Monthly Archives: September 2019

Saying, Doing, Meaning


One would like to say: This is what took place here; laugh, if you can.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I don’t do empirical work myself, but I often talk to authors who use interviews and observations in their ethnographic research. You don’t have to be an ethnographer, however, to be able to distinguish between experience and understanding — between what happens to us and what we make of it — and I want to use this distinction to say something that I hope will be useful to people who write analyses of social life. As always, I will imagine that the problem is one of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people, i.e., that you are writing “for academic purposes”. I will also assume that you are going to go about this in a deliberate, disciplined fashion, composing one paragraph at a time that supports, elaborates or defends your claims. In this case, I’m going to assume that you will mainly be interested in supporting your claims; that is, I will imagine that you want to get your reader to believe that what you are saying is true.

To keep things simple, I will assume that your data consists of interview transcripts and field notes. (Data can be messier than this. The interviews may be represented only by notes jotted down after the fact; the field may be little more than a memory to you at the time of writing. But I will leave this to you and your methodological conscience to work out between you.) What this means is that the materials that are “given” to you for analysis are records of things people have said and done. You can report what people told you in answer to your questions, what they said to each other in conversation, where they went and what they did, how they sang and how they danced. And you can describe the material conditions under which they did this, the settings in which the action and dialogue took place. “Social establishments—institutions in the everyday sense of that term—are places such as rooms, suites of rooms, buildings or plants in which activity of a particular kind regularly goes on,” said Erving Goffman (Asylums, p. 15). As a social scientist, your empirical object, i.e., the thing you try to experience in a particularly scientific way, is simply this “activity of a particular kind”. You are “particular”, if you will, both in your choice of methods and in your choice of objects.

Now, while what people have said and what they have done is “given” to you (as data, on the assumption that we trust your methods), what these words and actions mean is open to interpretation. Your analysis will attribute significance to the discourse and behavior of your research subjects (which, perhaps ironically, together constitute your object of research). You will not just tell your reader what words were spoken or what deeds were done, you will tell us what the people you studied thought, felt, imagined, believed, desired, hoped, and feared — what they loved, even, and what they hated. You will not just describe their movements but their intentions, not just their performances, but the projects those performances represent. While a novelist like Hemingway may be content to present an experience such that it becomes part of the reader’s experience, an ethnographer must provide the reader with an understanding of it too. And it must be the ethnographer’s understanding that the writing conveys. The reader must become aware, not just of what happened or what was said, but of what the writer took it to mean. Only in this way are the ethnographer’s ideas exposed to the criticism of peers. You must tell us, not just what you think took place, but why you think it matters.

There is a straightforward way to deal with this in your writing practice. When setting up your writing moment the day before, make sure your key sentence states, not just a matter of fact, but an interpretation of one or more facts. In your key sentence, don’t just say that someone did or said something, say that they were unhappy or successful or competent or deceptive or struggling or celebrated or surprised or critical. That is, make a statement that is not immediately true of your data, but one that can only be known by carefully analyzing your data, teasing out the details, uncovering their hidden meaning. Then resolve to support that interpretation by citing your interview transcript or your field notes. Select from your data the items that, taken together, make your statement about the mental states or social relations of the people you have studied easier to believe. What would someone have to say in an interview to make a reader believe, on that basis alone, that she was unhappy? What did you observe someone do that could make your reader believe he was struggling? Write the paragraph with that very specific aim in mind: to support your interpretation of a piece of human behavior.

“In the room the women come and go,” wrote T. S. Eliot, “talking of Michelangelo.” But why did they come and where did they go and what did they think of Michelangelo? As a poet, Eliot didn’t owe us more than the image, which he presumed would leave us with a feeling, and that feeling was all he wanted us to take with us to the next strophe. But as a social scientist, you can’t just leave it at that. Or, if you do, you must be very certain that your reader feels exactly what you want them to feel — ideally, that they think what you think of it all — in short, that they get your meaning. We can imagine writing every paragraph in your analysis as I have suggested — the key sentence always an interpretation of what the data shows — and then, satisfied that each of your attributions of meaning to your subjects has been adequately supported, removing every key sentence so that the reader will have to get your point without your making it explicit. Perhaps this is what Wittgenstein meant in his remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, where he said “we must do away with all explanation; and description alone must take its place.” Of course, he also believed that philosophy ought to be composed like poetry. Far be it for me to discourage a little poetry in your writing, but let’s not make social science more difficult than it needs to be. Surely, we want to say to Wittgenstein, one can say, “This is what took place here. And this is what it meant.”

