Monthly Archives: May 2018


One way to find out whether someone can read is to give them a text they haven’t seen before and ask them to read it out loud. Depending on the difficulty of the text and the quality of the performance, we can also get a good sense of their reading level. Does the reader recognize the words? Do they read with an intonation that suggests understanding? This will give us insight into their grammar and vocabulary. And this is all very useful to a teacher who is trying to help them improve.

I call it a “performance” and I wonder if something similar is possible with writing ability. Can a teacher ask someone to perform their ability to write — “live”, as it were?  Now, I don’t just mean typing, of course. I mean the act of putting one’s thoughts down on paper. Is that something that a writer — someone who claims to be able to write — should be able to perform in “real time”, in front of a teacher. Should we be able to do this in front of a larger audience even? Consider, for example, the student in a music class who is asked by the teacher to play something while everyone else listens. Is writing something we can watch people do well or less well before our very eyes, or is skill here mainly something that is apparent in the finished product — in “polished prose”?

Does watching me write this paragraph, for example, reveal with any greater clarity how good a writer I am? Could our opinion of a writer change on the basis of first-hand observation of the word-for-word, letter-for-letter, process by which their text was made? Obviously, the video only captures a part of the writing process. Many writers engage in a great deal of revision before they are satisfied with their work. Perhaps we could look at that process too? Indeed, when we see an marked-up manuscript by a famous writer, we imagine that the draft was produced in a sort of flow, right? We think that it was somehow “given” to the author and that the editorial decisions revealed by the red or blue pencil are where the distinct quality of the text was produced. And yet, surely, the video version of this paragraph is not uninformative about how my post was written?

Does it prove more convincingly that I can write? Does is undermine any part of the illusion I’ve otherwise created, here and elsewhere, that I am able to commit my thoughts to the page? Does the difference between what the video shows and what the “printed” paragraph below says reveal my insincerity, my vanity, even my incompetence? Of course not. We know full well that our favorite musicians produce the recordings we love through many takes and, often, splices. And yet, if we could not sit them down in front of the piano and hear them bring off a plausible performance of their music, we’d be a little disappointed. Most importantly, again, from the point view of their teachers, too great a difference between what  our students can do in front of us and what they finally hand in makes it impossible to know what to tell them if they want to improve. The part of the process that makes their text as good as it is is shrouded in too much mystery.

Anyway…this post isn’t a finished thought. Just an experiment. I have a hunch that we need to work more directly with the activity of writing. Writing is essentially a matter of covering your tracks and that’s what makes it so hard to teach. Good writing, by its very nature, conceals the difficulty of producing it. And yet I think we should try looking at our students while they write. We should see what they actually do. But let me stress I don’t mean some sort of video capture experiment for the purpose of doing research in writing pedagogy. I don’t mean we need to learn something in general about how students actually write. (I can imagine.) I mean we need to look at particular students as they write and suggest particular improvements to the way they do it. Therein, perhaps, we’ll get access to their style.

Prose Like A Window Pane

And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

(Paul Simon, “Graceland”)

I was surprised to see Julia take the implication of Orwell’s trope to be that language can (and should) “capture reality”. Many years ago, on my other blog, I wrote a post about “Politics and the English Language”, in which I drew attention to this passage:

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails.

In that post, I was trying to remind us that Orwell did actually care about what the reader thinks. But the much more important thing in this passage is the role that imagination plays. When Orwell suggests that our prose should be like a window pane, he’s not suggesting that it should capture reality. He’s not saying that your writing should give the reader a clear view of the the world or the facts that constitute it. He is saying that it should present clearly what you have in mind. Language can’t be asked to “capture reality” but it can be tasked with expressing thought. Indeed, Orwell (unlike Bertrand Russell and the early Wittgenstein) isn’t even going to limit us to using language to express thought or describing facts. He’s happy to let you begin with “pictures and sensations”.

This is very important in my approach to academic writing. I do sometimes say, often invoking Wittgenstein, that a paragraph is “a picture of the facts”. But it’s not a picture of the facts themselves. It’s not so much a photograph as a drawing. It’s a picture of the facts as you imagine them, a representation, in words, of your image of the facts. When writing, you are trying to evoke the same image in the mind of the reader as you have in your own. Your prose should be like a window in your mind.

