Monthly Archives: September 2017

The Difficulty Setting

If you’re following the rules, working in a rational and deliberate way to write down what you know in order to allow other knowledgeable people to discuss it with you, I’m ready to promise you that it will get progressively easier. One of the reasons for this is that you will get better and better at choosing doable writing tasks. You will become better and better at setting up your work for tomorrow such that the problem is well within your skill set, well within your ability to solve.

Think of the “difficulty setting” on a video game. Games are not fun if they are too easy or too hard. If you easily kill all your enemies just by pointing your gun in a general direction and pressing “fire” repeatedly, there is no satisfaction in your victory, and you learn nothing from it. On the other hand, if you always die in the first few seconds because the manoeuvres that are required to save you are beyond your talents or training to complete you’re not going to feel any particular respect for the problem either. You’ll quickly get tired of trying and, again, you’ll see no improvement. That’s why many games let you decide whether to play as a beginner, or novice, or expert.

The important thing to keep in mind when transferring this analogy to your writing (according to my rules) is that you choose the difficulty setting the day before you write. This happens mainly in your articulation of the key sentence. Will it be easy or hard to compose at least six sentences and at most 200 words that support, elaborate or defend it in 27 minutes? Will it be hard to come up with six sentences? Or hard to keep it under 200 words? Or will it be hard to pull it all together in 27 minutes? The answer will vary from key sentence to key sentence. And the point is that you can turn the difficulty up or down simply by making minor changes to the sentence.

“Sensemaking poses a number of problems for managers.” “Sensemaking poses a number of problems for managers in crisis situations.” “Sensemaking is hard.” “Sensemaking, argues Weick, is an imaginative retrospective process that shapes action.” For some of these key sentences, only a meticulously constructed argument, based on precise areas of scholarship, will satisfactorily solve the problem. For others, any old paragraph will do. You define the problem of writing and its difficulty by deciding what you are going to say…

…and who you’re going to say it to. But please remember  that the more knowledgeable you imagine your reader to be the easier the writing will be. It’s hard to explain something very complicated to someone who lacks the conceptual apparatus, background knowledge and general intelligence to make sense of it. Your task becomes easier and easier (in your mind) as you increase the burden you lay on the shoulders of your reader. A lot of bad student writing comes from this–they imagine their reader to be their teacher and that their teacher knows much more than they do. That’s very likely, but it’s not good for your writing. It leaves too much for the reader to do.

When writing for academic purposes always imagine your reader to be an intellectual equal, a cognitive peer. Don’t let yourself change this component of the difficulty setting. Don’t make it too hard by imagining, as it is sometimes suggested, that you are explaining it to your grandmother. But don’t make it too easy either, by imagining that your reader is 100 years in the future and understands everything much better than you. Look around you. Think of your peers. And ask yourself how hard it is to explain this to them. Then choose a difficulty setting that’s right for you by deciding exactly what you’re going to tell them. Give yourself a proper challenge–one that you can imagine will be fun to meet. Tomorrow you’ll find out if you got the setting right.

Difficulty #3

“Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

Jeffrey “the Dude” Lebowski

Sometimes your reader understands perfectly well what you are trying to say. Nor is the reader’s problem one of believing you after you present them with the evidence you have. No amount of evidence, in these cases, is going to persuade the reader that your claim is true. The reader has already made up their mind on a basis that is independent of the evidence you could provide. Once you make your claim you will not have time to support it. You will have to defend it.

This situation arises often in academic writing and its important not to be afraid of it. You don’t have to get your reader to believe this claim, only to accept it “for the sake of argument”. The paragraph merely has to survive the reader’s objections, so it will be your awareness of these objections that will structure the writing. You can take a hard-line view and simply try to defeat them; that is, you can try to show the reader why their prior beliefs are wrong on this matter. A softer touch involves merely convincing them that their objections to your position are not relevant in the context of your particular argument. A still softer touch is to try to show that, even if they don’t agree with you on this issue, it doesn’t undermine your larger point. The whole point of this kind of paragraph is to invite a reader that disagrees with you into the conversation. A writer who can’t tolerate disagreement isn’t much of a scholar.

Indeed, the difficulty here isn’t overcoming disagreement, but dealing with it. You are trying to position your work in a field of possible truths and you want to be aware of what might be the case, and who might be right, if you are wrong. You want to show that it wouldn’t be the end of the world; indeed, you know what the world would be like if you are. You do this by acknowledging those who take a different view of the facts. Even those who have an entirely different sense of what the facts are. Part of your reading (and therefore part of your theory) should be built out of these alternative perspectives.

But you don’t want to fall into an easy “perspectivism”. To tolerate disagreement is not to let everyone be entitled to their opinion. It requires us, for the moment, to form our own opinion and, therefore, an opinion about who is right and who is wrong about the matter at hand. Much as we admire the Dude, much as it gives us comfort to know he’s out there “taking her easy” for all us scholars, we have to look beyond the strikes and gutters, ups and downs, of the everyday hustle and bustle of our research. We’re not just swept along, from town to town like some tumbleweed in the wind. We have our reasons for believing the things we do, and we know of others who have their reasons for believing the opposite. “Live and let live,” sure. But we also know what we think.

