The Epiphany of the Paragraph

To have gathered from the air a live tradition…
this is not vanity.

Ezra Pound

This weekend I had one of those moments of clarity that changes nothing. It was merely (and literally) just another case of a middle-aged man discovering that he had been speaking prose all his life. Or, in my case, teaching prose for the past twenty years.

When I was younger, I thought I was a philosopher, first of mind, then of language, finally of science. But at some point I realized that if I had a contribution to make to modern scholarship it lay in helping people master the art of academic writing. More precisely, I could help people write down what they know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. There are times when I think this still makes me a philosopher, working in a tradition that can be traced back, through Bolzano and Kierkegaard, to Kant, and then forward to Wittgenstein and Heidegger, through Feyerabend and Kuhn, Foucault and Derrida, back up to the present day. But it is unlikely that I will ever make a serious contribution to those traditions. I am a writing consultant, not a scholar.

But even in that humble role, I fear, I sometimes cut a disappointing figure. After all, I am strangely aloof to style manuals and author guidelines; I eschew any authority to tell you how to get published or succeed as a scholar. (I don’t even like to tell students how to pass their exams.) I’m happy to talk about it, but I don’t have the one simple trick to how to “get things done in academia.” After all, I am not a successful writer myself. I defer to those who do publish in the so-called “top journals” for advice on how to satisfy your reviewers. My goal is to help you become a better writer.

What use is that? you may ask. This is the substance of my little epiphany this weekend. Over the years, I have increasingly focused on the paragraph as the unit of composition for scholarly prose. I have defined this unit as (1) at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that say one thing and support, elaborate, or defend it, and which constitutes (2) about half a page of prose and (3) one minute of a reader’s attention. I strongly believe that any scholar worth their tenure is able to compose a coherent prose paragraph, thus defined, about anything they know, and feel entitled to assume that they know a great many things. Writing papers and chapters and monographs is really just a matter of arranging a series of such paragraphs in a plausible order. If you can write a good paragraph, you have the writing skills you need to succeed in scholarship.

I emphasize writing skills, but that isn’t the whole of it, of course. I don’t know if you have the knowledge or the intelligence, the cunning, the courage, or the compassion that is required to survive (i.e., not “perish”) in the modern university. (I do have some sense of how hard it is.) Just because you can write a paragraph doesn’t mean you should; and just because you can’t doesn’t mean you’ll never pretend to. Careers are complicated, and nobody is perfect. But you will never regret the effort you made to develop the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph in twenty or thirty minutes. This ability is the foundation of your confidence as a scholar among your peers. It is the basis of your discipline.

Writers and Readers

Most, perhaps all, of the readers of this blog are also writers. To be sure, some of them resent this fact a little, but, whether they are students or scholars, an important part of their “job” is to commit words to the page that express what they think. So is reading. Before they are my readers, my readers are readers of each other; they are peers to the people they write for. That in any case is what I imagine, what I presume.

My concern here is with so-called “academic” writing, i.e., the kind of writing that is done by students and scholars at universities. I don’t discriminate too much between them. Whether you are writing for examination or for publication, you are writing down what you know in order to discuss it with other knowledgeable people. You are opening your ideas to criticism. But you are not interested in just anyone’s criticism; you are interested in the criticism of your peers, i.e., people who are qualified to tell you that you are wrong. We sometimes mistakenly focus on the most proximal of these people — our teachers or reviewers — but it is important to keep our actual readers in mind. If you’re a student, these are your classmates. If you are a scholar, they are the members of your discipline.

Like yours, my readers are nice people, but I sometimes worry that we read each other in the wrong spirit. Students read each other’s papers on behalf of the teacher, ready to provide helpful to suggestions to their classmates about how to improve their grade. Scholars read each other’s papers on behalf of the reviewers, eager to help their colleagues satisfy the editorial standards of a journal. Once the paper is submitted, there’s nothing left to do but offer the appropriate congratulations or commiserations when the time comes. Reading a paper in its final form, simply for the purpose of discussing the ideas it presents, seems like an unnecessary inconvenience — not least to the author, who, as I’ve heard some of them declare openly, would prefer to put the often painful struggle of getting published behind them and move on to the next project. We have a tendency to respect their wishes; to be honest, we empathize with our comrades, kindred spirits in our “publish or perish” world. In a word, we’re kind.

