How Well Do You Write? (1)

When I talk to a group of students or scholars about writing, I sometimes begin by asking how many of them want to become better academic writers, or at least think they need to improve their writing in order to succeed. Most of them of course do. But how do we know how good we are? And why is it we’d like to get better? What is it exactly that we’d like to get better at? To answer these questions, I want to suggest a simple exercise that lets you, if not measure your competence as a writer, then at least experience it.

The first thing is to take your knowledge out of the the equation. You don’t want to experience mainly your tenuous grasp of the subject matter you’re writing about. You want to make sure that knowing isn’t the problem so that the difficulty of writing can come to the fore. You do this by choosing something you’re confident you know something about. If you’re a student, pick something from a course you did well in, preferably a course you also enjoyed and, since this is unfortunately not always the case, where you feel like you deserved the decent grade you got. If you’re a working scholar, pick a theory or a practice that you are well-versed in, something that lies near the center of your expertise. Remember that no one is forcing you write about these things for this purpose of conducting this test. You are free to choose what you will write about, and the main criterion is going to be your grasp of the subject.

Now, since you want to experience your mastery of academic writing, you have to consider a very particular kind of reader: a peer. Think of someone who knows about as much as you do about the subject you just decided to write about. You can make this person up, construct a composite of individuals you know, or think of a specific person. The important thing is that you imagine a reader who is an intellectual equal. If you’re a student, think of another student who did well in the same class. If you’re a scholar, think of the people who attend the same conference sessions and research seminars that you do. You and your reader will have read roughly the same things, understand the same theories, master the same methods. To put it as starkly as possible, your reader is qualified to tell you that you are wrong. Indeed, you respect your reader’s opinion enough to listen carefully when they suggest you’ve made an error. They are not qualified to tell what to think, however, nor are you in awe of them. You’ll consider their opinion and make up your own mind.

(If you want to reconsider your choice of subject after thinking about your reader, go ahead.)

It is now time to see how good you are at writing something down for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. First of all, relax. None of what you are about to learn about yourself is going to be very deep. (People sometimes say writing is at the core of our research, the heart of what we do, but that’s overstating it a little. It’s more like the skin of our body of knowledge, the surface of discourse.) You are going to experience your facility with words, your difficulty in putting them together. You’re going to do this under very controlled circumstances and with nothing at stake. After you’re done, you’re not even going draw any final conclusions. You’re going to do it a few more times, before you know anything at all. And by then you won’t know whether you’re “good” or “bad” so much as how you’re going to get better. That said, I’m not promising that this will be an entirely pleasant experience. If you want to know how hard something is, you’re going to have to let it hit you.

Here’s how to do it. Take five minutes at the end of your working day and write down a single, simple declarative sentence that says something you know about the subject you’ve chosen. Make sure it’s a serious statement and that it’s just he tip of the iceberg of your knowledge. And make sure it’s something that demands that more be said in your discipline, something that is in need of support, elaboration or defense. In a word, make sure it’s something that’s worth writing a whole paragraph about. Resolve to write that paragraph tomorrow morning, but for now just focus on getting its key sentence down as precisely as you can. For five minutes, try to write what Hemingway called “the truest sentence that you know” about the subject. Then — and this is very important and not at all easy — stop thinking about it for the rest of the evening. (Being able to do that is part of being a good writer.) Put it out of your mind until tomorrow morning. In my next post I’ll tell you what to do then.

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