The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant's bent
Ezra Pound

Every now and then, my right arm bothers me and I seek help from a physiotherapist. The last time, I was told that, having been less than disciplined in retraining my arm after I broke it (a decade and a half ago), my brain had rewired itself to avoid the pain, and now I had to train it carefully back to it’s natural range of motion. At that time, I immediately saw a connection to writing style, which is sometimes contorted by our desire to avoid the real difficulty we are facing. We develop a “workaround” that let’s us go on without actually saying what we need to say. More recently, I sought out a physiotherapist again and I was sure that the problem would be similar. I was wrong, but the experience was just as instructive.

This time it was simply my posture that was wrong. I had developed a slump, my head bent down, my right shoulder bent forward, and the first order of business was to get me literally straightened out. The physiotherapist diagnosed the pain I was feeling as an inflammation that stemmed from the unnatural, cramped way I was moving my arm, the humerus pinching the muscle under my clavicle (or something like that, which I may be remembering imprecisely). She taped my shoulder back and after half a day I was already feeling much relief as my arm was now forced to move in a natural way.

She told me to stop doing pushups and start “rowing” instead. When I got back to the pushups, she said, I should balance them with rowing exercises (I use an elastic for this). The pain is long gone now, and I also feel much more, well, upright. I have been walking and sitting up straight. And I regularly pull my shoulder blades together. (An embarrassing detail: she asked me to turn around and pull my shoulder blades together. I didn’t know how!)

What does this have to do with writing? Well, I have long argued that in addition to making a particular claim, a paragraph has a rhetorical posture (supporting, elaborating, defending, sometimes motivating). It addresses itself to the reader in a particular way. It comports itself discursively. And, like our bodies, our prose can suffer from poor posture, which becomes painful if we start trying to say things from an inapt position. That pain eventually leads to inactivity (to not writing), which only makes the problem worse, harder to solve.

Just as I had to learn to move my arm in a natural way in order to complete ordinary tasks without pain, we sometimes have to remind ourselves to face our reader squarely. This may involve getting ourselves out of a number of bad habits (we might have made a habit of writing defensively, when we supposed support or elaborate or claims). And that can take some time, doing light, deliberate exercises. That is, we have to take our prose “through the motions” without loading them with a lot of “weight”. And, when using it for “light” chores (like writing an email or a blogpost, we have be mindful of our posture, slow down a little, and do it right.

What I’m trying to say is that if you are worried about your style, or writing has become a pain, give yourself a few minutes every day to write some sentences that are well within your ability to say. Keep the grammar simple and the content familiar. Describe facts that you know well; prescribe actions that you yourself master. Work from the center of your strength and stay within your reach. Remind yourself of the ordinary range of motion of your prose. Every day, add a little more weight, write a few more sentences. It will be good for your posture, your style.

1000 Weeks

I’m reading Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks these days. It’s not quite what I had expected, but it’s a perfectly enjoyable read, if you like that sort of thing. In any case, I think I’m too invested in the issues to give it a fair reading, so this post is by no means a review. You can consult Mathew McFarlane’s “I read it so you don’t have to” post at Marker to get a sense of whether you should, or Joe Moran’s friendly but cautious review in the Guardian. I’m on a slightly different errand in this post.

Burkeman and I are of like mind in at least one very important respect. He wants you to “embrace your finitude”. I’ve long been arguing that you should “appreciate your finitude” (in fact, I hasten to add that I’ve been saying this for over ten years.) As far as I can tell, Burkeman’s aim is mainly to “liberate” us from the idea that we have to get any number of things done before we run out of weeks to do them in. According to his unobjectionable math, we each have about 4000 weeks to work with and he thinks micromanaging them and worrying about whether we’ll get to everything is a waste of, well, time. As a philosophy of life, I tend to agree, but I think I was expecting something less philosophical and more practical.

