Leonard Cohen once asked us to imagine the reunion of two old lovers in a hotel room, somewhat embarrassed by the “outrageous hope and habits in the craft” as they search for the “special caress, the perfect inflammatory word” that might prove that they’ve “survived as lovers (not each other’s but lovers still)” and now “own [their] own skins”. Scholarship is perhaps not so romantic, but it is important to remind ourselves of the aesthetic pleasure that follows from finding just the right word, le mot juste, to describe what we have learned from our studies, and imagine, as Nabokov imagined, the hairs on the back of the reader’s neck standing up. If only for a moment, we feel that we have found a way to preserve our knowledge forever. “What thou lovest well remains,” said Ezra Pound; “the rest is dross.”
Of course, just as there is no ideal paper, no ideal paragraph, and no ideal sentence, there is no such thing as the perfect word. Words are simply imperfect when compared to the things they name, which, though perhaps themselves inevitably flawed, are nonetheless exactly themselves, exactly what they are. We might of course also say that words are always true to themselves; but what will always be imperfect is the relationship between words and things. (“What relation must one fact have to another,” asked Bertrand Russell, “in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?”) Finding the right word is part of the struggle with what Robert Graves called “the huge impossibility of language,” the effort “to depict not the thing but the effect it produces,” as Mallarmé put it, or, again, the delicate search for Cohen’s “perfect inflammatory word”.
“The mission of the poet,” said Borges, “should be to restore to the word, at least in a partial way, its primitive and now secret force.” Heidegger would no doubt have agreed. “The ultimate business of philosophy,” he said, “is to preserve the force of the most elemental words in which Dasein expresses itself.” Both were concerned that what Borges called the “usury of time” was deflating the meaning of our words; indeed, Heidegger reminds us that we’re disposed to think of our guilt in terms of a “debt” we owe to “Them”. We must recover the force of language, one word, perhaps, at a time. We must know what they mean and insist on their meaning. That may be exactly what good writing is.
Again, I know you’re not as romantic about your words as the poets and philosophers of yore. But yesterday I attended a talk about foreign language studies at business schools that reminded me that we should encourage students to learn languages, not so much because it will give them access to foreign markets, but because it will give them access to exotic pleasures. You don’t need to spend a whole day, as Flaubert is reputed to have done, trying to decide whether a stone is “azure” or just “blue”, but there is a real satisfaction in finding a word that means what you want it to, both semantically and etymologically. Once you know what, say, “trenchant” and “salient” really mean, you can begin to deploy them in your writing to produce precise effects for the knowledgeable without too much confusion for the ignorant.
“I see that we no longer follow fashion,” says Cohen as he “makes a gift of necessity.” Many of our words enter the vernacular as fashions of the moment and leave it as they came. To insist on using a word, not because that is what “one” says (what “they” say) but because it is the word that means precisely what youwant to say, is an essential part of the discipline of writing. Sometimes this forces you to write the sentence in a way that accommodates the word in question, sometimes it means finding another word that works correctly in the context you have already established. Make your gift of whatever is needed. Remember that “blue” is only the right word after “stones”. Believe me.
When I arbitrarily write a single sentence, for instance, ‘He looked out the window,’ it already has perfection.
Ordinary sentences express thoughts; ideal sentences present ideas. The writer has a thought “in mind” when writing a sentence, and the sentence evokes a thought in the mind of the reader, but these are two different thoughts in two different minds. If I write the perfectly real sentence, “I am looking out the window,” a particular image may come to mind for you, but it is not the image of what I am looking at as I now look out the window. The idea of looking out a window, by contrast, exists independently of your mind and mine, my thoughts and yours, our windows and what happens to be outside them at the moment. The ideal sentence is about a stable reality not the passing scene.
