Monthly Archives: November 2020

Writing Up and Down

I was about to tear into Hugh Kearns over a tweet of his, but then did what you should always do before engaging, and clicked through to the post at the LSE Impact Blog he had summarized. It turns out that his advice is entirely sensible. There’s a small point I’d like to take issue with, but I’ll leave that to the end.

“The write-up period is a delusion,” write Kearns and Gardiner (and tweeted Hugh), “People say ‘I’ve done all the other bits, I just have to write it up.’ Just have to write it up! Like it was just a minor task. Writing is probably the most intellectually challenging part of the process.” The point is that you should be writing from the beginning — there is no “write-up period” after the “research period”. Not having completed any part of your research process is no reason not to be writing. There is always something you can be writing. And it’s certainly not a matter of “just” writing, as though it’s an insignificant part of the process of getting a PhD. “It’s hard work so you need to start writing as early as possible. Write as you go. Start writing now.”

The important thing here is to see writing as a part of your life, your day-to-day. It should be one of the many things you “show up for” on a regular basis. We don’t put off teaching until we know everything about a subject. And we don’t stay away from seminars just because we haven’t read the paper(s) being discussed as closely as we would have liked. We contribute continuously to the variety of functions that being an academic implicates us in. We do the best we can with the class on the day it is scheduled; we contribute to the seminar as best we can, or at least get as much out of it as we are able. And, anyway, our research, our learning process, is never really finished (as Kearns and Gardiner also point out), so if we’re waiting for a distinct “write-up period,” we could in principle be waiting forever.

How to decide what to write will depend a little on the sort of research you’re doing. On the classic approach, you’ll be developing your methods and procedures within the framework of a reigning theory. If that’s how you do things, you should be able to write much of your theory chapter while you’re collecting your data. After all, you couldn’t have worked out your method without knowing a great deal about the theories you’ll use to analyze the data after you have it. You should also be in a good position to write major portions of your background chapter. By a similar token, by the time you’re analyzing your data you should be able to write clearly and honestly about how you collected it, i.e., your methods chapter. The general point is that you’re not conducting your research in a vacuum of total ignorance that you at some point fill with air. In order to get into the doctoral program you had to demonstrate that you’re a knowledgeable person. You’ve got a lot of things on your mind already. You’re doing what you’re doing, seeing what you’re seeing, learning what you’re learning, on the basis of a vast amount of knowledge that you’ve already acquired.

My advice is to remind yourself that, however much you still have to learn, there are many things you already know. In fact, much of what you will know by the time you submit your thesis, you already knew last week. So just pick something you knew last week to write about tomorrow. Write at least one thing you know (and at most six) every day, five days a week, four times a year, eight weeks in a row. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing the rest of the day — reviewing the literature, collecting data, analyzing it, or thinking through its implications — or teaching a class or contributing to a research proposal or even planning your wedding. We’re just talking about a half hour of writing about something you know. Get it done. Get on with your day.

Don’t wait for “the writing-up period”. Don’t delude yourself into thinking it’ll all come together at the end. And don’t imagine you can’t concentrate on a single thing you know “with all this other stuff going on”. Pick one thing this evening. Write about it tomorrow. You’ll be surprised. What ultimately “comes together” is the three or four hundred paragraphs you managed to write while you were doing all those other things.

So far, I think Hugh, Maria and I agree. But there’s one thing in their post that doesn’t sit well with me. “Writing is probably the most intellectually challenging part of the whole process,” they say. “Writing is where you do the deep thinking; making sense of all the reading you’ve done; interpreting the data you’ve collected; and trying to communicate what it all means.” This is of course true for many researchers and especially those that leave the writing to the end. These are people who spend far too long not writing and hope to accomplish far too much in far too little time. (At the extreme, they’re waiting for a “secret miracle”.) Also, they believe Hugh and Maria (and many, many others before them) when they say that writing involves “deep thinking”, “making sense” and “communicating meaning”. So by the time they get to the writing they’re out of shape and way too demanding (of themselves). They want their writing to do the heavy lifting that should already be long behind them.

