Monthly Archives: December 2018

Reverse Engineering the Writing Process

I tried something a little different yesterday when presenting Writing Process Reengineering to a group of researchers most of whom were already familiar with my approach. Normally, I begin with the nature of academic knowledge, situate the problem of writing within it, and introduce the paragraph as the “unit of academic composition”. Only at this point do I explicitly introduce the reader’s “difficulty”, and give the writer the task of alleviating it.

It’s possible, however, to turn this completely on its head. We can start by imagining a single minute of the reader’s attention, the act of reading an individual paragraph of our writing. From this we can imagine constructing the experience the reader is having, i.e., we can imagine the “the writing moment” that produced the paragraph. We can then imagine a series of such moments, which will produce a paper, and then begin to analyze the competence — philosophical, rhetorical, literary — that such a paper represents. That is, we move from the reader’s experience to the writer’s knowledge.

I sometimes advise students to imagine their teachers as they read their essays. Let’s consider just one paragraph, perhaps half a page of writing. Suppose the teacher were to raise a simple question: “Does this paragraph look like it took 27 minutes to write?” Does it seem like something another human being paid careful attention to for about half an hour. Do the words look like they were chosen deliberately, under orderly circumstances, for the purpose of presenting a particular idea? Did the writer have my experience as a reader during the foregoing minute in mind? Did the writer make a specific effort to use that minute of my time to utmost effect?

You don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that quality can sometimes be derived from quantity. Simply by understanding the reading moment as a one minute encounter with a paragraph (at least six sentences, at most two-hundred words) and the writing moment to be 27 times longer, we imply or suggest a standard of quality. Some paragraphs will be so good that we’d be impressed to learn it took only half an hour to compose. Others will be so sloppy that we cannot imagine a serious writer having given it more than five minutes of their attention.

These judgments can often be made without any estimate of knowledge the writer possesses. Even someone who is wrong about the facts can present their ignorance and error clearly. We do, of course, have to begin by attributing basic academic literacy to the writer, i.e., an ability to read and write scholarly prose at whatever level the student (or scholar) is at. But under a set of “normal” assumptions, I think our estimate of the time that might have been put into composing a paragraph can be quite meaningful.

This estimate, in turn, tells us what we can spend our writing time doing. Begin with a simple, declarative sentence that states something you know. Decide whether the reader will find in primarily hard to believe, understand or agree with. If none of these seem relevant, ask yourself why you’re going to write a whole paragraph supporting, elaborating or defending it. It’s possible you imagine your reader will be merely bored with your claim, for example, and you’d like to get them excited about it. In some cases, that’s a perfectly legitimate writing task.

Executing any of these tasks — supporting, elaborating, defending or motivating a claim (you may be able to think of others) — is the core activity of any writing process. It’s the thing you do again and again. The paragraph is the thing you make and, through deliberate practice, become better and better at making. Once you’re good at this. I.e., once you are good at making effective use of a single minute of your reader’s attention, you can begin to arrange those paragraphs into series: essays and papers and chapters. You can begin to plan 5 or 11 or 40 or 120 or 240 minutes of your reader’s attention. That’s what Writing Process Reengineering is all about.

Writing as Will

A few years ago, a former colleague of mine was planning a module in a graduate program on academic writing at another university. He asked for my advice and we talked for an hour, after which he sent me his ideas about what he was going to do. I had, of course, said that the most important thing is to get the students writing, every day if possible. So I was struck by this part of his mail:

My experience tells me that the students will not have the necessary self-discipline to write every day for several weeks. So I will orient the course towards the more ‘teachable’ aspects, including such matters as planning, structure of articles, getting published, etc., rather than towards writing as such.

Here is the substance of my response:

You learn how to write by writing. It’s the only way. So I don’t have much hope for a writing program that begins, as you seem to, by giving up on the students’ discipline. If you don’t expect them to write, you can’t expect them to learn how to write, no matter how much you teach them. But if you can get them to write every day they will get better at writing, almost regardless of what you teach them. That’s my philosophy of writing instruction in a nutshell. I guess I’m saying I don’t believe writing has any merely “teachable aspects”; writing must be trained.

Students have to learn that an academic text has recognizable parts and you can certainly teach them various all-purpose outlines (I do this). But they also have to learn that those parts must be “built” and then “assembled” into a coherent whole, and that, in order to do this well, you have to plan, not just the content of the paper, but the structure of the weeks, days, and hours that will be spent writing. You have to work on your introduction at some point, for example, then stop, and then return to it. The same goes for every other part of the paper. And the only way to get this across is to get the students to feel it in their brains and in their hands.

The students must experience the joy of composing a good prose paragraph and the (sometimes transcendent) bliss of putting several paragraphs together persuasively. If you only teach them what an academic text is, and don’t bring them into contact with the process by which a text comes into being, your chances of success are (in my humble opinion) not very high.

“My experience tells me that the students will not have the necessary self-discipline,” you say. I have the same experience, of course. But my experience also says that some students will acquire that discipline if you provide an occasion for them to do so. More importantly, those that don’t acquire this discipline won’t learn how to write (any better than they already do) anyway. Those that do, however, are learning how to write as well as they can. By turning this into a straight “teaching” module, you might think you’re making do with what’s achievable. But I fear you are settling for achieving very little.

An engagement with the student’s self-discipline is fundamentally an engagement with their “authorial” persona, their literary authority as scholars, what I sometimes call their “writing selves”. If you do not attempt to engage with that core strength (their self-discipline) you are not likely to improve the part of them that writes. That is, you won’t make them into better writers, no matter how “true” the things you will tell them may be.

I think that last point is worth emphasizing. Scholarship is difficult in many ways. It takes a lot of thought, knowledge, and sometimes courage. But the writing itself is easy; you just have to do it. It requires no heavy lifting or special skills (you already know the language). What you are developing when you are developing your writing skills (as distinct from the other skills that make you a scholar) is a competence that is, let’s say, “right next to” your basic self-discipline. Writing gets done almost exclusively by, well, doing it. The most important to muscle to train when you write is your will. Writing perhaps, just is an act of will.