How to Write a Sentence

Monday’s post on how to write a paragraph was well received on Twitter. Caught up in all the excitement, I foolishly accepted Felippe Medeiros’s challenge to write the corresponding post about sentences. I must say that I did so fully aware that this will be a much, much harder post to write. Not that it’s harder to write sentences than paragraphs, of course (the one consists of several of the other), but it is substantially more difficult to explain what one does when one writes a sentence than it is to explain what one does when one composes a paragraph. To use an imperfect analogy, it’s easier to give you directions to City Hall than to explain how your legs work. Sentences, we might say, are to paragraphs as taking a step is to going somewhere. It’s only once we pay attention to it that we realize how subtle and how stylish such a simple thing can be.

Begin with a fact. Most sentences are true or false, and facts are what make them one or the other. So, when you’re writing a sentence, make sure that you have a clear idea in your mind of the fact you are trying to represent. You want that same fact to become present in the mind of your reader when they read it. What words, in what order, would make you see the fact with your mind’s eye? Sentences are marvelous things because they conjure up images, and, while those images are not, perhaps, ultimately what the sentences mean (they could mean for you to feel something, or do something, or think something — or something something else, for that matter, if you wish), it’s a good idea to be mindful of the images you evoke when you write. As George Orwell pointed out many years ago, a great deal of bad writing comes out of stringing words and phrases together that are completely unrelated to any pictures that might form in any human being’s head. That’s why I say: start with a fact. Imagine it. Then think of the sentence as an attempt to write the fact down. Make the sentence a window on your mind.

Now, think of your reader. What is your reader doing at this point in the text? What was the reader thinking of just before they got to the sentence you are about to write? Unless it’s the very first sentence, they were doing exactly what you were telling them to do: imagining the fact that your last sentence was about. Was that hard? Should you give them a simpler task this time? Or is your reader ready for something harder? Can the reader handle a lot of detail at this moment, or should you present the fact in its general outline? In what order should the elements of the picture come before the reader? Will you give your reader a thing in motion or the motion of a thing? Do you want your reader to come away with the name of a person or to be left with a clear impression of their relation to another? Remember that when you are writing a sentence you are deciding the exact order that a string of words will pass through the mind of your reader. If your reader is well-behaved (playing by the rules) you are in complete control of your reader’s mind. You must use this power only for good.

“I am a grammarian,” wrote Gertrude Stein. “We will or will not cry together.” That was back in 1931 in a book called How to Write, which you can read for your own pleasure and at your own risk. “Do not worry,” said Hemingway to himself, probably around the same time, in his garret overlooking the rooftops of Paris. “You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Somewhere between Miss Stein’s stream of consciousness and Papa Hemingway’s dignity of movement, may you find your style. May it become absolutely your own.

How to Write Five Paragraphs

pace John Warner

The five-paragraph essay isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Many writers find the form constricting and many teachers are unhappy with the results their students deliver when they try to conform to it. But suppose you absolutely did have to write one, and suppose you wanted to do more than a passable job. How would you go about it? And how would you make sure that it developed your writing chops at the same time? That’s what I’m going to try to explain in this post. Building on my previous post, I’ll show you how to use key-sentences to outline your essay. I’ll also explain how to distinguish your paragraphs from each other by means of their content and, ultimately, how to bring them together to make a single, coherent rhetorical gesture. My aim is to persuade you that, for all its artifice, the five-paragraph essay is a perfectly good occasion to work on your style.

Since every paragraph says exactly one thing, a five-paragraph essay will say five things. Each of these claims will be articulated in a simple, declarative sentence, which we call the “key sentence”. The trick to outlining your essay is to make sure that a simple list of your five key sentences immediately evokes an argument, albeit a somewhat schematic one. For example, this post can be outlined as follows:

  1. This post explains how to write a five-paragraph essay.
  2. Use your key-sentences as an outline.
  3. Distinguish your paragraphs by means of their content.
  4. Bring them together in a single, coherent rhetorical gesture.
  5. In this way, the five-paragraph essay becomes a meaningful exercise in style.

This outlining exercise can bring its own rewards. It can be enjoyable to observe your argument at a certain distance — a level of abstraction, if you will — without having to decide whether it has been executed properly. Looking at the whole can give you a sense of what you might accomplish, if only you do a good enough job on the parts. Of course, if already your outline bores you, you should sharpen some of your points, or give the whole thing a larger aim. It’s good to do this before you put too much work into your prose. It’s good for your style to write with a sense of purpose.

