Deciding What You Want to Say

Good academic writers are people who can take a moment, or a series of moments, to write down what they think on a particular subject. Specifically, they are able to make effective use of twenty or thirty minutes to produce a paragraph of coherent prose. If they know something, they know that they know it, and also how they know it. So they can tell you what they think and why they think so. Working under a reasonable set of constraints, they can put all of this in writing. That, in any case, is the sense in which I try to help scholars and students become good (i.e., better) academic writers.

If you want to be a good academic writer, therefore, you have to learn how to make up your mind about what you are going to say. In fact, making up your mind is part of the much larger competence of being “knowledgeable”, and deciding what you’ll say in a particular paragraph is a way of keeping that competence in shape. This is why I recommend that you train it specifically and deliberately. The simplest way to do this is take a very short moment, lasting no more than five minutes at the end of your working day, and write down a single true sentence that you know. A simple, declarative sentence that expresses a justified, true belief that you hold. Pick something that you already knew last week, even something you’ve known for months or years. Make sure it’s the sort of thing that you might use a paragraph to support, elaborate or defend in writing. Picking an idea with the right volume and attitude (the right message and rhetorical posture) is part of the craft. It’s something you want to be good at.

By waiting until the end of the day, you are making sure that it’s only the decision you are making. You will not write the paragraph itself; you’ll just decide what your paragraph will say. You are not yet training your ability to actually compose a paragraph; you’re training your ability to decide what to say. When the decision has been made, you’ll call it a day and begin your after-work activities. Relax. See some friends. Get something to Eat. Love. Pray. Sleep. You know the drill. The important thing is not to think about that sentence for the remains of the day. It may find its way into your dreams, but that is exactly where it belongs — in your unconscious. You’ve decided what you want to say, but you’re not yet in any position to decide whether it was a good idea, i.e., whether you made the right decision. You’ll find that out tomorrow.

Putting some conceptual space (and some actual time) between the decision and the execution, not only lets your unconscious prepare for the writing in the morning, it also sharpens your focus during the actual decision-making process. You go into it knowing you only have five minutes to think of something. So you’ll be picking ideas that are easily available to you, not ideas that you’re still struggling to understand. You’ll be calling on your clearest and most distinct ideas. (Descartes would be proud!) If you’re working on a project or paper, some ideas will be at the front of your mind, but only some of them will be clear enough to note down in a sentence given only five minutes of your attention. Those are the ones you want to choose from.

I know this all seems very artificial. But it is actually possible to develop this ability, and once you have it, you can apply it in more spontaneous ways. I will always insist that the best writing emerges from decisions that were made the day before they were executed. (In fact, most of the best actions are probably taken that way.) But those aren’t always the conditions under which real writing gets done. That’s why I’m suggesting you practice; for just a moment every day, or every other day, give your self slightly more ideal conditions than normal. Be a little more deliberate than you’re used to. Remember that athletes aren’t always competing, musicians aren’t always performing. Sometimes they’re just trying to get better. On Monday, I’ll say something about what to do with your decision when you get up the next day. Today, I just wanted to stress that making the decision is itself a valuable skill you develop through training.

The Experience of Knowing

Ernest Hemingway concluded the preface to his First Forty-Nine Stories with a remark that I’ve always found strangely simple yet illuminating. “I would like to live long enough to write three more novels and twenty-five more stories,” he says. “I know some pretty good ones.” What strikes about this way of putting it is that, although Hemingway is talking about fiction, he asks us to imagine these stories, not as the products of some future act of creativity, but as parts of a knowledge he already possesses. He hopes to live long enough to write them down, not long enough to make them up.

This view of writing is not universally held. Even where one would think it held most sway, in academia, I get the sense that it’s the minority view. A recent example of this was brought to my attention by Eric Hayot, who himself rejects the conception of “writing as putting down thoughts you already have.” Hayot recommends we read Jan Mieszkowski’s “In Praise of ‘Bad’ Academic Writing” in the Chronicle Review, and it is, indeed, well worth the read. Not only is it not bad; it’s not even ‘bad’. That is, it doesn’t deserve it’s own praises. It’s a perfectly good piece of writing about writing, and clearly expresses views already known to its author. Nonetheless, he argues that “a text is academic precisely when it is not informed by a dogmatic assumption about what a true statement looks like.” This certainly complements Hayot’s view (which I’ve written about before): “you cannot know what your ideas are, mean, or do until you set them down in sentences, whether on paper or on screen,” he tells us; you are always working at “the intersection of an intention and an audience.” That is, our ideas emerge in the process of writing for an imagined audience, it is not merely, say Hayot and Mieszkowksi, the presentation of ideas already held.

