Monthly Archives: August 2019

A Bigger Iceberg (4)

I normally imagine an ordinary empirical research paper in the social sciences as an arrangement of about 40 paragraphs. The first three serve as the introduction. There are then five paragraphs in each of the background, theory and methods sections, followed by a fifteen-paragraph analysis (preferably divided into about three themes), and a five-paragraph discussion section. The remaining two paragraphs go into the conclusion. That’s the order they appear in the paper and, ideally (though often not really), the order in which they are read. We might call it their “narrative” or “rhetorical” order. Each paragraph occupies about one minute of the reader’s attention, after which the reader, again ideally, moves on to the next. It should take about forty minutes altogether to read the paper.

But what about the logical order of these paragraphs? And what about their epistemological foundations? Here it will be useful to arrange them somewhat differently and, as my title suggests, Hemingway’s conception of the “dignity” of our writing will be useful too: “The dignity of the movement of an iceberg is due to only one eighth of it being above water.” Now, the entire paper is, of course, “above water” and, in my last three posts, I’ve tried to convince you that there needs to be a solid mass of experience, reason, and reading below the surface to bear it up. But suppose we cut the forty paragraphs of your paper off at the waterline and pushed it into the sea to fend (float) for itself. By Hemingway’s math, 5 would now float on top and the rest (35) would sink out of view beneath the waves. Which five would we see?

I think the obvious answer here is the introduction and the conclusion. In fact, they would float in the opposite order, with the conclusion at the top and and the introduction below it. In fact … I’d expect the key sentence of paragraph 39 (the first paragraph of the conclusion) to outmaneuver paragraph 40 for the top of the tip of the iceberg, planting a flag there with your thesis statement emblazoned upon it. Under paragraph 40, you have paragraphs 1 and 2. And under paragraph 39 you have have paragraph three (which contains your thesis statement but does not state it.) If we were now to dive down and explore beneath the surface of we’d find paragraphs 4 through 8 (the background section) bearing up paragraph 1 and paragraphs 9 through 13 (theory) bearing up paragraph 2. Under paragraph 3 things are bit more complicated because of all the work it does in the introduction: paragraphs 14 through 18 (method) bearing up a part of it, 19 through 33 (analysis), another part, and 34 through 38 (discussion) the rest. Many teachers and reviewers will tell you that the quality of the introduction and conclusion of a paper predicts the quality of the rest. This is because the dignity of the movement of your prose in those five paragraphs depends on the existence of the rest of the paper. You don’t want your iceberg to be a mere inflatable beach toy, a mere surface full of air. What you see above the water should indicate a much greater, much more dignified mass below. Something solid.

Like I say, I’m working on some illustrations for this conception of a paper, and I hope to have them finished at a reasonable quality by mid-September. But I’m happy to hear what you think of the idea as expressed in words. I’m also interested to see how you visualize it.

A Bigger Iceberg (3)

If you want to do science you’re going to need theory and method, and you’ll have to write about them. Here, too, Hemingway’s ratio holds. The theory section will not exhaust your theoretical understanding, and the methods section will not be able to explain everything you did to collect your data. Below the surface of your text lies all the reading of the literature in your field that you’ve done, and all the care you took in selecting, sampling, observing, recording, transcribing, coding and so on. You could write a whole book on the theories that frame your research (thankfully that’s usually already been done for you). You could talk for days about your fieldwork or experiments or surveys. The dignity of the movement of your writing depends on all the things you could say but don’t, all the questions you are able to answer if someone should ask.

Think of theorizing as a particular kind of reading. It’s not just reading, of course; it takes a lot of thinking too, but much of this thinking can be understood as a way of engaging with what other people have written. You can’t tell the reader about everything you’ve read, and there should be a reserve underneath the surface of the text. You should have a much wider knowledge of the discourse than you make explicit in your theory section. What’s important is to approach your theory as a shared framework for thinking about your research. Your reader is as theoretically sophisticated as you are; their mind has been formed by the same discipline that yours has been shaped by. You review the literature, not so that you can spare your reader the trouble of reading it, but learn how your reader thinks. The theory section is mainly a reminder to the reader of what the theory should lead us to expect of the analysis. It activates the reader’s theoretical dispositions.

This makes it very different from your background section, which is intended to inform the reader about things the reader may not be aware of. The sources you use in your background section will therefore not be as familiar to the reader as those you use in your theory section. The background is provided by newspaper coverage, popular histories, non-fiction books, company reports, official statistics and so forth. You are telling the reader something that you are entitled to presume the reader doesn’t know. You will be explaining it in those terms, in a particular, helpful tone of voice. But again you will not be able to tell them everything there is know about the subject. Think about the sorts of questions a reasonable, curious reader might have and make sure you’d be able to answer them from the depth of your knowledge. There should be many more details under the surface than you make explicit in your text.