It’s too easy to distinguish your paragraphs by their function (or location) in your essay. It’s much better to think of your introduction, your three body paragraphs, and your conclusion as being about different things. The introduction, for example, will be about the essay itself. Each of the body paragraphs will about different aspects or facets of your topic. The conclusion, meanwhile, will be about that topic itself and, therefore, about intellectual context that makes it meaningful, or valuable. So, for example, my first paragraph situates my essay within a controversy about writing pedagogy. Each of the body paragraphs are about different aspects of a five-paragraph essay, which is an object that exists in the world (if not often, as some critics point out, “in the wild”). The conclusion, when we get to it, will assert the value of the object that the body paragraphs have detailed, it will go beyond the conversation about academic writing to indicate how strong prose makes the world a better place. Being clear about your content will let you bring your style more precisely to bear upon it.

Structure both separates and connects. For example, you may already have noticed that in each paragraph I make a point of mentioning “style”. This will become important in my last paragraph because I want to emphasize that even highly formalized, very artificial work can give you an occasion to develop a unique and powerful style, for use beyond the essay form, and beyond academia altogether. Whatever your subject, when writing a five-paragraph essay, you want to make sure that there’s a thread, or theme, that runs through the entire text — a line along which the reader’s attention moves towards your conclusion. Though the reader should feel like you’re touching down firmly on each separate point (one for each body paragraph), there should also be a sense of moving forward, of making progress. The points should be adding up in some register somewhere in the mind of the reader, perhaps not quite consciously, but enough that the conclusion will seem natural when you get there. This structural through-line is what lets you enjoy the play of language from sentence to sentence. Knowing it’s there, you can add some texture, some style.

The five-paragraph essay is, first and foremost, an exercise — a structured writing activity that puts your prose through its paces. It should take about three hours to write and about five minutes to read. It is often a good way to get your ideas in order, and, with the right kind of reader, it can be an efficient way of communicating those ideas. In the first paragraph the reader is told where you are and what you’ve got on your mind. In the next three paragraphs you carefully unpack your reasoning. And in the final paragraph you reassert your overall thesis and emphasize its importance. The life of the polity depends on our capacity for deliberation, our ability to consider ideas in a calm and orderly way. Writing a five-paragraph essay on a regular basis will get your prose into shape, working on your style from the center of your strength. Your community needs you to be strong.

How to Write a Paragraph

Let’s begin with what a paragraph is. In an academic setting, 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. That’s a rule of thumb and it doesn’t mind being broken now and then. (The rule not the thumb.) And it may be adjusted for different disciplines. There are areas of scholarship where paragraphs are generally shorter than that, and even some where they are longer, but for most purposes, in most of the humanities and social sciences, approaching the paragraph on these terms will work. Certainly, if you are able to compose paragraphs like this, you are able to do a great many other things, including writing somewhat longer or shorter ones. The important thing is that each paragraph has a single, well-defined point, a deliberate rhetorical posture, and a finite volume. If you need an example, this is the last sentence of the first paragraph in this post.

The first order of business is to decide what you want your paragraph to say. This is best done by working out a “key sentence” that neatly summarizes what the paragraph is about. It doesn’t have to be the first sentence of the paragraph, though it often is; it just has to somehow stand out as the sentence that makes your point. It will usually be a simple, declarative sentence that states your meaning plainly and directly. Obviously, this sentence can be revised as you work on the paragraph, but you want to have a version of it in front of you when you begin. It should say something you know well enough to write a whole paragraph about. It should never express everything you know about the subject; it shouldn’t exhaust your knowledge. It should have the dignity of an iceberg, as Hemingway puts it. When you look at it, you should be aware of all the knowledge that you have waiting under the surface.

I recommend you decide on the key sentence the day before you write the paragraph. At the end of the day, when you have decided that you’re not going to learn anything new, that you’re not going to get any smarter, take five minutes to call to mind something you know to be true. Write it down in the form of a good, strong sentence and take a quick moment to gauge its weight. How does it feel to you? Is it a point you’d struggle to support, elaborate or defend in the company of one of your peers? Would you have a hard time providing evidence, explaining your meaning, or dealing with objections? Or is it comfortably part of what you know? If you feel confident about it then resolve to write a paragraph about it in the morning, to exercise that confidence in writing. Pick a specific time and place to do it and then — and this is very important — put it out of your mind until that moment arrives.