If you think about it, it can’t be right that writing is the “most intellectually challenging” aspect of research. Maybe a novelist can make this claim, but surely the hard part of research is actually making discoveries — reading difficult texts, collecting representative data, and carrying out complex analyses. Not to put to fine a point on it, but if you think writing is the “hard part” maybe you’re not working hard enough at your research. (I’m sure Hugh and Maria don’t think their research is “easy” and, I suspect they meant it as hyperbole, so I hope neither they nor you take offense at this way of reminding you of the real difficulty.) There’s a difference between not putting your writing off until after your research is done and conflating your writing process with your research process.

The “write-up period” may well be a delusion, but there’s very definitely such a thing as “writing down” what you know. If you know what you’re talking about, and you’ve trained yourself, day by day, to write down things you know for the purpose of discussing them with other knowledge people, writing isn’t the hard part. It’s still hard, but it’s not bulk of the challenge. I think that’s important to keep in mind.

Rhetorical Balance

Balance itself is always harder to describe than the clumsy poses that result when it is destroyed.

Wayne C. Booth, “The Rhetorical Stance,” CCC, 14(3), 1963.

For Booth, the “pedant’s stance” and the “advertiser’s stance” are “perversions” of the “rhetorical stance,” which is characterized by a “balance among speakers, audience, and argument.” Importantly, the rhetorician does not play the pedant and the advertiser off each other in order to achieve this balance. Those alternative stances are each unbalanced in different ways — perverted — by an overemphasis on, respectively, argument and audience. Speakers (i.e., writers) have to find their balance in themselves, not in between the pedant and the advertiser. How should academic writers approach this problem?

While Booth doesn’t put it quite this way, I would say that the speaker must appropriate the argument and identify with the audience. If you are writing about More’s Utopia you are really writing about your reading of More’s Utopia and you are writing for other readers of the same book. You are not simply telling people who have never read the book and will never read the book what it says. You are not just reading the book so someone else won’t have to. You are telling someone who has also been thinking about it what you think.

People sometimes misunderstand Orwell’s slogan “prose like a window pane” as an injunction to provide a clear view of “the facts,” as though a perfectly “objective” view of them is possible without any intrusion of “subjective” concerns. But he was really telling us to provide a clear view of our thoughts, our own images of the facts. The facts that may be adduced about More’s Utopia (the actual book) are as available to your reader as they are to you. But your image of More’s Utopia (the fictional place), which you have gleaned from the pages of his book, is of interest to a reader that has formed an image of their own, which they can then compare to yours. The purpose of your writing is not to tell the reader what they already know, or could find out by reading More themselves, but to get them to consider something they might otherwise not have noticed. It is to offer your reader an opportunity to engage.

Burke’s work on the Sublime and Beautiful is a relatively unimpassioned philosophical treatise, but one finds there again a delicate balance: though the implied author of this work is a far different person, far less obtrusive, far more objective, than the man who later cried sursum corda to the British Parliament, he permeates with his philosophical personality his philosophical work. And though the signs of his awareness of his audience are far more subdued, they are still here: every effort is made to involve the proper audience, the audience of philosophical minds, in a fundamentally interesting inquiry, and to lead them through to the end. In short, because he was a man engaged with men in the effort to solve a human problem, one could never call what he wrote dull, however difficult or abstruse. (Booth, 1963, p. 145)

By appropriating you argument (by making the subject your own) and by identifying with your reader (by making them one of your peers) you establish what we might call a “clearing” (in a vaguely Heideggerian sense) for your argument, a place for it to stand, some grounds on which we can see if it “holds up”. You are standing in that clearing, too, and you are standing there with your reader. The result may not always be exactly sublime, or even beautiful, but it should never be dull.

