How to Write

(Part of the Art of Learning series.)

Scholarly writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. In a university setting, you don’t truly know something if you can’t write a coherent prose paragraph about it in under half an hour. If you develop this ability as part of your day-to-day learning process you will not regret the effort. In this talk, I present an approach to academic writing and a way to train yourself to reliably produce clear prose about things you know.

The basic idea of this talk is that writing makes our knowledge explicit, by drawing on our ability to think and talk about the things we believe to be true. These beliefs contain propositions (which, as thoughtful people, we acknowledge may be false) that combine concepts and objects (see “How to Think”). We are able to write about them because we are “conversant” about their subject matter, that is, we’re able to hold our own in conversation with other knowledgeable people about them. The challenge is to train ourselves in the art of selecting something to write about (constructing a key sentence) and the art of composing paragraphs (one moment at a time).

“The dignity of the movement of an iceberg lies in only one eighth of it being above water,” said Ernest Hemingway. Van Morrison once invoked “the inarticulate speech of the heart” and I am with him about such things somewhere deep in my imagination. Writing brings it to the surface. In writing, we articulate our knowledge through our capacity for thinking and talking; we give voice to our minds.

(Unfortunately, I pressed a wrong button and no video was recorded for this talk. Below is the audio.)

Here’s a redrawn iceberg and a diagram of the writing moment that you might find useful while listening.

I present some of the same ideas in a slightly different way in my “how to write” lecture, which you can find in the video section of this blog. Training requires discipline and I once wrote a post that outlines “seven little disciplines” you can work on if you want to master the prose paragraph.

You can also read about my approach in my essay “How to Write at University” (PDF), which is also available in Danish (PDF).

And here are few other posts that might interest you: “How to Write a Prose”, “How to Write a Paragraph”, “Writing as Experience”