After all, I normally tell the scholars I work with to imagine 32 reasonably disciplined weeks per year, 16 in the spring and 16 in the fall, divided by a one-week break into 8-week periods. Leaving the summer and winter months more or less open for the usual exuberance and melancholy that these seasons reliably provide. (I give 5 weeks to melancholy and 15 to exuberance as a rough approximation, I should add, but it’s up to you.) Scholars can expect a career to last 30 or 40 years, so lets say about 1000 weeks of disciplined, deliberate work. To me, appreciating this “finitude” does in fact mean managing it quite tightly, and I have some very practical ideas about how to do that.

First, approach each of those 32 weeks as 30 hours of plannable work. Expect to be able to write for at most three hours a day, i.e., 15 hours a week. Learn how to predict how many hours of writing time you will have in every 8-week period before it starts and then try to make that prediction as true as you can. (That means not writing much less than you hope, but also not much more.)

It’s perfectly okay to let Burkeman’s philosophy liberate you from this image of a disciplined, goal-oriented life, enslaved to perpetual planning and endless frustration. But why not find a middle a ground where you can enjoy your freedom 20 weeks of the year, freed from worry about what you’ll “get done” precisely because you can trust the process that will go on during those 32 weeks of discipline.

Like Burkeman, I find Heidegger’s arguments for our finitude quite convincing. Here’s how I put it three years ago, defending the five-paragraph essay as a “place of form” and a “time for writing”:

Like “being good”, writing well means “finding ourselves correctly attuned in the apportionment of the moment” ([William] McNeill [in The Time of Life], p. 89, quoting Heidegger’s course on Aristotle’s Rhetoric). Our students need to learn how to establish a moment of composure and make deliberate use of it. The five-paragraph essay, then, when used properly, provides a great occasion on which to dwell on the essence of composition — to appreciate our finitude.

So my approach to finitude is not to leave it at the insight that life is short. In fact, the opposite is in a sense true. If you could find three hours a day, five days a week, 32 weeks of the year, for 30 years, you would be able to 6 x 5 x 32 x 30 paragraphs throughout your career as a scholar, one moment at a time. That’s over 28,000 paragraphs, or 720 journal articles, worth of prose. If you were hoping to publish 2 papers every year, you’ve got time to write each of them, carefully and deliberately, seven times.

Now, having three hours a day to write a on a regular basis will seem like a ridiculous extravagance to some scholars. But I know some who have found a way to at least approximate that goal for a substantial amount of weeks every semester. And I’m leaving you plenty of weeks for more spontaneous, “liberated” activity, the free exercise of your imagination, not to mention the pursuit of pleasure. As a writing coach, I’m only interested in half your day. And, if you do the math you’ll see that, I’m only proposing that you think this explicitly about the management of one quarter of your life!

I know how it sounds. And I know it’s not for everyone. But maybe it’s worth trying for a few weeks? I’m here to help.

Gaps, Goals, and Questions

If you have followed my advice, the introduction of your draft paper consists of three paragraphs that tell us (1) what kind of world we’re living in, (2) what kind of science you do, and (3) what you have found by doing it. If we don’t also understand why you went looking for it there by such means, then my first suggestion is to make your paragraphs better.

But sometimes even the best prose won’t satisfy an editor’s (or supervisor’s) demands for clarity. You may be asked to make your “research aims” and/or “research question” explicit and to identify your “contributions” to the literature or the “gap” in it that you are proposing to fill. I’ve never been a big fan of these demands (and I’m not alone in this) but they do come up (and sometimes for good reason), so I thought I’d write a few words about how to satisfy them should you run into them.

Like I say, ideally, the solution is already implicit in the three paragraphs you have written. You are just going to make it explicit. Presumably, your paper is based on a study, and that study was trying to answer a question. If you must distinguish between you research “aims” and your your research “question”, it might be worth thinking of the aim as more theoretical and the question as more empirical. What is the general problem you are interested in? Solving it might have been your aim. What is the specific context that you studied? That’s where you’ll be looking for answers to your question.