But we should read each other’s finished work. And we should write it with the expectation of finding sincere readers who are interested in our ideas and ready to correct us where we are wrong. After all, getting a top grade, or getting published in a top journal, does not guarantee that everything you have written in paper is correct. Indeed, even your main thesis may be wrong. Your examiner or editor has only acknowledged that you have presented your ideas in a manner that opens them to qualified criticism. You have made your ideas available for discussion in an acceptable (even admirable) way; but it is now time to have that discussion. Your readers may love your paper but still disagree with you. In some cases, your readers may be compelled to try to replicate your results. Until they do, they can’t be sure you’re right. In an important sense, neither can you.

In our effort to be kind, in our eagerness to help nice people get on with their careers, we sometimes forget that good ideas take time, and, given time, ideas change. Not only do we need time to come up with them, and then to express them; our peers need to time to understand them, and test them against their own experiences, their own experiments. The greatest respect we show to an idea is to ponder it long enough to discover that it is wrong. Students who have earned good grades on their undergraduate papers will usually discover that they were completely wrong (often on some very important point) while writing their master’s thesis. (The better the paper, the more instructive this error will be.) Not to mention how wrong they find out they’ve always been while writing their doctoral dissertation!

Let’s remember that our peers took the time to write their ideas down. We need to take the time read them and engage with them. In academia, the best way to get to know your readers is to read them.

…and the Living is Easy

I know that summer doesn’t officially begin until the solstice, but this is the last of week of my recommended 8-week period of discipline after Easter, and the weather in Copenhagen has been excellent these last few days, so a little nod to Lady Day seems in order.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I recommend being very deliberate about your writing 32 weeks of the year and taking it easy for the remaining 20. That doesn’t mean you’re doing a lot of writing during those 32 weeks, only that you’re writing or not writing deliberately. That is, if you’re not writing, it’s because you planned not to write, and so you are not burdened by any guilt about not getting it done. And, if you are writing, you feel like you’re proceeding measurably towards some goal, which may only be getting better at writing, or contributing any number of paragraphs to a paper. You’re doing what you can every day; you are not “finally getting it done”. Being disciplined makes you feel good about the work you are doing, even when it is hard.

But for about 5 weeks in the winter, one week during the spring and the fall, and 13 weeks over the summer, you are free to write in a more spontaneous way. Or not at all, without thinking about why you’re not writing. You might just not feel like it. Or you might write just because you do feel like it. You are gripped by inspiration or bogged down in lethargy and you simply give into these forces instead of pitting your resolve against them. This gives you some time (and some mental space) to think things through.

For my part, I’ve got a lot of thinking to do about how the philosophy of science relates to academic writing. The idea that has been brewing in my mind goes back to Bernard Bolzano, who suggested that the logic of science was really just the grammar of scientific “treatises”. Today, we’d probably focus on papers, and my approach to epistemology is rooted in Steve Fuller’s “social epistemology,” which suggests a close connection between the philosophy of science and the rhetoric of academic articles. Lately, I’ve been thinking that we’re overcomplicating both of these subjects. Academics should be able to say plainly what they think and publish these ideas without too much fuss. (I’m not a big fan of the familiar peer-review process.) It’s the knowing, not the writing, that should be the hard part.

If you know what you’re talking about, writing an academic paper should be straightforward. Just stick to what you know and write it down. Easy does it.

Half Pages

This post isn’t going to be very deep, but I’m taking a vacation next week and I don’t want to let a whole month go by without posting anything. I thought I would reflect a little on a theme that I find myself emphasizing more and more when I talk students and scholars about their writing: a paragraph occupies roughly half a page of standard prose.

Here at CBS, a “normal page” consists of 2275 characters (including spaces) and I find that this means about 350 words to the page. Since a paragraph consists of at most 200 words, that’s roughly two paragraphs to the page. Each paragraph says one thing and supports, elaborates, or defends; it takes about one minute to read. There are two truths to the page.