Mieszkowski devotes much of his piece to a critique of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. Pinker’s view is that good writing begins with a good, clear idea in mind, and that it presents that idea as though it’s something that is already a firmly established truth. Academic writing should present itself as knowledgeable, but not because the “truths” it expresses are beyond discussion. On the contrary, by claiming a statement is true, and by presuming the reader is capable of deciding whether it’s true, the text opens itself to critique from peers. It does not deflect such criticism by shifting the terms of discourse, imagining or inventing some entirely new reader in some future community of scholars. Pinker’s view here is very much in line with “classic style”, which he invokes explicitly. “In classic style,” Thomas and Turner tell us, “the motive is truth, the purpose is presentation, the reader and writer are intellectual equals, and the occasion is informal.” For the record, it’s the third characteristic that I would put at the center of any definition of academic writing: it is writing for peers.

Overall, and while I find the conversation important, I have to side with Pinker. In fact, I would argue that the scholarly essay, like a scientific paper, offers (for humanists and social scientists respectively) almost ideal conditions to be knowledgeable, i.e., to experience their knowledge as competence — the authority to speak. To write academically is to write down the things you have established for yourself as truths — the stories you know. You write them down along with the reasons you have for holding them true, with the implication that, given those reasons, your reader, who is that “intellectual equal” we’re talking about, a peer, will hold them true too. Though you know that you might fail, as Mieszkowski reminds us we may, you do this confidently and directly so that your reader has an occasion to critique your thinking. You try to succeed precisely in order to make any possible failure meaningful. If the text is too “experimental” in its style or too tentative in its conclusions, it’s hard to know what to do with the ideas it evokes. It becomes a sustained performance of uncertainty, and ultimately deflects criticism instead of inviting it. That’s what Pinker believes makes it “bad”.

While the reader‘s experience is important here, we should keep in mind that writing an essay is an experience too. Done right, it could be the experience of actually knowing things, not a painful struggle with your doubts about them. Since your aim is to present your ideas for criticism from your peers you should approach them as though you know them, and if this feels very uncomfortable, or otherwise “off”, you should consider whether you know what you’re talking about after all. Instead of hoping to shift the ground of the debate after your intention intersects with your audience, as Hayot suggests, why not just change your footing, shift your weight a little, and write from the center of your epistemic strength? Open your thinking to the strongest arguments that your reader may have, rather than leaving yourself an opening through which to slip away. But do note that I’m not suggesting you should do this to please Steven Pinker, or even your peers. I’m saying that you might enjoy the experience of knowing things, and the composition of a good essay affords you exactly that experience.

Note: I’ve been having an interesting exchange on Twitter with Theresa Truax-Gischler about these issues. I’ll follow up on this post with my reflections on it soon.

The Promise

A tweet from Julia Molinari this morning, reflecting on one from Jo Wolff, stirs the memory of a post from my old blog, which, today, almost seems itself a “promise made and not kept.” I am grateful for the reminder.

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I’ve never really taken the time to read Paul Ricoeur very carefully. But I remember a friend of mine once trying to explain his view of “the promise” and it has stuck with me ever since. A promise, says Ricoeur, is a way of transcending yourself, of becoming more than you are. When you make a promise you don’t know that you will keep it, but you commit yourself to it. Promising is an important part of our moral growth.

Ricoeur cites Nietzsche (via Arendt), who described promising as “the memory of the will”. A promise does not refer to something you will necessarily do, but it does refer to something you will-to-do. The promise, then, gives your will some real content; it converts a vague desire into a precise intention. After making a promise, you are not merely hoping something will happen; you have identified your part in making it so.

Obviously, you make promises to yourself and to others. You make promises to your writing self: “Next semester, I promise, I will begin to write that book”; “Next week, I will get the analysis done and finish the discussion section of the paper.” And you can make promises to your reader: “This issue is beyond the scope of this paper, but it will be taken up in later work”; “As I will show below, however, …” Just saying these things does not get them done.