Paragraphs and References

Scholarship consists of paragraphs with references. Scholars compose their thinking in statements that require several sentences of support, elaboration or defense and they cite their sources according to the conventions of their discipline. Different disciplines have different styles, which determine how long paragraphs normally are and what a reference normally looks like. Most scholars in the social sciences do well to learn to write paragraphs of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words (Basbøll, n.d.) that cite their sources using an author-date system like that of the American Psychological Association (VandenBos, 2010). To write in this way is to play into your reader’s expectations and provides you with an efficient way to communicate your meaning. Conventions are not wholly arbitrary, but part of their utility does come simply from their familiarity. The reader simply has an easier time understanding you if you manage both your textuality and your intertextuality in recognizable ways.


Basbøll, T. (n.d.) The Paragraph. Retrieved from

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed). (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Scholarship is the enemy of romance

“Scientists and scholars are not writing to delight or even to persuade,” I tweeted in reaction to Anna Clemens’s post about how to write a scientific paper as a story. “They are writing to open their ideas to the criticism of their peers.” Now, I grant that storytelling plays a role in the social sciences (Andrew Gelman and I have written a paper about this) but I worry that good stories are coming to be valued above good arguments. Anna was kind enough to respond. “When you follow the story structure,” she suggested, “it makes it easier to spot weak arguments.” There’s some truth to this, but I think we need to be careful.

Anna is right about the power stories have over human cognition. In fact, that’s exactly why I’m suspicious of storytelling as a means of conveying scientific ideas. The history of science is a history of checking our biases with logic and reason, as Francis Bacon famously suggested in his account of the “idols” of the mind. “The Idols of the Tribe have their origin in the production of false concepts due to human nature,” the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us, “because the structure of human understanding is like a crooked mirror, which causes distorted reflections.” Let’s put this alongside Anna’s celebration of human storytelling:

Why are stories so powerful? To answer this, we have to go back at least 100,000 years. This is when humans started to speak. For the following roughly 94,000 years, we could only use spoken words to communicate. Stories helped us survive, so our brains evolved to love them.

Paul Zak of the Claremont Graduate University in California researches what stories do to our brain. He found that once hooked by a story, our brain releases oxytocin. The hormone affects our mood and social behaviour. You could say stories are a shortcut to our emotions.

There’s more to it; stories also help us remember facts. Gordon Bower and Michal Clark from Stanford University in California let two groups of subjects remember random nouns. One group was instructed to create a narrative with the words, the other to rehearse them one by one. People in the story group recalled the nouns correctly about six to seven times more often than the other group.

Stories, it turns out, are the very medium through which the idols of the mind are propagated! Why would we encourage scientists to present their ideas in ways that key into 100,000 years of conditioned responses, hormonal stimulation, and emotional shortcuts? The Idols of the Market Place, the Stanford Encyclopedia again tells us,

are based on false conceptions which are derived from public human communication. They enter our minds quietly by a combination of words and names, so that it comes to pass that not only does reason govern words, but words react on our understanding.

And yet Anna would have us exploit precisely this weakness for narrative to implant ideas in our readers’ minds from which they will have a harder time freeing their memory.

I’m trying to present my concern as starkly as possible. It seems to me that a paper that has been written to mimic the most compelling features of Hollywood blockbusters (which Anna explicitly invokes) are also, perhaps unintentionally, written to avoid critical engagement. Indeed, when Anna talks about “characters” she does not mention the reader as a character in the story, even though the essential “drama” of any scientific paper stems from the conversation that reader and writer are implicitly engaged in. The writer is not simply trying to implant an idea in the mind of the reader. In a research paper, we are often challenging ideas already held and, crucially, opening our own thinking to those ideas and the criticism they might engender.

I have no doubt that, working as an editor, Anna is able to impose better structure and clarity on a paper she’s been given to edit by using her storytelling heuristic. I have no doubt that writers can improve a first draft by thinking along the lines she suggests. I will even grant that this might sometimes make the argument clearer and therefore its weaknesses more apparent to a trained eye. But I will insist that it is much more efficient to think of your paper as a series of claims that are supported, elaborated or defended according to the difficulty a knowledgeable reader will presumably experience when faced with them.

