Monthly Archives: March 2022

A Little Daily Exercise

An exercise occurred to me the other day. It’s not as demanding as following my rules for eight weeks, but it might give you a little taste of (and for?) Writing Process Reengineering, before deciding whether to take my course.

Here’s the exercise in a nutshell: Every evening, write a true sentence that is a little hard to believe, understand, or agree with. Every morning, take ten minutes to write six more about the same thing that are a little easier to believe, understand, or agree with. Maybe the value of doing this every day (or, let’s say, 160 days a year) is obvious to you. But let me try to explain what I’m getting at with it.

The exercise is deliberately couched in the language I use to describe the problem of writing a paragraph. A paragraph always has a key sentence that poses some difficulty for the reader. The rest of the paragraph then helps the reader overcome this difficulty. The key sentence may be hard to believe, requiring five or more sentences of support. Or it may may hard to understand, requiring elaboration. Or it may be hard to agree with, requiring a defense. In each case, the problem is to make the key sentence more believable, understandable, or agreeable using no more than 200 words. I normally suggest you learn how to compose such a paragraph in under half an hour. Indeed, I suggest learning how to make effective use of exactly 27 minutes to that end, devoting at least one half and at most three hours a day, 32 weeks of the year.

Some people, however, don’t want to compose every paragraph in such an explicitly crafty way. They produce their prose in a more intuitive (and they might say a more “natural” way), moving from paragraph to paragraph when it seem appropriate, not when the clock runs out. Some people compose perfectly good paragraphs this way because they have good grasp of how prose works, of what is supposed to happen to the reader while they are reading. My exercise is intended to subtly strengthen your intuitions in this regard.

Without demanding that you actually produce a paragraph, it forces you to notice what makes a sentences hard or easy to believe. My favorite example of this difference can be found in ethnographic prose, based on either interviews or observation. Here the key sentence will tell us what a person, or a group of people, thinks or feels, wants or fears, needs or hopes. Since such states are not directly observable, they’re a little hard to believe for the academic reader, naturally skeptical. It’s not that the reader is outright unwilling to believe such statements; it’s just that they want to know how you know. Give them a little evidence and they’re good. So you write a paragraph that presents an account of what you heard them say (in interviews) or what you saw them do (in the field). The fact that they said and did these these things is simply easier to believe than the fact that they felt or thought something. That’s especially true in light of the altogether credible methodology you have described before you present this data. Knowing how you collected it, the data can be taken for given. It’s easier to believe.

So one way to do this exercise is to write a key sentence about a fact that is not directly observable at the end of one day and then write six sentences about directly observable facts that support your claim. Another way is to write a statement of theory, invoking concepts from the literature, and then write six sentences that cite this literature in elaboration of their meaning. Since this literature will be familiar to reader, these sentences will be easier to understand than your interpretation of it, which requires the reader to get inside your head, just as you ask them to get inside the heads of your research subjects in the analysis. Another way is to write a sentence about the implications that follow from your research and then, assuming that the reader objects to your reasoning, you defend the rationality of your normative stance, proposing changes to theory or practice that the reader may not want to make the effort to implement, acknowledging their objections and countering them politely. Whatever you do, the important thing is to give yourself an opportunity to compare the difficulties that your sentences present the reader with.

When doing this exercise, remember that you’re only spending a couple of minutes at the end of one day to set up ten minutes of writing the next. Don’t make it a bigger deal than it is. It’s just a little exercise. Try it for a week and see what you get out of it. And do, please, tell me about it if you feel the urge. I always like to hear whether and how my suggestions help my readers. Comments are open.

Editors, Reviewers, Graders, Readers

This came up on Twitter the other day. A researcher had been desk-rejected by a major journal less than four hours after submitting. An efficient editorial process is normally a good thing, of course, but this seemed a little too fast in some quarters of academic Twitter. Is it really possible, asked Paul Hünermund, to evaluate the quality of a paper in such a short time? I think that’s an excellent question, not merely a rhetorical one, and I’d like to take a few moments to offer an answer to it, mostly in the affirmative.

To be fair to the journal, we’re not here talking about the full review process, just the editor’s decision about whether to send the article our for review. A journal with many submissions (as a top journal will be) will need to make short work of this decision. Someone probably has to look at several papers every day (at least at times) and decide whether the paper is on the face of it a good candidate for review. A positive assessment here will result in work for (usually) three other scholars (the reviewers) and waiting time for the researchers who submitted the paper, so this decision is important. But it should also take considerably less effort than the full review process.

Also, we should keep in mind that underlying our response to the time it takes to review a paper is our intuition about how long it takes to simply read and understand one. We expect reviewers and (post-publication) critics of our work to actually read it, usually the whole thing, before passing any sort of judgment on it. We might perhaps discuss whether the editors in this case owe the writers a full read of the paper, but let’s try to get a sense of what a reasonable effort at understanding a paper involves.