The next day, sit down at the appointed time, in the appointed place, and type out the key sentence you wrote last night. Now, think of your reader (a peer in your discipline or a student in your class). What difficulty does the key sentence pose for your reader? Will your reader find it hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with you? I recommend you keep it simple; confine yourself to a single difficulty and spend the entire paragraph supporting your point (if your reader finds it hard to believe), elaborating it (if your reader finds it hard to understand) or defending it (if your reader finds it hard to agree). It is possible to shift your posture in mid-paragraph, but this is, let’s say, an “advanced” skill. Get the basics down and then move on to harder, more complex, problems, or even “the fourth difficulty”: boredom. In this post, I have limited myself entirely to explaining what I mean. In others, you will find I engage with readers who disagree with me or find what I say hard to believe or fail to see why I’m so excited about all of this.

This is both an exercise and a practice. You can get through much of the writing you need to do for your school or research career by writing paragraphs as deliberately as I’ve here suggested. But working in this way will help especially when you’re trying to improve your writing. It will make your difficulty as a writer explicit and it will bring the resources you can bring to bear on the problem into view. Give yourself 18 or 27 minutes to write each paragraph. Notice that this gives you 18 or 27 times longer to write the paragraph than your reader is likely to have to read it. (It takes about one minute to read 200 words. It should have taken you about five minutes to read this post.) Spend the first two or three minutes on your key sentence, then spend about ten minutes composing additional sentences. Then spend five or ten minutes making the sentences as clear and concise as possible. Then read the paragraph out loud and spend the remainder of your fixing whatever that showed you needed fixing. Then stop. Every time you compose a paragraph like this you will become just a little better at writing.

A Message for Students

I’ve been writing a number of posts recently about students and I thought I’d better write at least one addressed to them. So … Hello, students, I hope you’ve gotten the school year off to a good start!

The other day, one of you came to see me in my office to talk about your writing. “It’s my greatest weakness,” you said. “I have no trouble speaking in front people, but…” I think I may have interrupted you. Maybe I let you finish the thought, I don’t remember, but I know I already knew what I wanted to say. Just go ahead and write from the same the confidence that you speak from. (And if the opposite is true of you, speak from the same confidence you write with.) Don’t begin with an awareness of your weaknesses; begin with a strength you can leverage into action, into exercise. Then you’ll soon feel yourself getting stronger.

Anyway, as Descartes pointed out, few of us are willing to admit that our greatest weakness is our intelligence: that our real trouble is thinking. We’ll say we’re not good at public speaking or that writing “academically” is hard. But let’s get real about this. The hardest thing about going to university isn’t talking or writing; it’s understanding the material. If that wasn’t the main challenge you were seeking, you’re wasting your time. Find a harder program.

But here it’s even more important that you don’t begin with a conception of yourself as somehow weak. Find your strength and build on it. You understand many things perfectly well and some of them are what led you to enroll at this university, at this time, in this program. You may find finance hard but you know what money is. You may not yet know much about marketing but you can tell a sales pitch from a Sunday sermon. Hamlet’s state of mind may baffle you as much as it does him, but you know a thing or two about vengeance, right? Just keep bringing your readings and lectures back to things you understand. Don’t expect your professors to do this for you, since they can’t possibly know everything you know. And even if they could, how are they supposed to know that you know it? It’s up to you see the connections between what you already know and what you need to know for a course.

Now, you’re going to have to be open to the idea that you’re wrong about a number things. Sometimes learning is unlearning. And sometimes, annoying though it may be, learning something means relearning something in your last year that you unlearned in your first. That’s because an education is not a simple matter of acquiring and discarding beliefs one at time. It’s a continuous reorganization of your system of belief. Some beliefs cannot be held at the same time and there’s no simple rule to follow when deciding which ones to keep and which ones to abandon. It’s not uncommon to come back around to an idea you had previously decided was incompatible with a theory you thought was true. Having thought some more about the theory and its own internal contradictions, you’re free to consider the idea from a new point of view. That’s all part of the process. Relax and enjoy it. Your intelligence will show, not in how often you are right about things, but in what happens when you’re wrong.

Remember that “knowledge”, especially at a university, is a competence not a possession. You are becoming a knowledge-able person, some one who is able to know things. It’s the ability to make up your mind about something, to speak your mind about it, and to write it down. You’re not interested in getting more and more of it, so much as getting better and better at it. What you know will change, and will keep changing after you graduate. But how you know things will just keep improving. It takes some discipline, of course. You have to be willing to do something badly for a while until you learn how to do it well. Writing is one part of that, and an important one, so work on it every day. But keep it balanced with everything else you have to do. And remember, finally, that being good at something really does mean being able to enjoy it. When you’re learning something, you should be looking for the joy in it. Please keep that in mind.