Anna promises that storytelling can produce papers that are “concise, compelling, and easy to understand”. But I’m not sure that a scientific paper should actually be compelling. I agree with Ezra Zuckerman that the null should be compelling, but that’s not the same thing. A scientific paper should be vulnerable to criticism; it should give its secrets away freely, unabashedly. And the best way to do that is, not to organize it with the aim of releasing oxytocin in the mind of the reader, but by clearly identifying your premises and your conclusions and the logic that connects them. You are not trying to bring your reader to a narrative climax. You are trying to be upfront about where your argument will collapse under the weight of whatever evidence the reader may bring to the conversation. Science, after all, is not so much about what Coleridge called “the suspension of disbelief” as what Merton called “organised skepticism”. Or, as Billy Bragg astutely noted many years ago, scholarship is the enemy of romance.


This post was edited was on May 31, 2018 and retitled.

Assume Authority

“The author assumes authority to propose a readily available course of study, indicated in a set of drawings by the author, together with directions, explanations and comment based upon his observation and experience.” (Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands)

Oliver Senior’s How to Draw Hands is one of my favorite books. It has long been my hope to write a book about writing that is as clear and confident. “This is an instruction book,” he begins, and it sets the tone throughout.

It is grounded in two important assumptions that I’ve tried to adhere to also in my own work as a writing instructor and writer about writing. The first is the one quoted above: Senior assumes that his reader believes that he, Senior, knows what he’s doing when it comes to drawing hands and that the reader will therefore follow his instructions. That’s the essence of an instruction book, of course. If the writer assumed the reader was only going to the read the book for pleasure and not as a guide to action it would be written very differently.

Second, Senior believes that he is “entitled to assume that you are never at a loss for an authentic model to study; that, even when drawing, you have a hand to spare to serve in that capacity as faithfully as you choose.” In the same way, I assume that people who attend my workshops or read my posts are coming to me for “instruction”, i.e., for advice about what they can do to become better writers. I also assume that they have something on their minds — more specifically, that they know something — that can serve as a “model to study”. I’m trying to teach them how to write down what they know.

I presume to know how to do this myself. Just as Oliver Senior demonstrates his mastery in the art of drawing hands (there are very instructive pictures), and therefore the authority to propose exercises for the reader, I presume to know how to present things I know in such a way that other people, who are also knowledgeable on the subject, can correct me if I’m wrong. Of course, in both cases, we’re trying to bring our readers into that mastery too. One day, I hope, my readers will instruct their students in how to write, and use their writing effectively to open themselves to criticism. But it’s important to remember that I’m bound to my assumptions. I assume, always, that my reader thinks I know what I’m doing. And I assume also that my reader knows something worth writing about. If I can’t take this for granted, the task simply becomes too difficult.

In the closing pages of his book, Senior emphasizes three important things. The first is that the “style” or “manner” of drawing is highly personal and not something he says a great deal about. His instructions are mainly to look at your hand and draw, emphasizing different features in different exercises. But how you make your lines is up to you; you’ll find your own way of doing it and that way is more right than anything he might tell you. You have to find out how to make your hands do the work. This definitely goes for writing paragraphs. I can tell you to try to support, elaborate or defend a key sentence you know to be true, but exactly how your sentences will do this is very much up to you, as is how you spend the moment at the machine working. Senior actually makes the comparison to writing himself. As with writing, so with drawing, he says, “style makes the man”.

He also de-emphasizes materials — the sort of paper and pencils you work with. Try all sorts of different things, he says, in pursuit of a wide variety of effects. Even the materials you don’t ultimately like will teach you something about how to use the ones you do. That’s also true of writing, where, as long as you confine yourself to things you know, you can make use of all kind of materials to make your case. I won’t even mention the question of whether you should be typing on a computer or writing by hand. Whatever works for you is fine.

Finally, Senior and I both agree that you’ll learn nothing that we’re trying to teach you if you don’t practice. You have to follow our instructions, again and again and again. Eventually, we hope, you’ll write without them. We’re only trying to show you how you might get better. We assume a few things, to be sure, but I hope we’re not being presumptuous.