The Advertiser’s Stance

This perversion is probably in the long run a more serious threat in our society than the danger of ignoring the audience.

Wayne C. Booth, “The Rhetorical Stance,” CCC, 14(3), 1963.

Academics today are strongly encouraged ensure the “impact” of their research. They are told to measure their success, at least in part, by the effect they have on the public and the policy makers who represent it. For my part, I’ve long tried to push against this eagerness to “really matter”; I have, for example, urged academics to curb their romance with storytelling and focus on their peers and students. I think there is perfectly respectable work to be done entirely within the ivory tower and, like Wayne Booth, I fear that the desire for broader impact establishes some “perverse” incentives for scholars.

Booth tells the story of a dinner party where he was told that his book’s title (which included the word “rhetoric”) was not sufficiently gripping. He’d have been better off polling a few hundred “businessmen” and then settle on a title that would sell, said his tablemate, who happened to be an advertising consultant. Indeed, whether the title “fit the book” was not as important as we might think. “If the book is designed right, so that the first chapter pulls them in, and you keep them in, who’s going to gripe about a little inaccuracy in the title?”

When I read this I was reminded of exchange I had with Patrick Dunleavy. When he announced the publication of Maximizing the Impacts of Academic Research, I suggested that, given the “replication crisis”, perhaps we should also talk about minimizing the harms of academic research. That is, there sometimes seems to be an assumption among promoters of the “impact agenda” that all scientific results are true and their impact can therefore only be good. Maximizing the impact of research results means maximizing their spread in society, which means maximizing these positive effects. But that assumption doesn’t seem to hold. If half of all research results are wrong, maximing their impact doesn’t sound like such a great idea any longer. Perhaps we should talk of “optimizing,” I suggested.

Patrick and I agree on a lot of things, and this turned out to be one of them. In fact, he wanted to call the book Improving the Impact of Academic Research but his publisher insisted on Maximizing. They are no doubt right to assume that the book has been designed right and that no one is going to gripe too much about the title. In fact, while I suppose I did gripe, it was only a little and, as Booth’s advertising consultant predicted, I was immediately placated by the book’s more balanced content.

Nonetheless, by its mere existence, the book gives weight (not balance) to the slogan “Maximize Your Impact!” and that does leave me somewhat uneasy. Back in 1963, Booth put it as follows:

In the time of audience-reaction meters and pre-tested plays and novels, it is not easy to convince students of
the old Platonic truth that good persuasion is honest persuasion, or even of the old Aristotelian truth that the good rhetorician must be master of his subject, no matter how dishonest he may decide ultimately to be. Having told them that good writers always to some degree accommodate their arguments to the audience, it is hard to explain the difference between justified accommodation — say changing point one to the final position — and the kind of accommodation that fills our popular magazines, in which the very substance of what is said is accommodated to some preconception of what will sell.

The technology has changed since then — we’re more likely to speak of “metrics” and “focus groups” (not to mention “sensitivity readers”!) — but the problem is the same. There is an incentive to “accommodate” pressures that are entirely extrinsic to the author’s primary purpose. Booth rightly points out that it is difficult to convince students to stand firm against these pressures, developing and defending opinions of their own. “The advertiser’s stance,” he tells us, “comes from undervaluing the subject and overvaluing pure effect.” Of course, his students have long since graduated, some of them have become scholars, and many have probably even retired. Today, these extrinsic pressures have become altogether intrisic to the life of academics. It’s hard to find your balance when the “pure effect” of not publishing, of not having an “impact”, is to “perish”.

Update: Patrick detects signs of “the old stance of elitist diffidence & separation” in this post. I must partially cop to the charge, but it’s important to keep in mind that, like Booth, I strongly reject “the pedant’s stance” and my plea, like Patrick’s, is always for balance. Where we may differ is in our analysis of the current direction of imbalance. There will be at least one more post on Booth’s essay.