Your methods section explains how you gathered your data. It is important to keep in mind that your basis for writing it is your own experience, i.e., what you actually did to collect your data. This part of the iceberg is actually very similar to the little anecdote we began with. The tip is just your honest narration of a number of things you did. Of course, it is framed by the methodological literature as well, and it also requires you to reflect seriously about sources of error and ethical issues, but the substance of your methods lies in your own personal research experience, “the sequence of motion and fact,” we might say, cribbing from Hemingway, that produced the data and which might ensure its validity going forward. Need I say that you will have done much more in this regard than you can say? The tip of the methodological iceberg is just a simple story, but underneath it are all the questions you can answer about how and why you did the things you did.

Finally, we have that special class of experience we call “data”, “the given”. These are the brute facts that you can take for granted in your analysis and interpretation of your research objects. The reader has been induced by your methods section to trust that this is how the people in your sample answered the surveys, or this what they said during the interviews, or this is how they behaved during your field visits. Or the reader trusts that the data has been collected responsibility from a publicly available database and organized properly for analysis. The data that is available to you for analysis should far exceed the data points you present in the analysis section of the paper. You will present summaries of your data, not the raw data itself. But the raw data should, of course, exist. Indeed, these days you are likely to receive an email from a critic who’d like to examine it. So make sure it’s there. Your dignity depends on it.

By distinguishing the reading you share with the reader (theory) from the reading you don’t (background), and the experience that is yours alone (method) from the shareable product of that experience (data), you get a good sense of what the iceberg of your text looks like under the surface. In my next post I’ll try to bring it all together into a coherent image of a whole research paper.

A Bigger Iceberg (2)

“In writing for a newspaper you told what happened aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if your stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to try to get it.” (Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, 1932, p. 10)

The ideal Hemingway story (perhaps simply the ideal story?) needs neither an explicit frame nor an explicit point. The story is just a “sequence of motion and fact” for which both the context and the consequences are obvious. The reader will understand what is happening because you are using ordinary words to refer to ordinary uses of ordinary things. Your reader will understand why you are telling the story because it involves a familiar predicament, with familiar moral stakes. It is our shared humanity that will imbue it with meaning.

This does, to be sure, make some assumptions about the reader, and in academic writing those assumptions often need to be made explicit. We can see how this works by imagining a somewhat bigger iceberg than the one I proposed in my last post. Instead of letting it be borne up only by your experiences, consider letting both your reading and your reasoning contribute to its mass. Scholars do a lot of reading; they normally stay abreast of current events and are also often interested in culture and literature. Being naturally reflective people, they also do a lot of thinking about the world around them, they ponder the state of the times, and worry about about the future. All of this shapes their interpretation of their experiences of the world. And this also shapes how they understand each other’s stories.

If we suppose your original anecdote consisted of 5-600 words we can think of it as the body of a five-paragraph essay. It can be organized into three moments or episodes (a beginning, a middle, an end), each presented in a single paragraph of at least six sentences and at most 200 words. Now add an introductory paragraph that frames your story with something you’ve read in the news or in a work of fiction and a concluding paragraph that sharpens its point in the bright light of reason (or the warm glow of common sense). If you want to follow the five-paragraph essay form strictly, make sure you state the point already in the first paragraph (after framing it) and invoke the frame again in the last paragraph (after making the point). You end up with two (nested) three-part structures: frame, story (beginning, middle, end), point.

Altogether you should have no more than 1000 words now. But, as before, you should be sure that you could say 7000 more if you need to. Your introductory paragraph about what you’ve read will be no more than 200 words, but there must be over a thousands words you could say about the same literature. The 200-word paragraph that states the moral of the tale will draw on lines of reasoning that could fill an essay of its own. It is this unsaid component of your story that gives it its depth, its dignity.

Our iceberg has gotten little more complex, but we’re still in the familiar territory of classical storytelling and scholarship. We might say we’re still considering the sort of writing (stories, essays) that can be found in the liberal arts. Our experience-based anecdote has been enriched with erudition and reflection, but all we have really done is to make explicit what was implicit in the story. Our iceberg has three layers, all of which have a component above and a component below the surface. (I’m working on some illustrations, but I encourage you to draw these icebergs as we go along.) In my next post I’ll suggest two additional layers, both of which come from splitting a layer we already have. Here our text will find another kind of dignity, another kind of authority. We will find out what it means to write a scientific paper.

A Bigger Iceberg (1)

(with apologies to David Hockney)

Let’s start small. Think of something that has happened to you recently. Think of an everyday occurrence with you at its center. It will be useful to approach it as an “experience” — a sequence of actions and events that affected you in some way. It happened to you, after all, so it can’t have left you completely unchanged. You may have helped someone or someone may have helped you; or you may have gained or lost something of a more material kind. Hopefully, you learned something in any case, of course.

Try to think of an experience that now exists mainly in your memory, not in some outward record or document of the process. If it had a product, that’s fine; you may have built something with your own hands or cut something down or bought something or sold it. But I just want it to be something small enough that there’s isn’t really anything to prove it happened other than your recollection of it.

Now imagine yourself telling the story — a story in which you are the protagonist. First, notice that I’ve set this up so that you are the ideal narrator; in fact, you’re the only true authority on what happened. Even if other people were involved, they are not witnesses to the whole event, and certainly not to your experience of it; they just played their little part in it. Because it is your experience, you alone are “authorized” to tell us what happened, how it felt to you.