Though we don’t get it right every time we’re not just haphazardly guessing at what it is. We’ve collected and analyzed our data very carefully and it should surprise us if we’re wrong about it. But — and here’s the important point — we are comfortable with that possibility precisely because we know that someone else, in another department (or perhaps our own), in another corner of the academy, knows the truth we missed, holds a different view of the same facts. They will pick up the slack if we are forced to abandon our current position. The truth, too, abides.

Difficulty #2

Before your readers can believe that what you say is true, they must understand what you mean by your words. When reflecting on your key sentence, therefore, ask yourself whether the reader’s main difficulty will one of belief or understanding. (We’ll get to the third difficulty tomorrow.) Then write with the aim of addressing this difficulty head-on. Should you be providing evidence for the claim in your key sentence, for example? Or should you be defining your terms? Is the reader surprised to learn that the practice you are talking about even exists? Or is your reader just curious to know more about it because it is somewhat novel or otherwise exotic? Notice that you cannot begin to resolve these issues without knowing who your reader is. Please begin there. 

The difficulty need not be great, just worth a paragraph of prose to overcome. After reading your key sentence (or before getting to it) the reader should want to spend about minute hearing more. But remember that your reader is already a very knowledgeable person, so when you decide that their difficulty will be to understand what you are saying make sure you don’t talk down to them. Begin with what the reader does understand. Do not try to teach your reader your theory from the ground up. This is academic writing, and you are supposed to assume a great deal of common knowledge. Indeed, you are supposed to respect the learning that your reader has already acquired.

So, if you’re going to tell the reader that “Foucault’s ‘archive’ constitutes a practice that governs the emergence of statements in a discourse,” for example, you have to address yourself to readers that already know this or who would, at least, be embarrassed to admit they don’t. You have to present a claim like this one ostensibly as a reminder that merely announces that you intend to use the concept of the archive to guide your analysis of a discourse. Your readers do not want you to teach them what an archive is, and they’re happy (let’s assume) to believe that Foucault proposed the concept as you say. What they want to know now is why you’ve chosen to characterize it using the words “constitute”, “governs”, and “emergence”. This, after all, is your way paraphrasing Foucault’s definition of “a practice the causes a multiplicity of statements to emerge as so many regular events, as so many things to be dealt with and manipulated,” right? Your focus here will prepare the reader’s mind to follow your analysis. Finally, remember that your reader is not someone who thinks that Foucault is an intellectual impostor .

Or, if you’re going to say that that you set your alpha at .001 using a Bonferroni correction, don’t talk to your reader like a first-year statistics student who needs you to tell them what an “alpha” is or what a Bonferroni correction does. Just tell them what they need to know: how many statistical tests you did and what kind of tests they were. Justify your alpha to someone who knows what they’re doing, someone who can recognize a suitable significance level when they see one. Even a reasonable person sometimes wants to know your reasons for doing things in particular ways, however obvious or reasonable those ways may seem to you. They are ready to believe you did exactly as you did; they just want to understand exactly why so they can decide whether they think that’s was good idea. Here, too, remember that you are not writing for someone who doesn’t think P levels are ever a good idea.

There are times when you will explain a medical procedure to a social scientist or a piece of military hardware to a historian. Here you are, indeed, engaging with the reader’s ignorance and teaching them something they don’t already know. You are not here merely specifying the meaning of your terms, or establishing their application in your analysis. You are actually providing new information to the reader. Sometimes, you’ll have to recognize that the difficulty is epistemic (i.e.,  believing things, i.e., Difficulty #1). The reader may be shocked to know we can cure a particular condition or have built a particular bomb, and you will want to provide some evidence, some reliable source, to regain your reader’s trust on matters of shocking fact. But often the reader just wants to be able to imagine it. Learning how to write well is really learning how to produce a useful image of a fact in your reader’s mind.

None of this is easy. But remember that writing is hard only to ease the reading. Making yourself understood, one paragraph at a time, is a skill worth learning. Don’t be satisfied with getting past your reviewer. Try to get through to your reader.

Difficulty #1

Some things are hard to believe. In school we sometimes mistake them for things that are hard to understand. We are, in a sense, too trusting, too humble; we imagine that the truth of these things is certain and obvious to others and that we’re just not smart enough to “get” them. But there are many truths that you are right not to believe before you are given good evidence. Your apparent difficulty in understanding is actually the dissonance you feel between your respect for your teachers–your assumption that what they are saying is true–and your entirely reasonable doubts about whether the world is really as they say it is. Consider this possibility while you are learning and while you are reading what others write.

