Monthly Archives: September 2017

Rule #11

(Because, yes, my rules go to eleven. Don’t yours?)

Do not render any absolute judgment on your paragraphs. At most once a week, simply rank them from best to worst.

In the moment, while writing, simply do your best. Do your best, given the difficulty of the subject and the state of your game. Don’t try to be a better writer than you are capable of being, but do try to be the best writer you can be today. Since you are in fact writing, it is nonsense to say you can’t write. It’s also nonsense to say you can’t write well. (“The cat is on the mat,” is a perfectly well-written sentence. Don’t tell me you are incapable of composing it or any number of sentences like it.) What you are experiencing is a particular difficulty in writing about some particular thing. Face it squarely. Bring your ability to write to bear on it. Don’t indulge your feeling of incompetence.

When the 27 minutes are up, take your three-minute break. Do not read over what you have done. Put it behind you and move on to the next paragraph or the next thing on your list of things to do. Don’t even ask yourself whether what you have done is any good. Why think your judgment now will be any better than your writing just was? (How often have you reread something you thought was brilliant a few days later, only to discover it is rambling nonsense? How often have you been pleasantly surprised by the result of what, at the time, seemed like a futile struggle to be precise?) Your feelings about what sort of quality you produced is biased by your immediate subjective experience–by how you felt today, by how hard it seemed–and you don’t have time to be objective about it any longer. Forget about this paragraph. You did the best you could. The paragraph will not improve because you are thinking about it. It will improve the next time you write it. And before you get back to this one you’ve got other paragraphs to write.

At most once week, take some time to read over what you have done. Gather up ten or twenty paragraphs and read them, one minute at a time. Don’t read them out loud this time, just read like you would ordinarily read the work of someone else. Give the first paragraph a score of 50. Not a score out of 50. Just give it 50 points for being what it is. After reading the next paragraph (taking no more than a minute, remember) give it a score relative to that. Keep going for the 15 or 20 twenty minutes it takes to read your paragraphs. You’ve now got a sample of your work rated from best to worst. Spend another 30 minutes or so thinking about what it was that made some of the paragraphs better than the others. What caused you to give them more points than the first one? What caused you to give them less? What are you doing right? What mistakes do you seem to keep making?

Other than typos and minor corrections, do not get bogged down in editing your text. You are trying to experience your own standards. The only way to actually live up to those standards is to do the work in a properly planned writing moment. Contrary to myth, good writing is not produced by editing. It is produced by rewriting. The difference is important.

During the eight weeks you are training, don’t try to decide whether any particular paragraph is “good” or “bad”. It is always merely and inexorably an example of something you can do better. Bad writing is not something you avoid, it’s something you try not to do. Your writing isn’t bad when you’re not doing it. It’s not lying there on your hard drive being bad. If you want good writing go and do some. Don’t try to “fix” some piece of poor writing from the past.

[Click here for all 11 Rules.]

A Parlor

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (Kenneth Burke)

This is an oft-invoked image of the academic conversation. It is often invoked as a metaphor for understanding academic writing. But how often do we actually, literally experience it at university?

Lectures and seminars and conferences have stopped offering us opportunities for parlor talk of this kind. Instead, people are allotted so many minutes to present their views, and a generally passive audience is then given time for a “Q&A”, moderated to the point that nothing but polite questions, familiar obsequities, and witty barbs can get through. Is there a way of fostering an actual conversation?

I think I may just have hit on something. I present it here for your careful consideration and considered critique.

Imagine a research group or university class that meets once a week. The meeting lasts two hours and has between 10 and 20 participants, most of which are regulars. There are no one-time guests. New members are invited to join the group and attend as often as they like thereafter. Only breaking the rules of decorum can get you thrown out, always at the sole discretion of the moderator, which is  a function that is taken in turn by each member of the group.

The first hour is devoted to “opening statements”. Each participant is given an equal share of the hour. If there are 20 participants, each speaks for three minutes in an order that is determined randomly every week, with newcomers always speaking last. The important thing is this: they may speak either on a topic of their own choosing or in response to something previously said by someone else. They may respond to a preceding opening statement or to something that was said in a previous meeting. Their speech is entirely free. They can small talk about the weather or present an important new research result.

