The Art of Writing

This week’s talk in the Art of Learning series is going to be very squarely “in my wheelhouse,” as they say. My goal is to present the core of my approach to academic writing in a structured improvisation lasting about one hour. There will then be plenty of time (another hour) to answer questions from the (live and online) audience. I have found that the second hour is especially useful, forcing me to clarify things that I said, a raising issues that I forgot to mention as I talked. As usual, I want to put some of my thoughts in blogpost form first.

My views on writing are inspired by figures as disparate as Ernest Hemingway and Roland Barthes. I believe they would support me in my conviction that writing, like reading, is an experience within experience. The task of the writer is to represent their experience in words that intersect meaningfully with the experience of the reader. (What the words mean depends on the shared the experiences of the reader and the writer.) Writing gives one human being access to the experience of another, allowing them to measure both the writer’s experience and their own, and, by that means, approach some objective sense of the “truth”. The future of our objectivity, we might say, depends on the history of writing.

Needless to say, we will begin with Hemingway’s iceberg. “The dignity of the movement of an iceberg,” he said, “lies in only one eighth of it being above water.” He said our writing should have such dignity, and he believed that, in the case of novelists and reporters, it came from the experience that the writer could safely leave out of the story because the reader would feel its presence anyway. The dignity of “academic” or “scholarly” writing, I will argue, comes from a variety of other sources, including experience, but also a lot of reading, and adds up to a formidable competence beneath the surface of our texts. (It is this competence, I should say, that my neologism “inframethodology” refers to.) Virginia Woolf wrote about “the loneliness that is the truth about things” but, while this may indeed be the ultimate subject of literature, academic writers have other things (and even objects!) to write about; scholarship deals with the truth that can be talked about to others.

Academic writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. Some people feel confident in their own heads and when speaking to live audiences, but they lack that confidence when they write. Others feel confident, when thinking “on paper” but not when speaking in public. Find your strength in any one or two of the primary manifestations of academic knowledge (thinking, talking, writing) and then leverage it in your attempt to develop the other(s). Work from the center of your strength.

Last week I wanted to say more about how exactly to train your ability to think, how to extract the propositions from your beliefs and discover the possibilities implicit in their concepts and objects. I’m going to get a chance to say something about this on Thursday as part of the “seven disciplines” of academic writing, which is essentially the art of composing paragraphs and arranging them into essays and papers. The trick is to establish a serious “writing moment” at the beginning of each learning day. With a little discipline, you can sit yourself down every morning and address yourself for 20 or 30 minutes to a like-minded peer (imagine a serious, fellow student). Part of this discipline is deployed the day before, when you think of something to say; the rest is exercised as one of the first intellectually challenging tasks of the day. You find the difficulty in what you are saying and make your claim a little easier for your reader to believe, understand, or agree with. That’s what the art of academic writing is mostly about: supporting, elaborating, and defending propositions you think are are true.

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