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The Fifth Discipline: Simplicity

(pace Peter Senge)

"What is the simplest possible statement?"
(Ezra Pound)

A paragraph is a composition of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that says one thing and supports, elaborates or defends it. Before you demand exceptions (which, by the way, I’m happy to grant), do note that this gives you a great deal of room to move. Six sentences that average 15 words each gives you less than a hundred words. That leaves you room for much longer sentences, and significantly more of them. Inverting the units, paragraphs will often be between 100 words and 12 sentences long. This should not feel like a set of constraints but like a space of freedom. Enjoy it.

Let’s recap how we got here. In the evening the day before, you did two specific things. You decided what you wanted to talk about and what you wanted to say. Then, twelve minutes ago, you sat down and spent two minutes getting your key sentence in the right rhetorical posture, making sure that it made a statement that required support, elaboration or defense. You then spent 10 minutes knowing the shit out of it (as the kids say), providing that support, elaboration or defense, writing sentences that made it easier to believe, understand, or agree with. You have 15 minutes left in your writing moment.

The fifth discipline is simplicity. Your task now is to make sure that your paragraph does what it needs to do with the greatest possible elegance and economy. The preceding ten minutes may well have produced 230 or 250 words. You need to remove some of them to get your paragraph down to the allowed length. (Or, if you insist, you need to earn the length you think you require here. I’ll say more about that at another time.) Often, there will be claims made in this paragraph that you can now see would be best left for another paragraph. Sometimes you will simply have said the same things twice or even thrice, without making the ideas easier to understand. Sometimes you’ve gotten all the right ideas down but in the wrong order, whether logically or temporally. You have ten minutes to fix these issues.

One important thing to look for at this stage is the needless use of technical jargon or pompous verbiage. Remember that your reader is an intellectual equal. Use words that convey your meaning in a way that you yourself would understand, easily and directly. Make sure that technical terms in your writing serve the specific purpose they were designed for. In a given paragraph, they may be used only once or twice. Also, remember that scientific language is mostly ordinary language with some added jargon that labels the switches and dials of specialized equipment. At the end of the day, you’re telling your reader what you did and what you saw. In most cases, if there is a plain-language way of saying something, that’s the one your reader will prefer. A good test here is: is it the one you would prefer?

In any case, you have ten minutes. That is, you’re giving yourself as much time to simplify your language as you did to gather your materials. I should say, however, that I’m not suggesting you time yourself very strictly; if you spend a little longer on the fourth discipline than the fifth, that’s fine. But keep the two of them together at 20 minutes, otherwise you’ll find yourself pressed for time for the last two things you need to do. But giving yourself specific amounts of time for each task, even rough amounts, is a good way to free yourself up to work on the discipline as such, without mixing in other concerns. You want to be able learn from the experience. Also, you’re always working on “discipline zero” — the art of stopping and moving on to the next thing. Don’t get stuck.

The Fourth Discipline: Knowing

"Through the night, through sleep, the subconscious
works with the characters. They're alive again
in the morning. You understand? Ready for work."
(Ernest Hemingway)

We have made three distinct moves in preparation for this moment. The day before, we spent five minutes deciding what to write about and what to say about it. Two minutes into our writing session, having spent those minutes establishing the rhetorical posture of our key sentence, we’re now, finally, going to start doing what most people think of when they think of “writing”. We are going to spend ten minutes writing between five and ten sentences that support, elaborate or defend our claim. We are going to tell our reader what we know in order to help our them overcome the difficulty of believing, understanding or agreeing with us. Or we are going to tell them why they should be as excited about this fact as we are.

If you have made the first three moves in a serious and disciplined way (which takes some practice, so don’t worry if you haven’t the first few times you try it) this will not be especially difficult for you. After all, already yesterday you knew what you’d be saying now. You felt the dignity of an iceberg beneath you as you were deciding what to write about in the morning. All that should be happening now is that this feeling is becoming a series of thoughts, statements that are easier to believe, understand or agree with than your key sentences, and which, together, imply it. These are your reasons to hold the view you’re expressing and you’re simply making them visible to your reader. If you really have decided to write about something you know, these sentences should come quickly and naturally to you. Your subconscious was preparing them for you while you slept.