As always, we will try to appreciate the finitude of the problem. A standard journal article in the social sciences might consist of roughly 40 paragraphs. Each paragraph, I usually say, should be written so that it can be read and understood by a peer reader (a scholar in the same discipline as the writer) in about one minute. So let’s say it takes about 45 minutes, and no more than an hour, to read a paper all the way through once, with comprehension. That is, a good paper presents about 40 claims of various kinds along with the support, elaboration, or defense that the reader needs in order to believe, understand, or agree with them. After an hour or so with your paper it should be clear to the reader what you are trying to tell them and why you think you’re right about it.

If that is not possible — that is, if after an hour the point of the paper is not yet clear — that strikes me in itself as a reason to desk-reject the paper. But if the paper is good, so that that first hour of effort on the part of the editor produced an understanding of the paper’s purpose and, not incidentally, a favorable assessment of the quality of the prose, then it should not take the editor another three hours to decide whether the paper is within the scope of the journal, or whether the conclusions are interesting enough, or whether the data is substantial enough to support them.

I guess I’m trying to say that a good paper is easy to read, given the right reader. That also means that readers can quickly decide that either the paper is not good or they are not the right reader. If the reader is an editor, this can guide the desk decision. If the reader is a teacher, this can guide the grade. If the reader is a scholar, it can simply guide the decision about whether or not to keep reading, i.e., whether they have an obligation, as a peer, to see what a fellow scholar has to say here. Giving an hour to a 20- or 30-page paper to this end seems reasonable to me, even somewhat charitable.

Being kind to your reader is the best way to get your paper through the various hoops that academic life presents us with. Whether you’re trying to get published or to pass a course, write your paper with the aim of making it easy, not hard, to evaluate. Write it in the spirit of exposing your ideas to the criticism of a qualified, competent peer, whose opinion you respect. Don’t expect your reader to struggle for hours to decide what you are trying to say and whether or not it is correct. Give your reader an occasion to respond naturally and intuitively to your prose. (It should, as Orwell said, be like window on your mind. Your ideas, not your words, should be at the center of the reader’s attention.)

The quality of a good paper is immediately apparent. If it takes a long time to assess the quality or relevance of a paper — when, e.g., applying a journal’s editorial standards — then that assessment has actually already been made. And this should also help us enjoy the work of reading more, whether as scholars, editors, reviewers, or teachers. Don’t get frustrated by bad writing. Just put it down for a moment and take stock of the situation. Your frustration is already a sign that there is something wrong with the paper in your hand. It may be that you’re not the intended reader or it may be that it’s not very good. It’s certainly not obviously your obligation to spend the rest of the day struggling with it. Decide how much time to give to it, make the relevant decision or assign the appropriate grade, and move on to the next paper.

Most of us are able to distinguish necessarily difficult ideas from needlessly difficult writing. Read charitably. Write generously. But remember that there must be limits to our kindness, and to the kindness our readers show us. Like being good, reading well means “finding ourselves correctly attuned in the apportionment of the moment,” as Heidegger put it. Much of this is just about planning your time and following your plan. Give every paper the attention it deserves.

Examples

A scholarly paragraph states a claim and supports, elaborates, or defends it. The claim is expressed in the key sentence, which will often appear early in the paragraph, but may appear anywhere so long as it is clearly stating the proposition that the paragraph is trying to get across. It will usually be a short, direct, declarative sentence and use relatively simple grammar. If the reader is supposed to find the claim hard to believe, the remaining sentences will support it with evidence. If the reader is supposed to find it hard to understand, the paragraph will elaborate its meaning, defining terms or providing illustrations. If the reader is supposed to find it difficult to agree with the claim, the paragraph will mount a defense, acknowledging the reader’s objections and engaging with them. In all cases, the bulk of the paragraph will be easier (to believe, understand, or agree with) than the key sentence, which, crucially, occasions precisely the difficulty that the paragraph is supposed to resolve.

In scholarly prose, paragraphs generally consist of least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. That is, the ideas scholars express in their writing generally require at least five sentences of support, elaboration, or defense to be rendered credible, comprehensible, or contestable to a peer reader. Something that can be said in less that six sentences doesn’t require a paragraph of its own (but may of course be said in support, elaboration, or defense of another, more substantial, claim). A claim that requires more than two-hundred words before the reader will believe, understand, or agree to disagree about it should be broken into two or more simpler ideas. What this rule of thumb reminds us is that it should take about one minute to read a paragraph properly. 182 words of flowing prose or 6 tightly composed sentences of less than 100 words may take about the same time to read. The reader should feel that the effort was a reasonable one, given the claim being made.

A scholarly paper is a series of paragraphs that together argue for larger thesis. That thesis is often stated in one of the paragraphs, whose key sentence will say something like, “This paper shows that…” followed by a clear, succinct statement of the conclusion of the paper’s argument. That paragraph will describe the paper, so that the reader can understand how the paper is going to show that the thesis is true; it will elaborate what is meant by “this paper shows”. The paper itself can always be summarized simply by listing the key sentences, one for each paragraph, and these sentences can be grouped into sections and subsections, each of which can in turn be captured by a single, declarative sentence. Seven of those can usefully make up the bulk of the third paragraph of the introduction, in effect outlining the paper. Two of them might be used as key sentences for the first two paragraphs of the paper, telling us something about the world we live in and the science we study it with. That is, a well-structured paper contains its own outline in the prose of its introduction.