But here’s the important thing: even keeping your promise does not get anything done. I can promise to meet you at seven o’clock by the river. And I can do my part to make that happen. But the meeting may still not take place, for reasons that are beyond our control. I can promise to work on my book all next semester. Keeping this promise will not get it written. And yet, beyond the ultimate results, making promises and making an effort to keep them is essential to our growth as individuals, couples, families, and groups.

When I was younger, I tried not to promise anyone anything because I did not want to fail them. I had a purely negative view of promises—I thought the essential thing about promises was not to break them. As I get older, I understand that promises are valuable also in what happens when we keep them. They help us develop in an orderly way.

Skimming Ricoeur’s book this morning, I note that he connects the act of promising to the act of forgiveness. That is no doubt very important.

The Experience of Writing

My beard is a bridge between my past and my face.

Tony Tost

I often have to remind myself that not at all people write as deliberately as I do. They experience the act of writing very differently, and they therefore also experience their competence as writers differently. They are sometimes surprised at what happens in my workshops when we take a close look at a single paragraph they have written, trying to discern what they were trying to say and who they’re trying to say it to. More precisely, we try to identify the one sentence in the paragraph that makes its key point, and determine what difficulty the writer thinks the reader will have with that point. This often reveals that both the writer’s intention and their image of the reader are rather vague.

People of course rarely spend a well-defined amount of time on a single paragraph. The idea of sitting down at the machine with a specific literary problem to solve is foreign to many academics, not just students. Texts are not generally written one paragraph at a time, one idea at a time, one difficulty for the reader to overcome at a time. If they were, I suspect, they would look very different, and I wonder if all these years of training myself to think in paragraphs has, in fact, produced a style that others find hard to digest, perhaps even parse. I, of course, no longer devote exactly 18 or 27 minutes to each paragraph, especially not in a blog post. And I have, admittedly, not done much “serious” writing lately (I should be writing some articles, a book). And yet the habit of thinking of each paragraph, each block of roughly 150 words, as a moment of the reader’s attention sticks with me.

I started thinking about this again when Kim Mitchell retweeted a suggestion from CBC Books to keep the “creative” and “critical” dimensions of writing separate by “writing freely” first and then polishing the text later. It occurred to me that I generally keep both my creative self and my critical self out of the writing process. I let my ideas come to me while reading, or in conversation, or while I’m out for a walk. Or I’ll improvise for a few minutes during my otherwise rather well-rehearsed lectures and seminars.
Or I’ll draw pictures and diagrams. Or I’ll just lie there, on the sofa, and think. My “inner critic”, on the other hand, generally only gets to decide whether to publish a paragraph or not — whether it should be discarded or rewritten. While I’m writing, I’m not trying to be either creative or critical; I’m just trying to be clear. I’m trying to say as plainly as I can what I want to say.

I’m sure that’s not everyone’s experience of writing. My approach assumes that you have countless things to say, that you have the authority to say a great many things, and that writing, the author’s craft, is the art of constructing a highly focused experience for another human being. In the case of a paragraph, it is an experience that will last about one minute. The experience of writing is ultimately that of caring about what happens to the reader during that minute. After all, you decide exactly what does happen; one word after another will pass through the reader’s mind and you decide which ones and in which order. You choose them on the basis of the creative and critical work you have already done, well before the moment of writing. Your writing, in that sense, connects some future reader with your past. That, if you ask me, is what it should feel like to write.

It should also feel sane and strong. Not only are you the one who has decided what to say, and you can therefore make sure you know what you’re talking about, you also have much more time at your disposal than the reader. Your writing moment, ideally, will last 27 times longer than the reader’s reading moment. You are writing about something you know for reader that you know, i.e., a reader whose state of mind (the knowledge and experience they bring to your text) you understand (because they’re a peer and you have read some of their work too). Take your time. Decide carefully what you want to say. And think just as carefully about what your reader will find difficult in that message. Then relax and choose the best words you know to overcome the difficulty. Do that for a good few minutes. Let the critic evaluate the results later.

