endlessly in an open space, in chaos, hoping we’ll get somewhere. Thinking of yourself as a boxer or a dancer (or a bit of both) lets you take up a “stance”, in the “ring” or on the “floor” of the page, where your problem is better defined. Thinking of yourself as a philosopher or a poet within a literary order might help you find your style.

I mentioned in passing that Vonnegut thought his distinction between “swoopers” and “bashers” might be gendered. He thought women were generally swoopers and men were more likely to be bashers. Today, there’s something a least a little quaint about that observation; some would even find the suggestion offensive. But it’s important to begin with the fact that neither boxing nor dancing are for everyone. Being a man certainly does not immediately qualify you to box, nor does being a woman make you a dancer. In both cases, you have to develop your talent and learn the craft. Though it has become controversial to say so, it shouldn’t surprise us that more men than women end up taking up boxing, or more women than men end up taking ballet. An interest in poetry and philosophy may likewise skew in gendered directions.

All that Vonnegut may have been saying, then, is that your writing posture is in part be something you’re born with, a natural temperament, and you have to find out how to develop it naturally. Norman Mailer once said that “biology is not destiny; but it is half of it,” and, while he was, in fact, talking about gender in that case, he would easily grant that he’s talking about the entire physiological apparatus you inherit from your parents. As Spinoza taught Deleuze, a life is spent figuring out “what the body can do”, which includes punching and leaping and thinking and feeling, and contradicting and, yes, seducing each other. “What a strange machine man is!” Zorba the Greek exclaims. “You fill him with bread, wine, fish, and radishes, and out comes sighs, laughter, and dreams.” And words. And writing.

And poems. And whole philosophies. Of course, there are many different kinds of writers, many different temperaments. And, no matter how scientific you may consider your research, your writing style will have some “poetry” in it. Even the most hard-nosed pragmatist has a “philosophy”. It’s a question of degree and it’s a question of mood. One day you may feel poetic, while on another you’ll feel more pensive. It is true that you should aim to develop a consistent and reliable style that you can use on most occasions. But it will have a range and there is nothing wrong with giving in to your moods sometimes, indulging your whims. In fact, it’s a good way to develop find your voice; try it out in different registers. On some days, put on your dancing shoes, on others, your boxing gloves. On some days, try to contradict your reader, on others, try to seduce them. Get them to feel something or make them think. You won’t always write in the same way, just as you won’t always be in the same mood, and a little variety is usually a good thing. Just make up your mind. Look in your heart. And write.

How to Imagine Science

“The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science—i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy—and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person—he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy—this method would be the only strictly correct one.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

It might not be immediately clear what drawing pictures and telling stories (and especially what imagining dragons and potatoes) has to do with writing in the social sciences. I suggest these analogies (and even exercises) because they are ordinary activities that you probably already know how to carry out. When writing a paper, you should feel as knowledgeable about its contents as you are about what you did last week. You should feel as “authorized” to explain your methods as you are to tell a story about a trip the store. It should be as natural for you to read about a social organization as it is to read a novel about dragons. Your empirical observations should be as familiar to you as a small pink potato right in your hand. Ideally, scientific language is just ordinary language with some added jargon that mostly consists of labels on the switches and dials of some specialized “equipment”. It’s not the language that is “technical”; it’s the tools and methods that are used.

Consider the widely used “semi-structured interview”. When writing your methods section, you are not describing some abstract procedure, but the actual interviews that you conducted. You decided who to talk to, just as you might decide what bus to take or what shirt to buy. There were various things to consider, pros and cons to balance, and then you made your choice. You then contacted your interview subject — again, using some perfectly concrete means of communication, like email or phone — and you sat down in a particular place at a particular time and talked to that person for an hour or so. These are all perfectly ordinary experiences, but, instead of arriving at a destination or acquiring a piece of clothing, you have “gathered data”. You did some practical work to produce materials that are amenable to theoretical analysis. That practical work can be described easily for other people who are familiar with the terminology of semi-structured interviews. They know the names of the processes involved. And they are able to recognize reasonable solutions to common problems.

Something similar can be said of your theory and, of course, your analysis. These are things that you are familiar with. You have read the key texts, just as your reader has read them, and you have not only collected your data but studied it carefully. Reading is a perfectly ordinary activity in which you make sense of someone else’s writing. You cite the work that does actually makes sense to you, that has shaped they way you think, and that you assume your reader’s mind has also been shaped by. Your research is part of a conversation with other researchers pursuing similar ends by similar means, so, again, while the language is often quite technical, it is familiar to you and to your reader. And though your reader hasn’t seen your data at first hand, you have organized it in such a way that, if you were to show it to them, they would understand why you have concluded what have. They would recognize the kinds of materials you’re working with and the way you’ve arranged them for the purpose of analysis. We can say, perhaps, that the assumption behind any research paper is that your readers could write most of it themselves on the basis of the sources you have used. You’re simply saving them the trouble.

In short, you imagine your science (your discipline or “paradigm”) by imagining a small community of people with common interests and shared experiences all speaking the same language. There are a few things that will not be familiar to everyone and you will have to inform your reader about these things, but mostly you’re talking to someone who is able to understand you. The “technical” terms in your language refer to specialized techniques and technologies that allow you and your reader to construct models to frame your results. The models can, of course, be quite abstract and the results can be quite formal. (A pricing model may generate discrete values for the retail and wholesale price of a manufacturer’s product, for example.) But they are always summaries of the richness of ordinary experience, some of it stemming from our reading, some from first-hand observation. The terms in our technical language always refers to ordinary experiences, i.e., experiences that our scientific peers can ordinarily have for themselves. That’s important to keep in mind when writing.