Monthly Archives: April 2024

On How-To Books

They’re alluring, they sell books, they get citations in papers, but at their core is a reduction in understanding, a learned helplessness, that I think is the opposite of what we should be striving for in academia.


Much of my writing involves giving practical advice to academic writers, which puts me squarely in the field of how-to guides. I personally like the genre. A good how-to book can be a real pleasure to read because you can sense the competence under the words of the writer. Oliver Senior’s How to Draw Hands is an example I often cite, and my struggle to write a book of my own is probably made more difficult by the impossible standard it sets in my mind. So when I read Chris’s reflections I had to take a moment to think it through. Are my two series of talks, twenty talks in all, all of them titled “How to…” one thing or another, really “the opposite of what we should be striving for in academia”? Am I empowering my students to meet the challenges of scholarship or inculcating a “learned helplessness”? Am I, at best, simply using those titles to “lure” an audience, to “sell” my ideas (even to get “cited”!)? At the end of the day, do my talks actually reduce their understanding of what scholarship is?

I’m not done thinking about these questions, but I was reminded of a blogpost at my retired blog that I wrote a decade and a half ago. I repost it here in a lightly edited form.

The downside of books — and blogs — about writing is that they leave the impression that there is something important to know about writing, and that we, who know it, can tell you how to write well. People who have difficulty expressing themselves in writing come to feel, by the very existence of so much good advice about how to do it, that their problem amounts to not having been let in on the secret. Underneath their inability to write, that is, they imagine a profound ignorance.

It is therefore important to emphasize that you do not learn what you need to know about writing by reading a book or listening to a teacher explain to you how a sentence, paragraph, or journal article “works”. You learn how to write well by writing regularly, revising often, and presenting your writing to its intended audience for critique. Good writing is not something you learn but something you train; it is not so much knowledge but discipline that counts. People who “can’t write” are not primarily stupid or ignorant. (Though they may also be such things.) They are just a little weak, a little out of shape.

Please don’t understand that too quickly.

Your prose style, like your physique and your posture, emerges from your training. People notice that you “write well” much like they might notice that you walk and stand with a certain kind of dignity, or that you are able to lift and move things with ease. Grace in everyday motion depends on having much stronger muscles than one “needs” for simple tasks, i.e., from being far from the limit of one’s power when doing ordinary things, and these virtues of physical comportment (dignity, ease, grace) are of course virtues of style. Good prose, similarly, has a certain kind of strength.

The purpose of a sentence and a paragraph is to affect the reader’s mind in some way, to “move” it. The writer pushes against the mental comportment of the reader, and the reader pushes back. While there are a lot “tricks” and “moves” you might learn in order to “handle yourself” in this situation (to “write with power”, as Peter Elbow famously put it) there is simply no substitute for the strength you develop by training, i.e., by practicing this ability to push against the mind of another. A strong prose style develops by repeatedly writing with a relevant audience “in mind”, imagining how it will push back, and by presenting it to that audience often, i.e., letting it actually push back.

You will not become a better writer by believing what I tell you. You will become a better writer by doing as I say. As often as you can, take a moment a to compose yourself. Work from the center of your strength. “The only truly comprehensive answer to any enquiry as to ‘How to…’,” as Oliver Senior reminds us, “is the simple instruction

“Get on with it.”

The Key Question

The third question on the list is probably the most important.

  • What does your paper tell us about the world?

The way I normally raise this issue with students and scholars is to ask them to complete the sentence, “This paper shows that…,” reminding them that this will require them to compose a grammatically complete and presumably true sentence. Indeed, the sentence will ideally be theoretically significant and empirically true; it will make sense only to your peers in your discipline and it can be believed only because you have data to support it. Writing this sentence is an art worth mastering because it brings the subjective and objective moments of your research together in a flash. It shows us how the world looks from your perspective.

Here’s an example of such a sentence:

  • This paper shows that the marketing team at Xompany made effective use of prospective sensemaking in planning the launch of ProDuck.

Notice that this sentence does just not say

  • This paper shows that prospective sensemaking can be used effectively in planning processes,

which is a purely theoretical statement that makes no reference to an empirical object that was studied. Nor does it say

  • This paper shows that Xompany’s marketing team planned a successful launch of ProDuck.

which is a purely empirical statement, making no reference to any particular theory of planning. Rather, the sentence mentions both

  • a specific team in a specified company, which we can only make statements about if we have gained observational access to it, and
  • a concept of planning that belongs to a named discipline, which will only be properly understood by the members of a specific research community.