A real sentence gropes at this reality with words, which are but inarticulate grunts when compared to the songs of angels that minister to our ideas. A real sentence, even one that invokes “the song of angels,” as I just vainly tried to, represents only what happens to be passing through the medium of the writer’s muddled mind. The ideal sentence, by contrast, presents an idea, immediately, in its pure form, as it appears in the mind of God. Ideas exist “in themselves,” regardless of whether they have been thought by anybody. Ideally, the writer is as distant from the idea as reader because the ideal sentence puts them both in the same position. In a sense, at an infinite distance.
Ideal sentences, of course, don’t exist in reality. We have no words for them. But every real sentence aspires to one; a reader is always trying to discern the ideal sentence is in the real one that is passing before their eyes. They are trying to understand what the author means, indeed, what the author must have meant, not necessarily what the author was thinking when it was being written.
One good reason not to try to read the writer’s mind “in the moment of writing” is of course that the sentence you are reading is often the result, not just of writing, but of a great deal of editing. By the time the writer is finished with it, the thought that originally inspired it is long gone. But the idea remains, and it is in fact all that remains after all the writing and reading, all the intending and understanding, has been carried out. Just as spoken words dissolve in the air as quickly as they are uttered, so a written sentence vanishes in the mind of the reader, leaving first images and then, finally, “the loneliness that is the truth of things,” as Virginia Woolf put it, which all the writer shares with the reader at the end of the day: a set of coordinates on the plane of ideas.
In order to make sense of your words, the reader is going to have to think. That is, the sentence cannot present your idea without allowing the reader to consider what you mean. In fact, the sentence will have to make the reader think. But it’s not finally the thinking that you are trying to bring about. You want the reader to get the idea.
The ideal paragraph takes one minute to read. It occupies exactly one minute of the ideal reader’s attention. In an academic setting, the reader is, ideally, another knowledgeable person, an intellectual equal, a scholarly peer. If the writer had not written it, but came to it with fresh eyes, it would take the writer a minute to read it too. During its allotted minute, the paragraph supports, elaborates, or defends a single claim, and both its position (the claim) and its posture (support, elaborate, defend) should be clear to the reader before the minute is over. The reader is now able to distinguish the key sentence from the rest of the paragraph. The reader feels that the paragraph has helped them to believe, understand, or agree with the proposition that the key sentence expresses. The paragraph has overcome the difficulty it presented to the reader. Ideally, the reader then moves on to the next paragraph.
The ideal paper is a series of one-minute reading experiences. Ideally, however, the reader does not experience the reading at all; the reader experiences the ideas that the writer has on their mind. The prose, as George Orwell put it, is “like a window pane”. Ideally, the ideas pass before this window on the mind of the writer in an orderly manner, one at a time, coming into view and moving along in moments that last a minute each. During that minute the reader is given enough information to answer the two questions that Wayne Booth could not believe the tutors at Oxford confined themselves to asking of any text: “What does the author mean?” “How does the author know?” (“No university could be that good,” he said.) The ideal writer of the ideal paragraph is writing to be read in this ideal tutorial. I might add that classes at the Copenhagen Business School are scheduled to last 45 minutes. The ideal paper has forty paragraphs.
I said that the ideal paragraph takes exactly one minute to read. A paragraph does not become better by getting the job done faster but by getting more work done in the minute it has to do it. If the paragraph is able to support its key sentence in thirty seconds of a qualified reader’s attention, it is not hard enough to believe; if it can be elaborated in 45 seconds, it is too easy to understand; and if it takes two minutes to defend, it is simply too disagreeable. The solution is to adjust the difficulty of the key sentence so that exactly one minute of support, elaboration, or defense is what is needed. An ideal paragraph resolves an ideal difficulty under ideal conditions for an ideal reader. Under these conditions — under exactly these conditions — the reader is qualified to the tell the writer that they’re wrong.