I’m sometimes asked for examples when I say this kind of thing. In fact, this post is occasioned by such a request from Dominik Lukes in the comments to my last post. My gut reaction is always to be a bit apologetic, like I should have led with an example and in any case owe my readers or audience one. But the truth is that I’m not sure examples are a good idea. What exactly is it, I wonder, that is hard to imagine after reading the first three paragraphs of this post? In what sense is what I’m saying too abstract to picture concretely? I mean, if you want examples of what I’m talking about in the first two paragraphs then those paragraphs, and the rest of the paragraphs in this post, are perfectly good ones. (I have of course deliberately written them to conform to my guidelines.) And what is hard to imagine about a series of paragraphs, each represented by a single sentence (the key sentence) and grouped under 7 to 10 headings? What is an example supposed to make clear?

I should admit that my worry is partly a suspicion that any example I provide will be perceived as an ideal and imitated before it is understood. To put it more starkly, I’m worried that I will be providing materials that allow students (and scholars!) to fake their paragraphs before they make them. I don’t think that’s a good way to learn how to write. I want to train students to present the ideas they have, not to pretend to have ideas they don’t. In my view, the only way to learn how to write scholarly prose it is to think of something you know and then write it down with the aim of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. You have to be able imagine facts and people who are capable of knowing those facts. My advice won’t work if instructions like “think of something you know” are completely alienating to you. If you don’t have ideas on a regular basis, you can’t write scholarly prose; you might as well tell a blind man to draw a cat.* The experience of “having an idea” should be familiar to scholars (and university students!). As a writing consultant, I shouldn’t have to provide examples of thinking.

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*I am of course aware of the ableism of this remark. I use the image advisedly, after having found this very popular YouTube video by Tommy Edison, which I think nicely makes the point I’m after in the spirit I intend it. There’s no shame in not being a strong thinker on a particular subject. But to expect to be able to write well about something you are unable to form a clear idea in your mind about is a bit silly.

Towards an Outline

On Thursday, I’m going to be holding a talk about how to structure a research paper. In preparation, I thought it would be a good idea to write a sort of prose outline of the talk, summarizing the function of each section of a paper in a few simple sentences.

In the introduction you evoke a world, invoke a science, and propose a thesis. You present a familiar but interesting context for your study, frame it with a standing consensus or ongoing controversy in your field, and state a conclusion, based on your research, with significant practical or theoretical implications.

In the background section you inform the reader about the practical context of your research question. You provide the reader with the references to the most reliable public sources that you are aware of, so that the reader may become as knowledgeable as you are about the conditions from which your research object emerges.

In the theory section you tell the reader what you expected of your object of analysis before your did your research. Or, perhaps better, you remind the reader what the reader would have expected your analysis to show if you hadn’t already told them in the introduction. Alternatively, you shape the reader’s curiosity about your object, their curiosity about what your data will reveal, about how the data will support your thesis.

In the methods section you explain what you did to collect your data and why you did it that way. The aim is to win the reader’s trust, respecting their natural skepticism and awareness of typical sources of error.

In the analysis section, you present your data in a way that either challenges the reader’s expectations or satisfies the reader’s curiosity. You offer your interpretation of the data, supported by the observations you have made.

In the discussion section, you explicate the implications of your analysis for either theory or practice (or in some cases both). Now that we believe your results (having seen the data you gathered by a trusted method) what changes to our ways of seeing (our theories) or our ways of doing (our practices) are we rationally committed to? How ought we to proceed from here? What can reasonably be asked of us?

In the conclusion you restate your thesis plainly and simply, with all the presumptuousness your theory allows you and all the confidence your method affords you. And you return the reader to the world or the science with which you began, set in a slightly different light and given a slightly different weight.

A typical research paper in the social sciences is about 8000 words long and consists of about 40 paragraphs, each stating a single claim. Since each paragraph consists of less than 200 words and takes about a minute to read, it should be possible to read a paper reasonably carefully in about three quarters of an hour. For comparison, this post is 500 words and should take you two or three minutes to read.

Scholarly Composition

Scholarly composition is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. I hit on this definition this morning after mulling over some variations on my standard definition last night. “Academic writing,” I normally say, “is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people.” I’ve never liked the way I use the word “writing” in my definition of a kind of writing. It’s a minor point because its circularity isn’t very vicious. Most people will grant that I’m defining mainly the adjective “academic”, not writing itself, but I still find the repetition inelegant. This new version solves that problem nicely.

Along the way, I came up with another one that I also like: Academic writing is the art of composing and arranging paragraphs about what you know for other knowledgeable people. This one has the advantage of encapsulating in a single sentence my entire approach to writing instruction. It focuses our attention on the paragraph. There are also a couple of other nice details. By saying “about what you know” instead “writing down what you know” I’m making it clear that I think academic writing is largely representational. It is about something, namely, your knowledge of the facts, which I can then go on to discuss. I also like the way it analyses “writing” into the problems of “composition” and “arrangement”. I’ve written about this before as well.

With these two definitions in mind, I think I’m ready to return to the book I started this summer and complete my revisions. I think it’s going to be quite good.