The important constraint is this: if they respond to someone else, that person will have an exactly equal amount of time to respond in the second hour. If they simply have a question, they can state it, and yield their time to the respondent, who may choose to answer right then, or accumulate the minutes for later.

It will be immediately understood that the second half of the meeting may simply not happen. If every opening statement is sui generis it will generate no response time. The meeting will be adjourned after, say, 20 three-minute or 12 five-minute opening statements. Participants will now have a week to prepare for a more, let’s say, “engaging” conversation next week.

At the other other extreme, suppose the first opening statement attracted responses from every other participant. Suppose there are 12 participants. This would allot 55 minutes to the first speaker to develop what was, apparently a very interesting line of thought. In the middle range, the second hour might end up as dialogue between two or three people. In so far as they do keep going back and forth,  given the rules, they will give each other as much time to respond as they take to speak. The conversation ends when the last person on the speaker list disdains to continue, perhaps using the time to make a general closing statement that is not a response to any particular participant. Or when the hour runs out, of course.

Notice that there is no agenda for this meeting and the moderator’s only job is to keep time and to allot response time as needed. There are no “rules of order”, except the expedient of yielding one’s time and the option for immediate response. The conversation would proceed from week to week in a completely organic way.

Notice that it would be possible to actually teach a whole class for a whole semester this way. The teacher might have three minutes (in a class of 19 students) to get the students’ attention (already fixed somewhat by the pressure of the exam, of course). The students now have the option of saying something themselves, giving time to the teacher (either by asking and yielding or by using three minutes to critique the teacher’s point), or to engage with a classmate who would get time to respond.

At first pass, this seems like an excellent idea. Something definitely worth trying. But I feel like I might be missing some obvious reason that this could never work. Have at it!

Rule #10

Do not write more than six paragraphs per day. That is, do not write for more than three hours each day.

This rule should govern not just your practice but your planning. The point is not simply that you shouldn’t write for more than three hours a day. Since you should not write when you haven’t planned to, you should also not plan to write more than three hours a day. I recommend planning between one and six 27-minute writing moments in a continuous series, separated by three-minute breaks.

It is very rare that the seventh paragraph will be satisfying to write. It also usually difficult to think of more than six discrete truths to write about the day before. This is not a physical limit on what you can do in a day. Most of us have the experience of writing five or six or more hours and producing 2000 words or more in a day. This rule is restricting you to work in an orderly, comfortable manner. Working in this way will have positive effects on your style. And it will also be more enjoyable than trying to power through a whole a day of writing. If you start at 8:00 or 9:00 you can be done comfortably before lunch. Relax, enjoy the success, and get on with the other things in your day that need doing.

People rarely think of the cost of writing. When you are writing you are spending time that could be spent doing something else. For the first three hours, you can be pretty sure that it’s a good investment. The prose you are producing will, with reasonable certainty, make a contribution to reaching your overall writing goals. After that, you are probably producing prose that you’re likely to discard or completely rework.

More importantly, after three hours of writing, the act of writing itself is not making your prose stronger. It’s not improving your style. On the contrary, it is during this time that you are getting worn out and building your animosity to the craft of writing. This is when writing becomes a chore, even if you feel like you’re “in a flow”. It’s often an illusion and you’ll regret falling for it later. Don’t push yourself beyond the limit where writing is both enjoyable and deliberate. Don’t do so much that you lose track of what you are actually doing. Don’t get caught up in it.

Hemingway used to advise writers to stop when they “had some juice left”. He meant that they should stop at a point where they know how the story would continue, not when they had run completely out of ideas. That way it’s easy to start up again the next day. My tenth rule is also intended to conserve your “juice”, albeit in a slightly different sense. Don’t use yourself up in one day so that you can’t work at all then next. Working an extra hour today can cost you the ability to work several hours the next day.