In an ideal paper, made of ideal paragraphs, the key sentences are at most two minutes apart. There is no ideal position for the key sentence; it can be the first, second, penultimate, or last sentence, or it can be anywhere in between. If the key sentence comes first in one ideal paragraph and last in the next there will two minutes between them in the mind of the reader. Elsewhere in the paper, the reader may be led from the key sentence at the end of a paragraph directly to another key sentence at the beginning of the next. Sometimes, one idea is separated from another with a bright line, sometimes the nuances of one shade off into the nuances of the next. “Right orientation, disposition, atmosphere,” said Michael Andews, the painter; “it’s reassuring to know these things.” As musicians say, it’s all about finding the pocket.
No paragraph is ideal. The writer is constrained by the imperfections of being human, of being materially embodied and socially situated, of working under conditions that are, to put it mildly, less than ideal. So, some paragraphs will take more than a minute to read and some will pass much too quickly. Reality, let us say, intercedes in the process. This is for the most part to the good because we want our writing to be about something, we want it to refer to reality, to the very conditions that force us from the ideal path, that prevent the expression of our talent in the perfect immanence of the presentation, as Kierkegaard put it. To approximate this perfection, however, the writer arranges the work in moments that last 27 minutes each, and often spends more than one such moment reworking a given paragraph. Each time, the writer gives twenty-seven times more to the idea than the reader takes from it. What remains is real.
Academic writers, whether they are students or scholars, sometimes get distracted by their extrinsic motivations. They write for publication or examination and they imagine their reader in the position of an editor or a teacher and, in any case, as standing in judgment. This is entirely understandable, but it must be emphasized that the purpose of a paper is not to garner favorable reviews or good grades. The purpose of a paper is to expose the writer’s ideas to the criticism of people who are qualified to say that they are wrong. It is only when the paper is read by a peer, and the peer understands what the writer thinks is true, that the purpose of the paper is accomplished.
I sometimes have to remind my authors that I’m not providing them with instructions for how to actually write a paper, or how to write an actual paper. (To tell you the truth, I sometimes have to remind myself of this.) I’m telling them how to write an ideal paper, which is to say, a paper that perfectly exposes the writer’s ideas to the criticism of their peers. This may seem like I’m encouraging their perfectionism, but in fact the opposite is true. I’m trying to remind them that of course they’re not going to write the perfect paper and that at some point they’ll have to submit it anyway. The important thing is to be able to imagine what a paper would, ideally, be doing if it were perfect. Then we can begin to accept the imperfections that our various “realities” impose on us.
The ideal paper occupies less than hour of the reader’s attention. It consists of about forty paragraphs, each of which takes about one minute to read and supports, elaborates, or defends one of the writer’s beliefs. The ideal paper presents a result that challenges the reader’s understanding of either current theory or current practice on the basis of carefully collected data that represents the world in which we live, framed by the writer’s science, which is the same as the reader’s. The result can be summarized in a single sentence that is both theoretically meaningful and empirically significant. It cannot be understood (properly) by someone who is unfamiliar with the relevant theory, and it cannot be known to be true without the analysis of the empirical data that the paper presents. The ideal paper also proposes a series of implications of the tension between theory and practice that the writer has, ideally, discovered. In the closing paragraphs, the paper returns the reader to the world or the science in which they began with fresh eyes.
The ideal paper is visible as an outline in its key sentences, and palpable in the prose of its paragraphs. We can sketch out the argument of a paper by listing the central claim that is established in each paragraph. We will make claims about the world and the science, about the paper the paper itself; we will establish a background and frame our object with theory; we will present a plausible method; we will offer an analysis of the data; we will discuss the implications of the results. We will state, finally, the conclusion, and we will end firmly in the world or the science where we began. Each paragraph will flesh out its particular claim with support, elaboration or defense, depending on whether the reader will find it hard to believe, understand, or agree with. The ideal paper helps the reader overcome forty little difficulties one minute at a time.
The ideal paper is not necessarily publishable and published papers are not usually ideal. Indeed, sometimes we are obligated to publish less than ideal papers simply because it would be wrong to leave our results in the file drawer. Only ambition and vanity prevent us from doing so. Students, of course, are doomed to submit their less than perfect papers continuously during their studies. That’s the whole point. But this does not mean that we should be sitting down to write under the pressure of the “requirements” of a cruel world. Every paragraph can be given conditions that approach the ideal. Every paragraph can be written, as we say these days, “aspirationally”. In reality, we will always fail. But, as Samuel Beckett, of all people, reminds us, if we stick to it, we can fail ever better.
