Monthly Archives: February 2019

Quality is not a mystery

You don’t have be a master craftsman to recognize high-quality work. If you had your class draw their own hands, or play the same piece of music on the piano, or build a coffee table, you’d immediately be able to decide who is good at it and who isn’t. Some wouldn’t even know where to begin. Others would produce something that only vaguely resembles the output you asked for. You’d probably be able to quite easily group their attempts into excellent, good, mediocre and bad ones; in fact, you’d probably be able to assign them grades: in a class 100 you could give As to the best 10, Bs to the next 25, Cs to the middle 30  and so on. You might sweat a little when drawing the line between the last A and the first B, but the task isn’t impossible. That’s the first insight.

The second one is that you can do this even if you’re not yourself good at drawing hands, playing the piano, or building tables. Your worst students would be almost as good at sorting the attempts by relative quality as your best ones.

But remember that this assumes that your population is randomly selected with respect to the skill that is being demonstrated. If we were dealing with a hundred art school students, or conservatory students, or carpenter’s apprentices, it might be much harder to distinguish their degrees of competence. And this tells us something important about the connection between the ability to produce quality and the ability to discern it. The smaller the differences, the greater understanding of the craft it takes to detect them. Think about why this is the case: only someone who is quite good at it will be be able to see the specific “room for improvement” that distinguishes the performances.

Now, it might be argued that a group of, say, second-year university students constitutes a hard case in this sense when it comes to writing academically. They are at the same level of a discipline that includes writing as a central competence. It would certainly be true that judges who have never attended university would have a hard time. Such people will only be able to distinguish very competent work, from middling work and work that isn’t very good at all. (Most university classrooms will, of course, have range of writing competences.) But the students themselves, I would argue, are mostly competent enough to see who they’re better than and who they might look up to. That is, looking at each other’s work, and even grading it, is a valuable exercise.

We have to demystify the notion of quality in writing. We should show them that they are in fact able to distinguish between good and bad writing. Most importantly, they can themselves see that they are improving.

Degas and Mallarmé

There’s a famous story about Edgar Degas and Stéphane Mallarmé. Degas was trying to write poetry and wasn’t satisfied with the results. Since he had such great ideas, he couldn’t understand what he was doing wrong. “But my dear Degas,” exclaimed Mallarmé, “poems are made of words, not ideas!”

Like Degas, you may be suffering under the illusion that the trick to writing well is to have good ideas. To see why it may not be quite so easy, consider reversing the roles of the painter and the poet. Suppose Mallarmé had been trying to paint two people sitting in a café and was complaining to Degas about the difficulty. “I don’t understand it,” Mallarmé might say. “They’re right there in front of me. I see them so clearly. Why is this so hard?”

In the case of painting, we immediately understand why that’s not all there is to it. It’s not enough that you can see the scene you’re painting. Paintings are not made of images, but strokes.* Likewise, having an idea doesn’t in and of itself qualify you to write it down. You have to train your hands to do something quite specific.

But ideas are of course important. Indeed, learning to paint something does require you to learn how to see it, as painter friend of mine pointed out to me long ago. She sometimes wondered how people who say they can’t draw can even see. Learning how to write will likewise require you to think.

But this is really just a way of saying that writing improves our thinking, drawing improves our vision. Fortunately, just as Oliver Senior, when he was writing How to Draw Hands, was able to assume you have a model at the end of your arm to study, your writing instructor can assume that you have ideas in your head to write about. And not just any old ideas. Like Degas, I’m sure you’ve got some pretty good ones.

When you are practicing your writing, my advice is to focus on your better ideas. This is no different than looking at your own hand in a single position and in good light. Don’t try to draw a hand as it looks when you’re waving it around in the dark.


*Update: I was talking to Jonathan Mayhew about this and he suggested an interesting variation. “Paintings (and drawings) are not made of images, they are made of shapes.” One might of course say paintings are made of strokes, drawings of lines. Poems are made of words, but perhaps also lines (in another sense) or even strophes. Essays are made of words, sentences or paragraphs depending on how you look at them. The important thing, however, is that when you’re trying to draw a face, you shouldn’t focus on the recognizably “facial” features. Rather, look at the ovals and rectangles and triangles and circles that the face in front of you is composed of, and then recompose those on the page. Whatever you do, don’t get lost in the details of the mouth or eyes or hair. Decompose the thing in front of you into its two-dimensional surfaces. Likewise, the seemingly brilliant ideas you have are composed of much less interesting, much less complicated, facets, namely, concepts and objects, and these can be rendered plainly in sentences. Indeed, they can be rendered simply by combining the right words in the right way, which is what Mallarmé was trying to tell Degas.