Finally, like the 200 word limit per paragraph, remember that 6 paragraphs per day is also maximum. There is absolutely no shame in writing “only” two, three or four paragraphs on most days. Slow and steady wins the race. Don’t try to get anything done in a whole day of writing. Teach yourself to make use of half days for writing. You won’t regret having that ability.

[Click here for all the Rules.]


Kuhn’s Two Dozen

A revolution is for me a special sort of change involving a certain sort of reconstruction of group commitments. But it need not be a large change, nor need it seem revolutionary to those outside a single community, consisting of perhaps fewer than twenty-five people. (Thomas Kuhn, 1970, Postscript to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about recently. Whatever paper you’re working on at the moment, can you name a dozen or two people who will find what you’re saying easy to understand? That is, are you aware of a concrete community around your research, consisting of people who are engaged in “normal” science and whose names you know. Do you feel a structure of group commitments that connects you to them? At the extremes, can you imagine a “reconstruction” of those commitments that might be considered “revolutionary”.  Within the two dozen members of this peer group, can you imagine people who might vehemently oppose your contribution? Or can you just imagine a handful of people who might easily understand what you’re trying to say but be mildly skeptical about whether it is correct? It is my advice to make a list of these names for each paper you are writing. Think of them as representatives of your readers. In your writing, address yourself to them.

I stress that the list will be particular to each paper you are writing. You might write all your papers with more or less the same readers in mind, in which case there will be little difference between the lists. But it is perfectly reasonable to have several peer groups, some of which have few members in common. I am not trying to help you manage your research relationships; I am only trying to help you imagine your reader.

I think too many academics these days are writing for a far too vaguely defined reader. They have let their editors and peer reviewers get too squarely between them and their final reader. They think writing well is mainly a matter of getting “past” the gatekeepers, not “through” to their community. This exercise of imagining the actual, living people whose feedback you are interested in, or whose minds you want to change, is intended to make the problem more present, more concrete. You can write a “normal” puzzle-solving paper that makes a limited but useful contribution to the development of your peers’ research. Or you can try to publish an “anomalous” result, another nail in the coffin of an always-already dying paradigm, due for a revolutionary change at some time or other. In both cases, you are addressing yourself to the same reader, who, no matter how shocking your results, will find your models and concepts familiar. At least familiar enough to recognize the commitments that identify you, the author, as a member of the group, the same scientific community.

See also: “Interdisciplinarity (Part 1)” and “Interdisciplinarity (Part 2)”

Rule #9

Read your paragraph out loud sometime in the last five minutes of each 27-minute writing moment.

A paragraph is a one-minute reading experience. The experience consists in having up to 200 hundreds words pass through the reader’s consciousness in an order determined by the writer. The “good” writer is simply the one who chooses those words well. And “well” here simply means that the words, in the order presented, are apt to convey the thought the writer intends. After the minute is up, the reader must know what the writer is trying to tell them, and should have been moved some way in the direction of believing it, understanding it, or, at least, considering the arguments for it.

This effect of the reading should take primacy. It should come before any judgment about the quality of the writing. Even a positive of judgment about the writer’s “engaging style” should come only after the meaning of the paragraph has been properly grasped. Academic writers are not trying to impress each other with their literary talents; they are trying to put ideas before each other’s careful consideration. The style of the writing, whether that be its masterful turns of phrase or its hapless fumbles with grammar, should not draw more attention to itself than the ideas that are being presented.

One very good way to test whether your paragraph meets this criterion is to read the paragraph out loud. It should not take more than two minutes (because reading out loud can be a bit slower than reading silently) and the words should come trippingly on the tongue, as the great bard said. (He did not mean that the tongue should trip over the words.) When reading out loud, you are likely to spot missing words and notice clumsy phrasings. It should be easy to read the paragraph, taking a quick breath at every period. It should be obvious where to pause and what words to emphasize. With time, reading your own paragraphs out loud should be one of life’s small pleasures, something you look forward to after writing for 22 minutes.

If the idea of reading your own prose out loud is abhorrent to you, think of what you are putting your reader through. Writers who will not read their works out loud, even to themselves, are like cooks who will not eat their own food. If you want your writing to improve you must experience how it sounds.

[Click here for all the Rules]