Monthly Archives: December 2023

Happy New Year

I started the year with a plea to preserve the college essay in the face of artificial intelligence. As the year ends, I’m still more resolved, if you will, to defend the genre as the touchstone of academic competence. In May, I suggested a course design that alternates between take-home and in-class essays to incentivize our students to develop their prose style. After the summer break, I wrote a few posts as time permitted — one about language models, two about Calvino, and one for undergraduates — and then decided to experiment with different daily writing routines. First, I spent four weeks writing a daily post in a very informal, unstructured way. Then I spent four weeks writing a formally composed paragraph every morning whose key sentence I had chosen the day before. I rounded out the semester by working every morning on my book and writing a weekly blogpost about the experience.

In my last post, I indicated the broad outlines of my plan for next semester. January will be very slow here, though I may post if the feeling strikes me. Something more rigorous will begin in early February.

In any case, I wish all my readers a very Happy New Year! I, for one, am looking forward to it.

Merry Christmas

I will be taking the rest of the year off from writing. Over Christmas, I’ll do some thinking about how to start up the new year. I think I might do some private experiments with Andrew Shields’ “111 words” exercise, a challenge that was recently taken up by Jonathan Mayhew. I don’t expect much of myself in January, but starting in early February I’ll be putting in eight solid weeks on the book again, driven along by the Craft of Research Series, which I have just announced the dates for: starting January 31, it will run every Wednesday evening. As always, I’ll begin with a general introduction to how to write a research paper, then get into some specifics (reviewing the literature, writing the theory, methods, and analysis sections) and then, in early March, take a broader view again and look at the structure of a paper. After focusing on the remaining major sections of the paper (background and discussion), it’ll be Easter. I’ll then take a one-week break.

Week Four

By what route is the soul or history or society or the subconscious transformed into a series of black lines on a white page?

Italo Calvino

Calculating in the head.–Is it like calculation on paper?–I don’t know whether to call it ‘like’. Is a bit of white paper with black lines on it like a human body?

Ludwing Wittgenstein

Religion, teachers, women, drugs, the road, fame, money… nothing gets me high and offers relief from the suffering like blackening pages, writing.

Leonard Cohen

This week I struggled to write about the actual experience of writing, the activity of marking up a page with words. It is very clear to me now that this experience must be at the heart of a book called How to Write Papers. I think most people have distorted image of what writers do or, since students and scholars are of course themselves writers, a distorted image of what they’re supposed to be doing when they write. In fact, I think the distortions come from a kind of moral confusion, occasioned by an idealized image of how “real” writers compose their texts, how they translate their thoughts into sentences and paragraphs. Many people feel like they’re cheating. No matter how terribly they suffer, they feel like it is too easy, like they’re either plagiarizing or fabricating, pulling a fast one or making something up.

I think the reason for this is the almost infinite difference between words and the things they refer to. “Cat” and “dog” are nothing like cats and dogs. A sentence is nothing like the fact it states. (There are exceptions, of course. “Word” and “sentence” are something like words and sentences. This sentence is very much like the fact it is about.) Everything, more or less, is easier said than done. It is easier to write a story than it is to execute an actual sequence of motion and fact. And it is easier to tell a story than it is to write it. Whenever we read a good, clear passage of prose, however, we feel like it is a transcription of the clear, pure thoughts of the writer. We think it is a representation of the writer’s “stream of consciousness”. But this is exactly the illusion that constitutes good writing. The writing itself — the prose — seems, as George Orwell put it, “like a window pane” on the mind of the writer.

Rest assured, however, that the writer’s mind is nothing like what we see on the page. Except in the moment that you are now sharing with him. The moment when he rereads his thoughts, recognizes them as his own, and decides to publish them to his blog.

Week Three

“The great learning is rooted in watching with affection the way people grow.”

This week, I discovered my reader. As an author, the book I’m working on is my job. I am by no means just an author, and it is not actually what pays the bills, but this book does occupy my attention, puts me to work for an hour every morning. It is meaningful work because my attention is directed at a subject I care about, but it was already clear to me before taking up the project again that, at the beginning, I would be struggling with something very central: my image of the reader. It’s a book about academic writing, so my reader would obviously be an “academic”, but what does this really mean, and what do I think of academics? How do I actually feel about my reader?

I’ve always wanted the book to be as useful to scholars as it is to students. That is, I don’t want to describe “academic writing” differently when I talk to students and when I talk to scholars. Academic writing is always writing for your peers, whether they are colleagues or classmates. But what do I really mean when I say this? How are they connected? I don’t want to give too much away, but I think I came up with something useful this week. Academics are knowledgeable people and knowledge comes from learning. Students are learners; scholars are learnèd. But this does not mean that students don’t know anything, nor that scholars don’t still have a lot to learn. That is, I am writing for people who know a great deal but who are also learning. And I want to show them how writing can support this project.

A book employs an author but implies a reader. It “implicates” the reader in the author’s project and the author can lose the reader by implying things that the reader cannot identify with. There is always a danger that my readers will feel that I think they are ignorant or stupid, or cowardly or lazy. The truth is that I think they are. But only because, like me, they’re human. I have a great affection for them. We can always do better and becoming a better writer is a kind of self-improvement. The challenge of a book like this is to invite the reader to grow without insulting them. It’s going to take some work.

Week Two

This is going well. I’ve been spending an hour every morning writing roughly four paragraphs (around 800 words). I’m giving myself some rather open tasks and letting my writing flow somewhat freely for now, and my plan for next week is to put myself under a bit of pressure. I’m going to try to write a thousand words a day, disciplined by five key sentences. Since the ideas I’m writing about are very familiar to me, and I’ve now got a good sense of my pace, I am giving myself an hour and a half to do it. Basically, 15 minutes per paragraph, so about half the time I would normally recommend for a writing moment.

Some of it will be rewriting things I’ve been working on over the past two weeks. If I’m lucky (and good) I will have drafted a 5000-word chapter of my book. It’s a book I imagine as consisting of five such chapters, framed with a 3000-word introduction and a 2000-word conclusion, so 30,000 words in all. It will be called simply How to Write Papers. I’ve been promising it it for years and it has only recently become clear to me why I haven’t finished it. Hopefully it will become so clear to me next week that all the remaining barriers will be gone.

Then I will try to say something less cryptic about it too.