The Pedant’s Stance

The writer who assumes that it is enough merely to write an exposition of what he happens to know on the subject will produce the kind of essay that soils our scholarly journals, written not for readers but for bibliographies.

Wayne C. Booth, “The Rhetorical Stance,” CCC, 14(3), 1963.

Today we might say such articles are written “not for readers but for citation indexes.” As far as the writing goes, the point is the same. The imperatives of academic publication too often set up a barrier between the writer and the reader. In our determination to get our work past our editors and reviewers, we forget that good writing primarily has to get through to our readers. Fortunately, the problem can be solved quite locally. You don’t have to reform the entire journal system (though, by all means, please do!); you just have to insist on writing for a reader you respect. Yes, you also have to please your editors and your reviewers, but there’s no reason to let them force you to write badly.

The pedant’s stance, Booth explains, “springs from ignoring the audience or overreliance on the pure subject.” In fact, it sometimes stems from the writer’s outright resentment of the reader — such as when students fixate on the (undeniable) fact that their reader is their teacher. Booth reminisces about a student whose style he describes as “sneering”.

What he is saying is something like “you ask for a meaningless paper, I give you a meaningless paper.” He knows that he has no audience except me. He knows that I don’t want to read his summary of family relations in Utopia, and he knows that I know that he therefore has no rhetorical purpose. Because he has not been led to see a question which he considers worth answering, or an audience that could possibly care one way or the other, the paper is worse than no paper at all, even though it has no grammatical or spelling errors and is organized right down the line, one, two, three.

This also happens in the journal literature, when writers direct their sneering at their editors or the infamous Reviewer 2. A good editor, when such a paper comes across their desk, would immediately reject this tone and send the paper back to the author for revision. I think it’s a misplaced sense of fairness that gets such papers through, and which also sometimes gives students better grades than they deserve. Teachers and editors simply empathize too much with the writer’s resentment of the conditions they’ve been given: “He knows that he has no audience except me. He knows that I don’t want to read his summary…”

But they should realize that this is irrelevant. An editor is reading on behalf of the journal’s readers, a teacher is reading on behalf of the other students. They are representing the writer’s peers and they’re trying to determine whether the paper provides an occasion for dialogue between them. The teacher’s and the editor’s boredom with their own job is entirely beside the point — except of course in that it stems from the the same misunderstanding, the same un-rhetorical stance. They, too, could enjoy it more.

The pedant’s mistake is to imagine a reader that comes to the text with no knowledge of the subject and holds no opinions of their own about it. Instead of imagining a reader who has read Utopia themselves and come to their own conclusions, they’re trying to spare the reader the trouble of reading Utopia. (As Booth points out, the pedant resents having been forced to read it in the first place.) Note that this means the pedant does not grant the reader a rhetorical footing of their own. There is no ring in which to spar, no floor on which to dance. The writer fails to take up a critical posture and doesn’t grant the reader the ground on which to take one. And this is why pedants are so universally disliked (even at university): their arrogant air corresponds exactly to the embarrassment you expose them to when you challenge their claims (about the family relations in Utopia, for example). They simply don’t expect criticism, they don’t expect to be challenged. When you do, they take it as a kind of effrontery. They’re insulted.

All of this is actually visible, even audible, on the surface of a pedant’s text. A pedantic text has a recognizable voice that indicates an audience that is to sit silently and receive instruction. (The root meaning of pedant is “schoolmaster”.) Indeed, to call it a “stance” is already to give it too much credit, since it is barely standing itself (and certainly expects the audience to remain seated). It is often leaning … hunched over a lectern. It might be better to call it the pedant’s drone, and it goes on for 45 minutes and then allows five or ten minutes of polite questions. Any attempt to engage with it will be politely deflected and then avoided at the drinks reception afterwards. I’m sure I seem a little too experienced in these matters, but I hope we can agree that your papers should not, in any case, conjure up this image!