This is a crucial component of what we mean by “author” since if you say something that someone else (or some document) can disprove then your credibility takes a hit. You’ve gone beyond your authority. Keep this in mind when choosing the episode you want to use in this exercise. By a similar token, don’t make it something so personal you can only talk about it with difficulty. All we need is a true story. An anecdote. It doesn’t have to be profound or even entertaining. It just has to have happened and have a reasonable amount of detail. It should take about five minutes to tell the story.

“The dignity of the movement of an iceberg,” said Hemingway, “is due to only one eighth of it being above water.” The words we write are only the tip of the iceberg of our experience. The simplest case, I want to argue, is the situation I’ve asked you to imagine. Your goal is to produce a sequence of words, one word after the other, let’s say around 500 in all, that get their “dignity” from your experience. “A writer’s problem does not change,” said Hemingway:

He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it and seems actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I’ve worked at it very hard.

In Death in the Afternoon, he gives us a clearer sense of the problem:

…the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what your were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced.

This is the difficulty I’m proposing that you face. But I want you to leave that even greater difficulty — of knowing what you really feel — on the side. I want you to pick something where that isn’t hard for you to decide. Pick an easy case and then take on the difficulty of putting down “the actual things” that made the experience what it was.

This is only a beginning. Next time, we’ll try something harder, something bigger. For now, I’m asking you write a tidy little anecdote that is borne up by a perfectly ordinary experience. Write a few hundred words, but leave a few thousand under the surface to give your writing dignity — to give them inertia when someone tries to push on them. These are the thousands of words you could say in elaboration if anyone asks, but that you have chosen to leave out in your first statement of the story. What remains should still make sense. The story doesn’t need you to say all those other things. It’s just that you could say them. They constitute a reserve strength, a kind of depth. Remember that what Hemingway says of icebergs is no less true of ice cubes. Even the smallest story has seven times more under the surface than what it says.

“Everything That Is Weak in Me”

Everyone who has ever become good at something has had a healthy contempt for mediocrity. But a moment’s reflection will remind us that we are all mediocre (at best) in some ways, indeed, in most ways. We don’t actually expect everyone to pursue greatness in all things. We don’t even expect them to always do their best. Sometimes we see someone “dialing it in” and we’re sympathetic, we understand their attitude. Sometimes we, too, don’t give our full attention to a task. And in more areas of life than not, even when we’re doing our very best, we aren’t doing better than the average person.

When thinking about your writing, remember that this range of commitment and competence also applies. How well you are writing on a given day doesn’t tell us anything about how good a person you are. Whether or not you are a “writer”, let alone a “good” or “great” one, is not revealed in any particular experience. You can only know this by looking at the work you’ve done over a very long period of time. Being a writer isn’t an act. It’s a habit.

This is something that Eric Hayot writes compellingly about in his book The Elements of Academic Writing. I agree with the substance of his approach but there’s something about his attitude that sits uneasily with me. I like his practice but, as I said in my last post, I’m not sure about his theory. He suggests writing every day, which is simply great advice. I’m less sure that you should sit down every day in front of your machine and try to be “great”. I don’t think you should write with any anxiety about your mediocrity.

“Do not worry,” Hemingway says. “You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Eric disagrees:

Writing as though you already know what you have to say hinders it as a medium for research and discovery; it blocks the possibilities — the openings — that appear at the intersection of an intention and an audience, and constitute themselves, there, as a larger, complete performance. Active writing should not involve saying things you already understand and know, but instead let you think new things. And that is why, this book will argue, you cannot know what your ideas are, mean, or do until you set theme down in sentences, whether on paper or on screen. It is also why the essay or the book you write will not be, if you are open and generous and unafraid, the essay or book you started with. (P. 1)

I think you should sit down and calmly face the fact that you’re not as good a writer as you’d like to be. This means you should always (or mostly or at least very often) be writing about things you already know, things you understand well enough that knowing isn’t going to be the main problem. Let writing be the problem you are facing. Eric, by contrast, says that confining yourself to writing what you know “hinders” and even “blocks” your process. But surely writing with the intention of being “great” can be debilitating too. Indeed, we don’t have to look further that Eric’s own process to see how this might happen:

What this means is that everything that is weak in me — everything that would have me sleep another hour, avoid working out, put off cleaning the house, or delay a necessary apology to a friend — struggles to keep me from writing, fights to have me give up and be satisfied with the sentences I already have or the essays I’ve already published. (P. 18)

Instead of normalizing our anxiety about writing I propose we embrace our mediocrity. But only long enough to make progress, of course. We want to use our writing time, not to discover whether or not we are great writers and thinkers, but simply to become better writers and better thinkers. The way to do this, I want to argue, is to remember that the whole point of academic writing is to expose the weaknesses in our thinking to our peers so that they can help us to overcome them. I’ll grant that that’s mainly a euphemism for letting them tell us we are wrong. And I will also grant, as I did in my first post on this subject, that the difference between Eric’s view of writing and mine is mainly one of emphasis, of attitude. Eric writes with what is no doubt a healthy fear of everything that is weak in him and, by the sound of it, I have the same things to fear in me. Still, I try to write from the center of my strength.