And consider this possibility when imagining your reader as you write. Will your reader find what you are saying hard to believe? Is it reasonable for the reader to doubt that what you are saying is true? This does not mean that you have to doubt yourself. You just have to respect the reader’s doubts and the easiest way to do this to recall to yourself the process by which you came to believe what you believe. When the idea first occurred to you (perhaps by being presented to you in someone else’s writing), did you immediately believe it? Or did your belief come only after you discovered (or were shown) a body of evidence to support it? This evidence is what you, too, need to present your readers with if you want to help them overcome their difficulty here. Don’t immediately imagine that they don’t understand it (we’ll get to this difficulty next). Imagine that they just find it a little implausible.

Many things that are worth knowing can only be known after long struggle. This struggle produces the evidence to justify the belief that is a necessary condition for knowing anything. (Leaving aside some philosophical technicalities, you can’t know something you don’t believe.) If we just believed everything we were told, we could avoid this struggle, but we would also not know anything. After all, we are told things that contradict each other. We literally can’t believe everything we are told because we would end up contradicting ourselves. So we do well to maintain a particular standard. We want to see the sources that others have used to arrive their beliefs. Then we make up our minds.

Like I say, to acknowledge that the reader might find what you are saying hard to believe does not require you to be in a particular state of doubt. It does, however, require you to acknowledge that you might be wrong. There are a bunch of facts that you think obtain, but you’ll grant that if they do not this undermines your basis for believing the thing you are trying to convince your reader is true. Those are the facts you present to the reader as evidence for what you are trying to say. If they will grant you those truths they will also grant your main point. That’s how it works.

In your paragraph, then, you articulate your main point in a good, strong key sentence. It should simply declare the belief that you wanted to convey to your reader. Since you know the reader will find it hard to believe you should make it easy to understand. Make it very clear what would be the case if it were true, fully recognizing that the reader, somewhat surprised at the image, won’t immediately grant that it is.  Now, in implicit acknowledgement of the reader’s skepticism, the reader’s difficulty believing you as you imagine this difficulty in your reader’s mind, present a number of facts that are each easier to believe than your main point and together support it. By the end of the paragraph, with these facts properly organized around your main idea, the reader should find it easier to believe.

No argument is perfect, you are just trying to help. You are trying to help the reader overcome the difficulty. Good writing should always make things easier for the reader. Believing, however, is only the first difficulty. Stay tuned for Difficulty #2.

Why Is This So Hard?

I don’t claim that writing well is easy. In fact, much of my work as a coach has to do with getting writers to notice the difficulty of what they are doing. That’s the only way they’ll be able to overcome it. But what is the difficulty that writing implies? What’s so hard about it? I suspect that many students and scholars fail to make progress because they don’t really answer this question. Or they answer it imprecisely. Or they simply get the answer wrong. However hard they struggle, therefore, they gain no ground. They’re fighting an imaginary foe.

I notice this every time I work with a writer who has not followed my very simple rules. These rules are neither hard to understand nor difficult to follow. They merely require you to do some simple things. They do not require that you be a particularly knowledgeable person, nor an especially competent writer. They just require that you write in a particular way about the things you do know.  If you follow them, the writing you produce will show how good a writer you are. It will be an example of how well you write. For reasons that I am only slowly beginning to understand, this prospect horrifies some people.

For most of their lives, I suspect, they have been able to “get around” the difficulty of writing rather than learning to write well. They have not become good at writing; they have found ways of getting their writing done without acquiring the requisite skills. The difficulty remains. So when I give someone an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to write, they feel a brief moment of terror. Their natural approach to a “writing assignment” is to try to conceal their inability to write.  Some people have become rather expert at this art. If you want to become a better writer, I’m afraid you’ll have to unlearn this. First learn to see the difficulty.

That’s why you should decide what to write the day before. The decision should not take you longer than five minutes to make. Just pick one thing you think you know well enough to write a paragraph about. Write it down in a simple declarative sentence and make an appointment with yourself for tomorrow to spend 27 minutes composing a paragraph of at least six sentences and at most 200 words. Notice that the difficulty is not, now, knowing what you’re talking about. You’ve removed this difficulty simply by choosing something you do know something about. Also, once the decision is made, the difficulty isn’t any longer what you should write about. That, too, has been dealt with. The only difficulty that remains is the writing.

Getting started is not hard. If you’re following my rules, you just sit down at the time you decided you would and begin typing. You type the sentence you wrote the day before. You then look at the sentence and try to feel again like you felt yesterday. “I know this!” Now … what’s the difficulty? Well, first of all, remember it’s not really your difficulty. The sentence is true and you already know this. The real difficulty can only be appreciated by thinking about what your reader will feel when seeing this sentence.

Will your reader find it hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with? Your problem, which you have 27 minutes to solve in the space of a paragraph, is to make the reader believe, understand or agree with your claim. You already do all these things, so there’s no difficulty in your own mind. But your reader will need you to provide evidence, or explain your terms, or tackle their objections. Writing well means helping your reader deal with the difficulty of believing or understanding or assenting to your claims. You are trying to give your reader the advantage you have on the claim in question.

Next week, I will look at the three difficulties one at a time, and try to say something entirely useful about how to face them. Throughout, however, I will assume that they pose no difficulties for you: you believe what you say, you understand your words, and you agree with yourself. That’s not the hard part. The hard part is the writing.