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.

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