I’m often embarrassed about the typos in my old posts, even if there are only one or two in a post of 1000 words. Today, I’m going to be extra careful and make sure my draft is really “clean”. But do feel free to point out the error (yes, hopefully, only one!) that I missed.

Theory, Method, Style

The theme of your theory section is your reader’s expectations; the theme of your methods section is your own competence. In the theory section, where you conceptualize your object, you are reminding your reader what they expect of it. In your methods section, you are preparing them to accept the disappointment your analysis will (ever artfully) bring about. The trick is to preempt the reader’s rejection of your data, their attempt to maintain their theory in the face of your conclusions. You want them to trust you long enough to reflect on the significance of your results for their view of the world, forcing them to consider the possibility that their perspective needs to be changed. This is a delicate work, and it takes most researchers a long time to figure out how to manage the tension between theory and analysis. Some scholars, however, are able to get around this problem, or, if you will, rise above it, on the strength of their charm, their wit, or their sheer good manners. In a word, they have style. They write their way out of the difficulty.

You don’t need to have a theory in order to have expectations. A theory is just a way of making explicit the expectations we have of the things that are lying around in our environment. When we see something, we expect certain things of it, and this makes an “object” of it all by itself. We understand, not just that it’s a thing, but that it affords a number of specific opportunities for action. It’s possible to sit in a chair, for example. It’s not possible to walk through a wall. It’s possible to lock a door. The expectations we have of things are what give them their air of “objectivity”, and our understanding of what a thing makes possible is our “concept” of that thing. When we “theorize” we take our concepts and organize them into a system, we build what is sometimes called a “conceptual frame” through which to look at things. Ultimately, this also organizes our expectations into a system, which can then guide our reasoning through a complex space of a possibilities. Quantitatively minded people might call this a “probability space” and go on to model it statistically. But none of that is, properly speaking, necessary to ensure the objectivity of things. All that is needed is a certain regularity of experience, the ability to make repeated observations.

Now, you don’t need a method in order to make observations. Here, again, what we call “method” is merely a way of making explicit why our reader should trust our data. They should do so because we collected it in a careful manner, and we can explain exactly what we did because we followed a deliberate method. But the actual doing, and the seeing that it makes possible, is of course an altogether ordinary and, in fact, rather “subjective” affair. You planned and conducted interviews, or designed and distributed surveys, or gained access to an organization and observed its members. This may result in a set of “data”, which is then “given” to you for analysis; and your reader may want to know why they should take it for granted that these are in fact the things you saw and heard; but at the end of the day, they have only your word, your words on the page. If you write about your observations in a credible and confident way, perhaps that is all your reader needs. After all, your methods section, too, is only made of words.

Scientific writing is not, as is sometimes assumed, just writing with the style stripped out of it. Indeed, the French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, is perhaps better known for his style than his science. “Writing well consists of thinking, feeling and expressing well, of clarity of mind, soul and taste,” he said, adding his now famous aphorism: “The style is the man himself.” Scientific writing is, we might say, a style of writing, one that befits a particular kind of person, a scientist. As I have been stressing throughout, the normal procedure is to make your theory and method explicit, to be open with the reader about how you’re playing their biases and winning their trust. If you did not signal these moves explicitly, they may suspect you of manipulating them. But every discipline is different; every discipline has its own tolerance for tricks and gimmicks. Sometimes it will be sufficient to allude to the concepts that shape the reader’s expectations; sometimes the reader will trust you on the basis of a detail they recognize from their own work. “The truth,” said Marcel Proust, “begins when the writer takes two different objects, establishes their relationship, and encloses them in the necessary rings of his style.”

You don’t have to approach all your writing this way. In fact, when you’re starting out, and especially in your academic writing, I would strongly suggest making your reader’s expectations and your own competence explicit to yourself — as theory and method, respectively. But once the probability space of your research has become familiar to you, once you know what your reader expects and is willing to believe, you might consider exploring beyond the structure of your field and into its finer texture. You may never (nor should you perhaps ever) completely transcend the problems of theory and method. But if you can bring out a sense of both the possible and the credible, presenting them with the nonchalant air of necessity, as though the reader already sees, as you so, the same ethereal rings that surround the things of experience, you will have expanded your repertoire as a writer and built your strength as a scholar. You will have become the particular kind of person we associate with that particular style. What you must think of me now!