If you’re struggling here, you should not, of course, give up. But do note that the problem isn’t really one of writing. During these ten minutes, your problem is simply knowing the material, and if you’ve chosen your key sentence wisely, this isn’t a problem at all. So, while you shouldn’t beat yourself up, do chide yourself a little for picking the wrong thing to write about, something you don’t actually know well enough. You made a bad decision if this is very hard for you. But you’re stuck with it, so you may as well enjoy it. Use these ten minutes to explore the depth and the breadth of your ignorance. Be comfortable with not knowing — write to expose your ignorance if that is what it takes — but don’t give up, don’t stop. Usually, if you tough it out, you’ll realize that you’re not completely ignorant. You’ll come up with something.

The more you develop these seven little disciplines the more you will enjoy especially this one. This is where you feel your mastery over your materials. Here you are a musician in control of your instrument, a carpenter letting the saw do the work, a boxer absorbing and delivering familiar blows while sparring, a dancer in step with your partner. The sentences seem to write themselves, arranging words whose meanings are familiar to you, referring to things you have experienced, and asserting claims feel certain are true. Everything you say, you are able to imagine. You can see the scenes before you with your mind’s eye. You make yourself pictures of the facts and write them down. You know what you are talking about.

The Third Discipline: Posture

Je t’écoute … Vas-y!” (Henry Miller)

This series is developing more slowly than I had anticipated. Truth be told, breaking down what is ultimately only a little more than 30 minutes of activity into seven discrete activities, and then devoting a whole post to each of them, also feels a little stranger to me than I had originally imagined. I’m going to have to revisit these posts in a few months and bring them all together in a more in a coherent gesture. They might work better as a book chapter.

I’m going to write about the third discipline today, which is the act of sitting down in front of the machine at the appointed time to begin writing the paragraph you decided on when practicing your first and second discipline the day before. It’s important to understand the situation: before going to bed you knew what you were going to say and when you were going to say it. Your plan is to write a single paragraph starting at some exact moment, like 8:00 AM. You know what the key sentence of that paragraph is and it expresses something you are knowledgeable about.

In a literal sense, you show up in front of a blank page, but, since your mind is prepared, there is no ambiguity about your task. When the writing moment begins, just type the key sentence. Do it slowly and deliberately, allowing yourself to modify it if you think this will make it clearer to your reader.

Now, consider why your reader needs a whole paragraph about this subject. Why can’t you just leave it at the one sentence? Why do you need at least five more? This must be because the reader faces some particular difficulty when the sentence is left there on its on. It may be hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with. (Sometimes, it may be boring — the fourth difficulty — but that’s an interesting problem too.) The third discipline is all about posing the problem effectively. Write the key sentence in such a way that it presents the difficulty that your knowledge will allow you to solve. Direct the sentence at your reader in a particular way from the center of your own strength.

All of this occupies only about two minutes of the writing moment and you are working on a single sentence, which may not even be twelve words longs. You are choosing those words with particular care. You are adopting a rhetorical posture, comporting yourself in a deliberate way, in order to signal to the reader what posture they should adopt too. Once you see yourself and your reader squared off (like two boxers or two dancers, as you choose) move on the fourth discipline.

But that’s for another post.

The Second Discipline: Assertion

"Every writer has his own way of working. That's mine.
I take a drink before dinner." (Ernest Hemingway)

I’m trying to break the activity of writing down into small, manageable tasks. In my last post, I suggested spending just two minutes thinking about an intellectually interesting object. Basically, I was suggesting you train your ability to decide what to write about. Today, I want to take this only three minutes further, training your ability to decide what to say about it. Remember, this is all happening at the end of your working day, just before you begin to relax for the evening. Altogether, the first two disciplines should not take much longer than five minutes.

Spend three minutes writing a sentence that says something you know about the object you just selected. You can describe the background on which you and your reader find it interesting or you can make your theoretical expectations of it explicit; you write about how you study it or state a result of your analysis of it; or you can discuss the implications of your research for theory or practice. The important thing is to write a true sentence about the thing you just decided was of “intellectual interest” to you and your peers in your research community (for students: this means your class).