I wrote this post over ten years ago for Jonathan Mayhew’s blog Stupid Motivational Tricks. I had been using a clip from Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot to introduce a talk to undergraduates about how to write a first draft, “de-allegorizing” it as being really about how to write the first draft of an academic paper. I liked it a lot back then, and rereading it now, I still do, though I don’t think I would use the same violent imagery today to talk to students. (If you’re a student, you’ve been warned!) The post is organized as a nine-step program for dealing with the predicament of “having an idea” / “getting an assignment”.
(Note: I wasn’t able to find the whole ten minute sequence in the film in a properly licensed version. But I’ve inserted two clips of the relevant scenes and below. You can of course also just find the film on a streaming service yourself and watch the whole thing. It think the post works even without the clips, but it was fun to make the allusions, so I hope you read the text at some point with an awareness of the film just to see what I was trying to do.)
Thoughts do not come to us like friends from afar, like welcome guests. Thoughts, real thoughts that is, which are always a palpable demand that we write, come into our lives like invading armies. Before we have been forced to think, our lives are quiet. Our ideas are with us in a familiar way, like beloved children or valued employees. We let them play sometimes and sometimes we try to improve them (we teach them what we know). Each of us is also ultimately an idea, an idea of ourselves, an “I”, stable and serene. It is when we start thinking that the trouble starts.
(When I told this story to students I made sure to tell them that the inconvenience of this kind of “thought” in the head of the scholar is nicely simulated by being given a school assignment. Though the pressure is internal in the case of the working scholar, the disruption is comparable.)
Step 1: Hold Back Your Ideas
A thought, when it is a serious thought, i.e., when it demands to be articulated in writing, is neither simple nor nebulous. It is a marshaling of particular forces against you (against an idea of yourself); it is itself a collection of ideas under the command of a far-off general (a much more general idea, and one that you will engage only by proxy in the particular case). The “general” has sent out a platoon of ideas, under the command of a lieutenant, to bring you into line. Their mission is to take one of your existing ideas, one of your familiar thoughts, prisoner. As this happens there is nothing you can do; the thought is simply too strong to resist.
But ideas are neither isolated from nor indifferent to each other. Nor are you (again, the idea of yourself as a scholar) indifferent to the ideas you have. Seeing one of them bound and taken away hurts you deeply. And it hurts your other ideas as well, who love the prisoner as you do. Sometimes ideas are rash and do not understand the predicament they are in. They think they are invincible (because you have held them in your arms with such conviction in the past) and they don’t know how serious the invading thought is about its business. Disappointed in your inaction (which is really hard-won composure) an idea, then, may rush at the invading thoughts. This darling is immediately killed.
It was a “stupid” idea, not in its substance but in its impatience. It did not recognize its limits. Don’t let this happen to your most cherished notions. When the thought arrives, let it take its prisoner. Stay calm. Hold your other ideas back.
Step 2: Gather Your Thoughts and Follow the Argument
It was not enough to take the prisoner. The thought now burns down your house and shoots your livestock and your pets. After it leaves, after you have said your last good-bye (to the latest but not the last darling you’ll see killed in your career as a scholar), you must run back into this burning life (of the mind) and retrieve a few things (some guns, a tomahawk, that sort of thing). Then you must select from among your ideas the ones that are relevant (the ones that can shoot) and send the others off into hiding. You give them a back-up plan, somewhere they can go if this idea of yourself (this authorial persona) fails.
Since you know where the general is, you know where the disruptive thought is going. Though strong, it is a big and cumbersome organization. It moves slowly, if resolutely. You can run through the woods and prepare an ambush. You find a good place along the road to set it up. Then you bring your trusted (if frightened) ideas close and begin to outline the paper.