As a first approximation, try writing a paragraph that will appear between the second and third paragraphs of my standard introduction. That is, it will come after you have (1) evoked a world and (2) invoked a science but before you have (3) proposed a thesis. Paragraph 3 will now become paragraph 4, and in the new third paragraph will bring us from the science, through your research aim and and your research question, to your thesis. You will probably end up with two paragraphs that are in a sense about your “paper”: first (3), it’s problem statement (made by formulating your research aim and your research question) and, second, the study you are presenting (stating it’s thesis and summarizing its method, analysis, and implication, i.e., outlining your paper).

  1. World
  2. Science
  3. Paper
  1. World
  2. Science
  3. Problem (aim/question)
  4. Study (thesis, outline)

And what about the (in)famous “gap” that you might have been asked to identify as part of your literature review? Well, my advice is to make it part of your description of the science you are invoking. Ideally, the lack of prior research on your topic will not be the only thing that defines your field — there will be still be some consensus or controversy to speak of, and you should (in my opinion) presume that your reader will fill in the gap intuitively on the basis of what is already known. That will still put you in a good position to engage with the current commitments of your field.

It may be necessary (that is, your editor or supervisor may require you) to write a whole paragraph delineating this gap in your introduction. You will now have a five-paragraph introduction:

  1. World – the state of the world that interests you
  2. Science – the state of your discipline (consensus, controversy)
  3. Problem – your research aims and research question
  4. Gap – the outlines of the hole in the literature you are filling (contribution)
  5. Study – what your study shows and how it shows it

I personally think this is overly elaborate, and if I were your editor or supervisor I would try to get you do all this, some of it implicitly, in three paragraphs and under 600 words. But if you are being asked to be more explicit, there is a way.

Update on further reading: In the comments, Sébastien reminds me that, in addition to their paper arguing against gap-spotting, Mats Alvesson and Jürgen Sandberg have also written about problem statements and research questions.

The Finishing Touches

I’m holding the last talk in the Craft of Research series on Friday. It will be devoted to the utterly mundane business of formatting and referencing properly. I should emphasize, however, that this business is normally conducted under the auspices of a “style guide”; that is, there is in fact something stylish about it. It’s a tough sell, I know; it is something that many students and scholars leave to the end as “chores”, thinking that only a very superficial person would care about margins, typography, and consistency in referencing. Surely it’s the ideas that matter! Perhaps they should remember that papers are not made of ideas. They are made of words — deliberately chosen and arranged for maximum effect. In any case, I have my work cut out for me.

Here’s something to keep in mind. It’s a well known fact about many examiners and reviewers that after reading the abstract and perhaps the introduction, they skip straight to the reference list to see if the authors that they would expect to find there, and the classic works they have written, are in fact listed there. You want to make sure this first impression is a good one. If you have in fact cited the texts they are looking for, you want to make sure they’re on the list; and you want to make sure that the list is in alphabetical order so that the reader can find what they’re looking for. But you also want to make sure that the reference list itself looks like the orderly bibliography it is supposed to be. You want to give the reader a sense of the orderliness of your study at a glance.

By a similar token, this should be an easy source of a particular kind of aesthetic satisfaction. Spending a few hours making sure that your reference list is complete and orderly is worth the effort if you give yourself enough time to actually enjoy it. Looking over a neat list of books and papers that you have spent the foregoing many weeks engaging with should feel good.

The same goes for the visual impression that any individual page of your paper gives off. You should be able to spend an hour or so just flipping through your paper and enjoying the way it looks. Reading random sentences (even out loud) should be a pleasant experience. And the text should “work” at the level of the references; a quote or fact should have a source, and the source should be easy to locate, first in the reference list, then in the library. Try this out on a few different pages.

Make sure that the effect of putting a source next to your own text is to increase your credibility. These days it is often quite easy to find a source while reading a text (especially if you have referenced it properly) and this ease is part of the authority of your text. You can check how well this works by picking some pages at random and finding the source (either by Googling or in the library’s databases).

