Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still. (T. S. Eliot)
If you want to write well you have to care how your work is read. You have to be interested in the effect your words have on someone with the requisite literacy skills and background knowledge. In academia, you don’t have to worry about how the typical ten-year old will perceive your writing. In fact, you can presume quite of a lot disciplinary knowledge, a relatively high reading level, and an understanding of a technical vocabulary. Also, remember that you are writing to open yourself to criticism from your peers. So make sure you imagine a reader who is qualified to tell you that you are wrong. You have to care about whether or not you are wrong, and you have to care about whether or not your reader can help you decide. That means you have to care what your reader thinks of your style.
But how can you cultivate this sort of care in practice? I often recommend a simple exercise that you can do with a colleague or fellow student. It takes 9 minutes, plus a one minute break. I will stress this again at the end, but it is very important that you spend exactly and only those ten minutes on the exercise. Don’t “debrief” the experience, and don’t start talking about other things. Do the exercise and get on with your day, each to his or her own. If you need to talk, make an appointment for some other time.
The exercise is predicated on the idea that a paragraph can be written during 27 minutes of your deliberate effort and can be read during one minute of the reader’s no less deliberate attention. At the end of the day, you articulate your key sentence and at the beginning of the next you sit down to compose your paragraph. You here make a sincere, earnest attempt to support, elaborate or defend the claim in your key sentence. You will have thought about whether the reader will find the claim hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with. And you will have tried to overcome this difficulty. By putting up to 200 well-chosen words in the right order, you have constructed a one-minute experience for you reader, during which you deliver a single well-defined claim for their consideration, along with evidence, explanation or argument as needed. For the purpose of this feedback exercise, it is important that this is how you have approached your task.
Sometime on the same day that you have written it, bring the paragraph to someone whose opinion you respect — an intellectual equal, one of your intended readers. (If you are a student, remember that your fellow students are, in fact, your intended readers.) Tell them you want 10 minutes of their time. (Ideally, you will have done this before, and you will have done this for them as well, so you’ll just ask them if they have time to give you some unfiltered feedback and they’ll know what you mean.) If they agree, here’s what you want them to do.
- Read the paragraph out loud to you.
- Identify the key sentence.
- Tell you whether you are trying to support, elaborate or defend it.
- Say whatever else they think about it, whether in terms of content or form, everything from your thinking to your spelling.
Before you begin, set a timer for nine minutes. When the time is up, sit together in silence for a minute and think about what they have told you, then thank them for their time and bid them a good day.
Please notice that that at no point do you say anything. This is not a conversation, it is one-way communication from the reader to the writer. Do not answer any questions, nor correct any misunderstandings. Do not react to what they say. Just listen. And don’t try to fill any uncomfortable silences. In the worst case scenario, the silence will last nine minutes (and that’s if your reader finds your writing completely illegible.) Endure it. After they have have read it out loud, give your reader whatever time they need to decide what your key sentence is, then, again, whatever time they need to determine your rhetorical posture. Finally, give them whatever time they need to think of something to say. Long silences here mean that your writing didn’t stimulate any immediate reaction; that is an important piece of information for you as a writer.
I wonder if it is obvious how valuable this experience is, regardless of how “positive” or “negative” the feedback is. I wonder, we might say, if you understand how thankful you should be. It is a gift. Fortunately, it is also a favor that is easy to return. If you are inclined to see academia as a “gift economy”, it is easy to imagine the circulation of these little moments of attention to each other’s writing. It’s an easy gift to give because it requires no preparation and will last exactly 10 minutes. It requires no special talent for giving feedback or even any social intelligence; you are merely being asked to be open about your response to the paragraph, to let the writer into your experience of reading it. It’s also an easy gift to receive because you are under no obligation to react to the “quality” of the feedback. Just thank your reader for their time, which is exactly what they’ve given you. That last minute of silence, when you show the reader that you’re thinking about it, is all the gratification they need. As Heidegger suggested, to think is to thank.
PS: I forgot to mention an important point. Since you wrote the paragraph deliberately, i.e., with the aim of supporting, elaborating or defending a claim during a single minute of the reader’s attention, and with the further aim of opening your thinking to the criticism of your peers, the feedback tasks I propose here do actually have correct solutions. Your reader’s response will or will not live up to your expectations; your paragraph will or will not (or will more or less) have the intended effect. It is from the difference between the intended and the actual response that you learn something.