I’ve been talking to students lately about deciding what to say and how to say it. In this post, I want to break these competences down into seven simple exercises that can be trained deliberately. If you can make this part of your discipline as a student or a scholar, it may help you develop a workable style — a way of writing that gets the job done. The first two exercises should be carried out in sequence at the end of the day before you do the other five, which I recommend you do at the beginning of the next day. Naturally, I recommend you do this on a regular basis, either every day or every other day, for about 4 x 8 weeks of the year. Every series of exercises will take 5 + 30 minutes of your time. So you can prioritize your investment accordingly.
1. At the end of the day, when you have decided you’re not going to get any smarter, spend exactly two minutes thinking of an intellectually interesting object. Remember that “intellectual interest” isn’t a merely subjective matter. It’s what connects you to your peers. It should be possible think of something that is of interest to you and to others working in your field — if you’re a student, to your classmates. In two minutes, you should only name this thing. Since you’ll probably spend the time deciding among alternatives, just keep one at the top of the list and when the two minutes are up, that’s your choice.
2. Now spend three minutes writing a sentence that conceptualizes this thing in the intellectually interesting way you had in mind. You can approach this in any number of ways: you can install it on a background of shared concern, you can make your theoretical expectations of it explicit, you can suggest a good way to study it, you can summarize an analysis of it, or you can discuss its implications for theory or practice. The important thing is to write an intellectually interesting true sentence about it. Jot down a short simple sentence right away and then spend the time refining it, making sure it’s always a grammatically correct sentence. After three minutes, stop. Your working day is now officially over. Time to relax.
Don’t think about what you’ve done until tomorrow morning, when you will sit down at a particular time to write a paragraph using it as your key sentence. You decide when, but make it the first intellectually challenging thing you do. You need to set aside exactly 30 minutes. Start on time and finish on time.
3. Spend two minutes retyping and thinking carefully about your key sentence. What difficulty does it pose for your reader? Will you need to support, elaborate or defend it? How can it most clearly occasion that difficulty, setting up your next task?
4. Spend ten minutes writing more sentences, coming up with the relevant support, elaboration or defense of your claim. The goal isn’t to write as much or as fast as you absolutely can, but you do want to write at least six sentences if possible. You want to draw out the supporting, elaborating or defending details quickly and efficiently, but also accurately.
5. Spend ten minutes clarifying what you have produced so far. This could involve adding more details to shed even greater light on what you’re saying. But it could also mean removing sentences that are taking you off topic or reordering the sentences in a more logical way. This is also where you can think about where the key sentence should end up. (It doesn’t have to be at the beginning of the paragraph.)
6. Read the paragraph out loud and polish it for five minutes. Consider the spelling and punctuation and referencing, but focus especially on the rhythm of the sentences. React to whatever you learned about your paragraph by reading it out loud. Begin with the sound of the paragraph and improve it from there. When the five minutes are up, your 27 minute writing moment is over.
7. Do “nothing” for three minutes. This can take some practice, some discipline, to get right. Don’t keep working on your paragraph and don’t begin to do the next thing you have planned. Just relax. Put some space between the paragraph and the rest of your day. Then get on with it. (I don’t literally mean do nothing. But that is a possibility. You can do some push-ups, read a short poem, listen to a short piece of music. Just three minutes that are spent neither writing nor doing your next work-related task.)
That’s it. You don’t have to do exactly my exercises (but why not try them a few times?) and you don’t have to stick to my times. If you want compress the paragraph writing from 30 to 20 minutes, be my guest. But do try to become good at some discrete trainable activities. Become good at picking something to talk about, saying something about it, beginning a paragraph, composing one, sharpening it, and reading it out loud. Become good at stopping, at taking a break. Become good at getting down to your writing and then getting on with your day. Work on your discipline. And remember that being good at something means being able to enjoy it. Work on that too.