[Note: this post is part of a series inspired by by Wayne Booth (co-author of The Craft of Research) and Oliver Senior (author of How to Draw Hands). I argue that composition is the coordination of words and ideas, paragraphs and propositions, sentences and the state of things.]
“…the purpose of this book is to lead the student to set about acquiring the mental equipment by which his vision may be directed, extended, and refreshed…” (Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands, 1944)
Writing has a physical and a mental aspect. Just as artists must train both their eyes and their hands to produce pictures of what they see, so too must scholars coordinate what is going on on the page with what is going on in their minds. The substance of the craft is neither their mental state, nor the words they have written, but the coordination of these things. As a scholar (and a student is always an apprentice scholar) you must become increasingly conscious of the formation of your beliefs and the composition of your paragraphs. You must understand that the paragraph represents, not facts in the world, but your beliefs about those facts. You are using the paragraph to open your beliefs to the criticism of your peers. The paragraph tells the reader what you had on your mind when you formed your belief — indeed, what you have on your mind in so far as you still believe it.
Academic writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. In order to write good academic prose, then, you have to be writing about things you know, and you have to be writing for someone who also knows something about the subject. You have to be very clear about what you believe, but you also have to have a good sense of what your reader thinks about those same issues, how the things you’re studying look from the point of view of another knowledgeable person. You then have to become good at rendering what you are thinking in words on the page.
Consider the art of drawing hands. If I ask you to look at one of your hands and draw a picture of it on a piece of paper using a pencil there is no doubt about what I’ve asked you to do. And most people know immediately how easy or difficult it will be to do well. Almost all of us can tell the difference between a good and a bad rendering (especially if we have the model right there in front of us). The substance of the craft of drawing is the relationship between the visual image of hand and the picture that ends up on the page. If you are good at drawing, this will be immediately clear to the viewer — and to you. Oliver Senior (see epigraph) was “convinced that the better drawing is not the more elaborated attempt to reproduce the visual appearance of its subject, but that which is the better informed.” I happen to agree.
The craft that I am trying to teach, then, is the judicious use of the information you have about your subject to produce a verbal representation of it that the reader will be able to bring their own understanding to bear upon. Anyone can see that a paragraph is not “the whole picture” of your thinking on a given subject. But the 75 or 143 or 192 words you have written may be more or less well-informed by your beliefs. The surface of the page will suggest an iceberg beneath it.
Please notice that you are not just composing paragraphs. You are also forming your beliefs. It’s a gradual process that coordinates the mind with the page, just as the artist learns to coordinate the eye and the hand. You are not just filling pages with what you have learned; you are directing, extending, and refreshing what Senior calls your “mental equipment”. Today we might say that you are “updating” your “information”. It is the substance of the craft. Get comfortable with it. Learn to enjoy it.