Monthly Archives: May 2024

Writers and Readers

Most, perhaps all, of the readers of this blog are also writers. To be sure, some of them resent this fact a little, but, whether they are students or scholars, an important part of their “job” is to commit words to the page that express what they think. So is reading. Before they are my readers, my readers are readers of each other; they are peers to the people they write for. That in any case is what I imagine, what I presume.

My concern here is with so-called “academic” writing, i.e., the kind of writing that is done by students and scholars at universities. I don’t discriminate too much between them. Whether you are writing for examination or for publication, you are writing down what you know in order to discuss it with other knowledgeable people. You are opening your ideas to criticism. But you are not interested in just anyone’s criticism; you are interested in the criticism of your peers, i.e., people who are qualified to tell you that you are wrong. We sometimes mistakenly focus on the most proximal of these people — our teachers or reviewers — but it is important to keep our actual readers in mind. If you’re a student, these are your classmates. If you are a scholar, they are the members of your discipline.

Like yours, my readers are nice people, but I sometimes worry that we read each other in the wrong spirit. Students read each other’s papers on behalf of the teacher, ready to provide helpful to suggestions to their classmates about how to improve their grade. Scholars read each other’s papers on behalf of the reviewers, eager to help their colleagues satisfy the editorial standards of a journal. Once the paper is submitted, there’s nothing left to do but offer the appropriate congratulations or commiserations when the time comes. Reading a paper in its final form, simply for the purpose of discussing the ideas it presents, seems like an unnecessary inconvenience — not least to the author, who, as I’ve heard some of them declare openly, would prefer to put the often painful struggle of getting published behind them and move on to the next project. We have a tendency to respect their wishes; to be honest, we empathize with our comrades, kindred spirits in our “publish or perish” world. In a word, we’re kind.

But we should read each other’s finished work. And we should write it with the expectation of finding sincere readers who are interested in our ideas and ready to correct us where we are wrong. After all, getting a top grade, or getting published in a top journal, does not guarantee that everything you have written in paper is correct. Indeed, even your main thesis may be wrong. Your examiner or editor has only acknowledged that you have presented your ideas in a manner that opens them to qualified criticism. You have made your ideas available for discussion in an acceptable (even admirable) way; but it is now time to have that discussion. Your readers may love your paper but still disagree with you. In some cases, your readers may be compelled to try to replicate your results. Until they do, they can’t be sure you’re right. In an important sense, neither can you.

In our effort to be kind, in our eagerness to help nice people get on with their careers, we sometimes forget that good ideas take time, and, given time, ideas change. Not only do we need time to come up with them, and then to express them; our peers need to time to understand them, and test them against their own experiences, their own experiments. The greatest respect we show to an idea is to ponder it long enough to discover that it is wrong. Students who have earned good grades on their undergraduate papers will usually discover that they were completely wrong (often on some very important point) while writing their master’s thesis. (The better the paper, the more instructive this error will be.) Not to mention how wrong they find out they’ve always been while writing their doctoral dissertation!

Let’s remember that our peers took the time to write their ideas down. We need to take the time read them and engage with them. In academia, the best way to get to know your readers is to read them.

…and the Living is Easy

I know that summer doesn’t officially begin until the solstice, but this is the last of week of my recommended 8-week period of discipline after Easter, and the weather in Copenhagen has been excellent these last few days, so a little nod to Lady Day seems in order.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I recommend being very deliberate about your writing 32 weeks of the year and taking it easy for the remaining 20. That doesn’t mean you’re doing a lot of writing during those 32 weeks, only that you’re writing or not writing deliberately. That is, if you’re not writing, it’s because you planned not to write, and so you are not burdened by any guilt about not getting it done. And, if you are writing, you feel like you’re proceeding measurably towards some goal, which may only be getting better at writing, or contributing any number of paragraphs to a paper. You’re doing what you can every day; you are not “finally getting it done”. Being disciplined makes you feel good about the work you are doing, even when it is hard.

But for about 5 weeks in the winter, one week during the spring and the fall, and 13 weeks over the summer, you are free to write in a more spontaneous way. Or not at all, without thinking about why you’re not writing. You might just not feel like it. Or you might write just because you do feel like it. You are gripped by inspiration or bogged down in lethargy and you simply give into these forces instead of pitting your resolve against them. This gives you some time (and some mental space) to think things through.

For my part, I’ve got a lot of thinking to do about how the philosophy of science relates to academic writing. The idea that has been brewing in my mind goes back to Bernard Bolzano, who suggested that the logic of science was really just the grammar of scientific “treatises”. Today, we’d probably focus on papers, and my approach to epistemology is rooted in Steve Fuller’s “social epistemology,” which suggests a close connection between the philosophy of science and the rhetoric of academic articles. Lately, I’ve been thinking that we’re overcomplicating both of these subjects. Academics should be able to say plainly what they think and publish these ideas without too much fuss. (I’m not a big fan of the familiar peer-review process.) It’s the knowing, not the writing, that should be the hard part.

If you know what you’re talking about, writing an academic paper should be straightforward. Just stick to what you know and write it down. Easy does it.

Half Pages

This post isn’t going to be very deep, but I’m taking a vacation next week and I don’t want to let a whole month go by without posting anything. I thought I would reflect a little on a theme that I find myself emphasizing more and more when I talk students and scholars about their writing: a paragraph occupies roughly half a page of standard prose.

Here at CBS, a “normal page” consists of 2275 characters (including spaces) and I find that this means about 350 words to the page. Since a paragraph consists of at most 200 words, that’s roughly two paragraphs to the page. Each paragraph says one thing and supports, elaborates, or defends; it takes about one minute to read. There are two truths to the page.

Try to think of your papers (books, theses, dissertations, treatises, etc.) as a series of pages that provide a two-minute, two-truth reading experience for a qualified peer. Make sure you know what you are trying to say on each page and how you want to the reader to take it. Do you want them to believe, understand, or (dis)agree with you?

Arrange your paragraphs in a natural sequence. One way to do this is simply to list the key sentences in a separate document. Do they make sense out of the context of their paragraphs simply arranged in order? If not, rearrange them until they do, add a key sentence where a paragraph seems to be missing, remove one that breaks the sequence. Move it somewhere else or just park it at the end of the document until you can find place for it. At the end, you might find you don’t need it at all.

Like I say, I’m not trying to say anything deep here. The page is literally the surface of your knowledge. Try to treat it that way. Learn to trust that you have a lot under the surface to draw on. This is just about presentation, a half page at a time.