As I hinted in my last post, this is precisely why this is the third question on the list. Its answer can only be understood by properly prepared reader; in this case, the reader must know something about

  • Xompany
  • ProDuck
  • Planning
  • Sensemaking

In my ideal introduction, all this must be accomplished within the first two paragraphs, which is to say, within the preceding 400 words. Here, at least four questions must be answered:

  • What sort of company is Xompany?
  • What sort of product is ProDuck?
  • How does marketing research understand planning?
  • How does sensemaking inform marketing research?

It will be natural to say something about the industry that Xompany operates in and the market for ProDuck. What has happened recently that made the launch of a new product significant? Likewise, it will be important to say something about the literature on marketing plans and its intersection with sensemaking scholarship, perhaps focusing on the difference between retrospective and prospective sensemaking.

But this, like I say, will all have happened before we get the sentence that begins “This paper shows that…” so that what follows easily makes sense to the reader. The names “Xompany” and “ProDuck” are meaningful to the reader by now, as are the concepts of planning and sensemaking. I should add that, if the company and product are sufficiently famous, this may be the first mention of them. The first paragraph may have talked only about the industry and market, but reader is nonetheless ready to interpret this sentence, as would be the case if we were talking about Apple and the iPhone, for example.

I’m calling this the “key question” and I hope you can see why that is a fitting label. It unlocks the rest of paper by setting you up for a paragraph that outlines the study you did, framed, like I say, by the preceding two paragraphs, which evoked a world (of consumption) and invoked a science (of marketing). It could sound something like this:

This paper shows that the marketing team at Xompany made effective use of prospective sensemaking in planning the launch of ProDuck. It is based on twelve semi-structured interviews with members of the marketing team that had been assigned to the launch, as well as observational data gathered at the launch itself. We interviewed each member twice: once at the beginning of the process, when the team was formed, and then again a month before the launch, which we finally attended. The interviews revealed a consistent focus on the future, both in terms of threats and opportunities, and very little concern with past launches, whether successful or unsuccessful. Also, at the time of the launch, the team had clearly put the past behind them and were not hung up on the struggles and conflicts of the months and weeks they had just been through. Everyone was looking ahead and moving forward. This has important implications for how we think about sensemaking in marketing contexts. In particular, the longstanding orthodoxy that sensemaking is primarily a retrospective process needs to be reconsidered, and the concept of prospective sensemaking needs to be developed further.

Obviously, this is an entirely made up paragraph. It’s interesting only for its form, not its content. I hope it is useful.

The First Two Questions

“Writing a paper is not an inconvenience to deal with but an occasion to rise to.”
Thomas Basbøll

Before Easter, I suggested a list of questions that are worth answering if you’re thinking about writing a paper. Yesterday, I was heartened by the positive reactions to the tweet I have quoted in my epigraph. Today, it occurs to me that a good way of clarifying the occasion in question is to look closely at the first two questions.

  • What is going on in the world that warrants your study?
  • What is the current consensus or controversy about it in your discipline?

Now, if you’re following my advice, you will not just try to think or talk your way out of them. You will sit down (or stand, if you prefer) and compose two coherent prose paragraphs that answers them, consisting of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words each. The first will evoke the world that your research explores and the second will invoke the science that studies it. You will devote about half an hour (or, if you’re hard core, exactly 27 minutes) to the composition of each paragraph. You will imagine these paragraphs as occupying the first two minutes of your reader’s attention. The next paragraph, which I will talk about in another post, will describe your paper, stating its conclusion, declaring its method, summarizing its analysis, and announcing its implications. That’s a lot to get done in under two-hundred words and one minute of your reader’s attention. So those first two paragraphs have to get you into a good position to pull it off.

I’m assuming we’re talking about an empirical paper. That is, you have studied an “object” of some kind and discovered some interesting “facts” about it. Now, this object is situated in a broader setting, which, at its most general, is simply “the world”. In that first paragraph, you are describing the environment in which your object lives and, importantly, in which its existence means something. You are implicitly telling your reader why your study is important; if the world that this first paragraph evokes is interesting to your reader then so, in some sense, will your object. The second paragraph will then frame this world with a scientific theory, and a theory is always a way of looking at the objects together, the way a particular community looks at things in the world “objectively,” whether they agree or disagree. Importantly, this theory is presumably familiar to the reader. Readers who do not recognize the consensus or controversy you here introduce are not the intended readers of your paper. They are not your “peers”. The paragraph should be written as a reminder to the reader of the current state of the conversation in your discipline on the state of the world described in your first paragraph.

One way to see what these paragraphs are supposed to do is to imagine stating your research question immediately afterward. That question should now make perfect sense. (Your next paragraph, like I say, will answer it.) It should ask something interesting of an object that belongs in the world, using the conceptual apparatus of your discipline. In fact, you should be able to imagine that a peer could design a study much like yours to answer it. That is, you have given yourself the occasion that writing a paper is meant to rise to.