Jot down a short simple sentence right away and then spend the time refining it. As you play around with it, make sure it’s always a grammatically correct sentence. That is to say, make sure that you’re always saying something intelligible, always making an assertion. You’re trying to come up with the key sentence of the paragraph that you will write tomorrow morning. A good way to keep yourself grounded is to write a sentence that you didn’t just discover was true. Don’t write something you learned today, or even this week. Say something you knew was true already last week. The underlying discipline here is that of drawing on your deep base of knowledge. You are training your ability to assert yourself with confidence. Much of that is about choosing what to say.

Since every tweak you make to this sentence leaves you (if you’re following my advice) with a complete sentence, you can end this exercise arbitrarily, i.e., not when it satisfies you but when the time is up. After three minutes, stop. Your working day is now officially over. Time to relax. I’ve been calling this “Discipline Zero”, the art of stopping, the skill of no longer thinking about your research. You need to be able to do this at the end of the day, but also at the end of every paragraph you write, so we’ll be returning to it again and again. Decide what you’re going to say. Then, like Hemingway, put it out of your mind and see what your subconscious came up with in the morning.

The First Discipline: Objectivity

A catalogue of poses and motions produced from within a culture may read, then, like a form of special pleading, or, at the very least, like a product that must be ravaged of bias by scholars prepared to act as objective witnesses.

Ben Marcus (The Age of Wire and String)

Last year I suggested “seven little disciplines” to foster stronger prose. I want to write a series of posts over the next two weeks that goes goes through them one at a time, and also generalizes them a little beyond the training exercises that I originally suggested them to be. It is my aim to identify seven things that you should be pretty good at as a scholar and, therefore, seven things you should be working on as a student. These are “poses and motions” that should be familiar to you, which of course also means that they should occasion familiar difficulties that, as you develop your discipline, should become easier and easier to overcome.

The first discipline begins at the end of your working — or, let’s say, learning — day. This ability to end your day should, perhaps, be treated separately, as its own discipline — Discipline Zero, if we want to get dramatic about it. But it doesn’t belong to writing alone and I have in fact broken it down into two phases here. It’s the beginning of the first discipline and the end of the second, which we’ll get to in the next post. The important thing to recognize is that there’s a point in every day when you stop getting smarter, and you should reach that point with self-awareness well before you put your head on the pillow and go to sleep. In fact, it will be much easier to fall asleep if you decided to stop thinking seriously about your research a few hours before you close your eyes. Otherwise you’ll find you research project right there and waiting on the inside of your eyelids.

So let’s suppose it’s late afternoon, or early evening. You’ve finished work for the day, you’re about to start cooking, or, at the very latest, you’re about to call it quits after that extra hour of reading you gave yourself after dinner. Now you’re done. At this point you should call an intellectually interesting object to mind. The point of the first discipline is that “intellectual interest” isn’t a merely subjective matter. An intellectually interesting object is one that connects you to your peers; it is something that is of interest to you and to others working in your field, which, if you’re a student, means your classmates. Spend two minutes picking something to think about.

The best way to do this is to have a list (mental or written, it’s up to you) of things that interest you. Put one of them at the top, and spend the two minutes considering alternatives. You’re trying to pick something something that you’d like to write about tomorrow, so it has to pique you a little, and you have to feel confident that you know something about it. What would you most like to write about tomorrow? Obviously, extrinsic pressures are entirely relevant here; the most “interesting” thing in the world right now may be the thing that your supervisor wants to see some pages from you about. Just remember that your supervisor (or journal or book editor) “represents the interests” of your broader community, your readership. So it has to be interesting to your peers more generally, not just to whoever is demanding some text from you. In any case, your two minutes should be devoted solely to picking a thing.

Don’t forget those peers — “scholars who are prepared to act as objective witnesses,” as Ben Marcus puts it. Tomorrow, you are going to be presenting it to this prepared audience, and they will expect, not just a thing, but an object. Something about which there can be facts of the matter. The first discipline is all about quickly and efficiently calling an object to mind, from among all the things that populate our world. You’re trying to pick something that other people also think about, something you can see from their perspective. You’re choosing it with their interests in mind. Give yourself two minutes to do this. Then go on to the second discipline… (more tomorrow).