Try to think of your papers (books, theses, dissertations, treatises, etc.) as a series of pages that provide a two-minute, two-truth reading experience for a qualified peer. Make sure you know what you are trying to say on each page and how you want to the reader to take it. Do you want them to believe, understand, or (dis)agree with you?

Arrange your paragraphs in a natural sequence. One way to do this is simply to list the key sentences in a separate document. Do they make sense out of the context of their paragraphs simply arranged in order? If not, rearrange them until they do, add a key sentence where a paragraph seems to be missing, remove one that breaks the sequence. Move it somewhere else or just park it at the end of the document until you can find place for it. At the end, you might find you don’t need it at all.

Like I say, I’m not trying to say anything deep here. The page is literally the surface of your knowledge. Try to treat it that way. Learn to trust that you have a lot under the surface to draw on. This is just about presentation, a half page at a time.

On How-To Books

They’re alluring, they sell books, they get citations in papers, but at their core is a reduction in understanding, a learned helplessness, that I think is the opposite of what we should be striving for in academia.

CHRISTOPHER R. MATTHEWS

Much of my writing involves giving practical advice to academic writers, which puts me squarely in the field of how-to guides. I personally like the genre. A good how-to book can be a real pleasure to read because you can sense the competence under the words of the writer. Oliver Senior’s How to Draw Hands is an example I often cite, and my struggle to write a book of my own is probably made more difficult by the impossible standard it sets in my mind. So when I read Chris’s reflections I had to take a moment to think it through. Are my two series of talks, twenty talks in all, all of them titled “How to…” one thing or another, really “the opposite of what we should be striving for in academia”? Am I empowering my students to meet the challenges of scholarship or inculcating a “learned helplessness”? Am I, at best, simply using those titles to “lure” an audience, to “sell” my ideas (even to get “cited”!)? At the end of the day, do my talks actually reduce their understanding of what scholarship is?

I’m not done thinking about these questions, but I was reminded of a blogpost at my retired blog that I wrote a decade and a half ago. I repost it here in a lightly edited form.

The downside of books — and blogs — about writing is that they leave the impression that there is something important to know about writing, and that we, who know it, can tell you how to write well. People who have difficulty expressing themselves in writing come to feel, by the very existence of so much good advice about how to do it, that their problem amounts to not having been let in on the secret. Underneath their inability to write, that is, they imagine a profound ignorance.

It is therefore important to emphasize that you do not learn what you need to know about writing by reading a book or listening to a teacher explain to you how a sentence, paragraph, or journal article “works”. You learn how to write well by writing regularly, revising often, and presenting your writing to its intended audience for critique. Good writing is not something you learn but something you train; it is not so much knowledge but discipline that counts. People who “can’t write” are not primarily stupid or ignorant. (Though they may also be such things.) They are just a little weak, a little out of shape.

Please don’t understand that too quickly.

Your prose style, like your physique and your posture, emerges from your training. People notice that you “write well” much like they might notice that you walk and stand with a certain kind of dignity, or that you are able to lift and move things with ease. Grace in everyday motion depends on having much stronger muscles than one “needs” for simple tasks, i.e., from being far from the limit of one’s power when doing ordinary things, and these virtues of physical comportment (dignity, ease, grace) are of course virtues of style. Good prose, similarly, has a certain kind of strength.

The purpose of a sentence and a paragraph is to affect the reader’s mind in some way, to “move” it. The writer pushes against the mental comportment of the reader, and the reader pushes back. While there are a lot “tricks” and “moves” you might learn in order to “handle yourself” in this situation (to “write with power”, as Peter Elbow famously put it) there is simply no substitute for the strength you develop by training, i.e., by practicing this ability to push against the mind of another. A strong prose style develops by repeatedly writing with a relevant audience “in mind”, imagining how it will push back, and by presenting it to that audience often, i.e., letting it actually push back.

You will not become a better writer by believing what I tell you. You will become a better writer by doing as I say. As often as you can, take a moment a to compose yourself. Work from the center of your strength. “The only truly comprehensive answer to any enquiry as to ‘How to…’,” as Oliver Senior reminds us, “is the simple instruction

“Get on with it.”