Does spelling count? Yes. But that’s not all. A nice clean title page suggests an orderly mind that is confident about what is to follow. (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether a generic cartoon does the same; maybe your supervisor has an opinion to share.) Page numbers and section headings are useful to the reader. The table of contents should match, yes, the contents. Figures and diagrams should be easy to decipher and look good on the page. (Learning how to do these things takes time but it is worth it. Don’t think the easy “automatic” solution is the only possible one and therefore the right one.) And they should be easily related to what you have written about them.

All in all, try to make your paper or thesis look like something that was carefully and deliberately made. You made it carefully and deliberately and there is no reason to give your reader any other impression. The few hours this takes are well spent, in part for the simple pleasure it affords. Enjoy it!

How to Appreciate Your Finitude

You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.

Ernest Hemingway

Begin in the present, today. No matter how big your project is, you must admit that today, at least, will come to an end. Will you be finished with your project? Probably not, unless today is the last day of your plan and you stuck to your plan. Maybe the deadline is today and you’ll hand in whatever you’ve got; that too, is a way to finish. But on most days you will not finish; you will put your books and papers away and you will go to bed knowing there is more to be done. Tomorrow is another day.

This basic idea — that today will end and tomorrow will come — may sound banal but it is enormously powerful. Given a deadline, you can count how many times you will have this experience — of stopping your work even though it is not finished. Once you understand that this will be a famliar, everyday (indeed, daily) experience, you can begin to get comfortable with it, and with the incremental progress that it implies. At the end of every day, you can survey what you have accomplished and look ahead to what you will be working on tomorrow. Get used to it.

I recommend you do this a few hours before you go to bed. Late afternoon or early evening is a perfectly reasonable time to call it a day. I understand that many students think they need to stay up late but, since you do have to get your sleep, that really just means shifting the day by a few hours. (What was it Hemingway said? “In Spain there is no nightlife. They go to bed late but they get up late. That is not nightlife. That is delaying the day.” Something like that.) The important thing is to make sure that you have some time after you have finished doing your work to relax. Don’t study until you sleep and then get up and study all day again. You’re a human being.

If you’re following my rules even a little, you are taking a moment at the end of the day to make a plan for the morning. I normally focus on the writing tasks, which shouldn’t occupy more than three hours of a day, but it’s a good idea to have a clear idea of how you will spend at least six hours of the next day before you stop for today. Now, divide those six hours of deliberate, predictable work into half hours. And put some breaks in between. Decide what you can accomplish in each half hour. If you’ve been working your discipline you can probably write about 200 words every half hour. And you can probably read about 5000 words if you put your mind to it. Try to consider your other tasks (searching a database, analyzing your data, etc.) in similar terms. Get a realistic sense of what you’re capable of and plan to make use of that capacity.

Now, I’m by no means saying you have to spend six hours every day on your research project. I’m saying that’s the maximum, and that if you working at the maximum you’ve got time to do roughly twelve specific, deliberate things. It’s fine if you’ve got other things to do on some days and will only do five or six, or even one or two, things related to your research project. Just make it a plan rather than a hope. Try to have a list of those things ready for every day already the day before.

Don’t just stop once at the end of every day when you are too tired to continue. Make a plan to stop a discrete number of times every day, roughly every half hour. Give yourself some tasks to fill those moments. Give yourself a realistic amount of time to do it. Stop when you run out of time, not when you run out of juice.

Hemingway stopped when he knew how the story would continue. I recommend you stop simply because it is time. You will side with him or with me or find your own reasons to stop. But my advice, in any case, is to learn how to stop working, every day, very deliberately, long before you reach the deadline. Every time you stop, knowing that you are not yet finished and there is more work to be done, you appreciate the finitude of the problem. Don’t worry for the rest the day, you will get there. You will get it done. Worrying will not.

NOTE: I wrote this while preparing for my “How to Finish Your Project” talk in the Craft of Research Series.