Step 3: Identify the Main Ideas (Officers)
The argument that has burned down your house is not just a collection of ideas; it is organized around some central themes or principles. What are those principles? They are easy to identify (by their uniforms and their horses) and will not be hard to hit. In a piece of academic writing there will always be a substantial amount of “general” claims, i.e., claims that are shared by most readers (and the writer) and which are “responsible”, as it were, to the more specific, more empirical, claims you are making. Their “power” depends on the obedience of those lesser facts “on the ground”. Identify the officers (up on their horses) first. Once you’ve got them, the rest will be much easier.
Step 4: Focus (i.e., Pray)
There should always be a moment of silence before you actually begin to write. “Lord make me fast and accurate,” is a great prayer if you like that sort of thing. Ideally, you’ll want to work through the 20 to 40 claims that your paper will make quite quickly but also with some precision. You should devote a half-hour to each paragraph on each run through. That is, it should take you 10 to 20 hours to hit each claim with a well-focused but roughly drafted paragraph. Then another 10 to 20 hours to work through each paragraph again. Speed and accuracy is not just for marksmen.
Step 5: Aim Small
For each major claim you need a nice, tightly-written, focused sentence that makes the claim but does not attempt to support it. Such a sentence will serve as the “key sentence” for each prose paragraph in the paper. You will be writing to such a sentence for 30 minutes at a time, producing about 6 sentences of argument (support) for it. So keep the claim small enough to make that task realistic: one claim, 6 sentences, 30 minutes.
(Step 5 and 6 restate a slogan familiar to marksmen and golfers. “Aim Small, Miss Small.” As Mark Barker, Mel Gibson’s technical advisor, told him: “If you aim at a man and miss, you miss the man, while if you aim at a button and miss, you still hit the man.”)
Step 6: Miss Small
You can never know for sure whether you have hit the idea you are writing about completely and fully, though you’ll develop a pretty good sense of whether you’ve hit it squarely by how it reacts. Be content with getting your shot off and then crouch down to reload. (If you look too long at the target to see if you really “got it”, you’ll get shot.) Aim, shoot, reload. There’ll be time (hopefully) to go back and see what you’ve accomplished. In the moment, just do the best you can. If you’re aiming small, trust also that you’re missing small. You won’t get anything out of obsessing about each paragraph as you go.
Step 7: Rescue Your Darling (or Kill It)
You can write probably about half your paragraphs very easily, from a distance as it were. (These include the officers, but also some of the easier ground troops, i.e., background claims about your topic and intellectual context.) But at some point you’re going to have to put the gun down and get into some close-quarters writing. Here you will have greater difficulty focusing on one idea at time. It’s messy at this range. But you must try to deal with each claim or idea individually. Sometimes you’ll even get lucky and take out two ideas with one argument.
But then you face the climactic moment of extricating the prisoner (your idea, which was taken away from you by the thought the paper will try to express) from the immediate hold that some part of the argument has on it. There is a risk here that you’ll kill your darling rather than the claim that holds it prisoner. Steady now.
Step 8: Deal With Objections
Even if you succeed, there’ll be some loose ends to tie up. Don’t let your success at step 7 get you to let your guard down. Here they come!
Step 9: For God’s Sake, Stop!
Once you’ve gotten the last guy, stop. Hacking one last objection to pieces is unseemly after you have won the argument. It does, to be sure, leave a certain impression on the ideas that you originally brought with you. Your rage may be quite awesome. But as you are hacking away uselessly at an already dead issue, some only half-dead counter-argument may be escaping your attention.
This is not exactly how I would put it today. I’ve mellowed a little over these past ten years and I’m not sure the analogy holds completely. There’s even some outright bad advice in this post (can you spot it?). But I remember enjoying writing this post and I hope you found it entertaining to read. Writing isn’t always like this, of course. But maybe you’ve had an experience that is similar and will find this useful. I’m happy to hear what you in the comments.