Last Week, Yesterday, Today

If you’re reading this blog you’re probably a knowledgeable person. I imagine that you’re a student or a scholar in an academic discipline, and you’re working on your craft, which is to say, you’ve already learned a great deal. You know more about your subject than most people — in fact, out of the billions of people who live on this planet, there are probably only a few thousand, perhaps only a few hundred, who know as much as you do about your subject, and this is especially true when we consider the content of your current project. Indeed, on matters relating to what you’re working on right now, you may only have a few dozen intellectual equals. It’s important that you begin with this awareness when you are working on your writing. Understand that you know a great deal about your subject and proceed on that basis. Write from the center of a formidable strength.

Now, keep in mind that all this knowledge didn’t come to you by some miracle this morning when you awoke. You’ve been accumulating knowledge for months and years and you will be drawing on this in your writing today. Last week, too, you were a very knowledgeable person; last week, too, if relatively speaking, you had very few equals on this planet. If your writing is only as smart as you were last week, it’s still going to be very smart. In fact, you’re not significantly smarter than you were last week — you’re literally only marginally smarter. You are almost as likely to have picked up a new dumb idea over the past few days as you are to have truly learned something new. And you’re almost as likely as that to have made no progress at all. How much will you know tomorrow? The answer is almost always going to be: about as much as you know today. And, since anything you write down today will be published, if ever, months from now, whether you write down what you know today, or what you knew yesterday, or what you knew last week, isn’t really going to make much of a difference from the point of few of the novelty of your published work. You’re always going to be smarter than your publication list.

This is what my first two rules are about. What you are writing about is always in the past; who you are writing for is always in the future. Your reader is always receiving an “outdated” message, a report on your state of mind that is no longer current. But you want the reader to learn something about what you are actually thinking. So you have to find a way to make sure that the things you are writing about will remain relevant going forward. You want to write on a stable foundation of knowledge. And the best way to do that is to choose, today, something you knew last week to write about tomorrow.

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