The Difficulty Setting

If you’re following the rules, working in a rational and deliberate way to write down what you know in order to allow other knowledgeable people to discuss it with you, I’m ready to promise you that it will get progressively easier. One of the reasons for this is that you will get better and better at choosing doable writing tasks. You will become better and better at setting up your work for tomorrow such that the problem is well within your skill set, well within your ability to solve.

Think of the “difficulty setting” on a video game. Games are not fun if they are too easy or too hard. If you easily kill all your enemies just by pointing your gun in a general direction and pressing “fire” repeatedly, there is no satisfaction in your victory, and you learn nothing from it. On the other hand, if you always die in the first few seconds because the manoeuvres that are required to save you are beyond your talents or training to complete you’re not going to feel any particular respect for the problem either. You’ll quickly get tired of trying and, again, you’ll see no improvement. That’s why many games let you decide whether to play as a beginner, or novice, or expert.

The important thing to keep in mind when transferring this analogy to your writing (according to my rules) is that you choose the difficulty setting the day before you write. This happens mainly in your articulation of the key sentence. Will it be easy or hard to compose at least six sentences and at most 200 words that support, elaborate or defend it in 27 minutes? Will it be hard to come up with six sentences? Or hard to keep it under 200 words? Or will it be hard to pull it all together in 27 minutes? The answer will vary from key sentence to key sentence. And the point is that you can turn the difficulty up or down simply by making minor changes to the sentence.

“Sensemaking poses a number of problems for managers.” “Sensemaking poses a number of problems for managers in crisis situations.” “Sensemaking is hard.” “Sensemaking, argues Weick, is an imaginative retrospective process that shapes action.” For some of these key sentences, only a meticulously constructed argument, based on precise areas of scholarship, will satisfactorily solve the problem. For others, any old paragraph will do. You define the problem of writing and its difficulty by deciding what you are going to say…

…and who you’re going to say it to. But please remember  that the more knowledgeable you imagine your reader to be the easier the writing will be. It’s hard to explain something very complicated to someone who lacks the conceptual apparatus, background knowledge and general intelligence to make sense of it. Your task becomes easier and easier (in your mind) as you increase the burden you lay on the shoulders of your reader. A lot of bad student writing comes from this–they imagine their reader to be their teacher and that their teacher knows much more than they do. That’s very likely, but it’s not good for your writing. It leaves too much for the reader to do.

When writing for academic purposes always imagine your reader to be an intellectual equal, a cognitive peer. Don’t let yourself change this component of the difficulty setting. Don’t make it too hard by imagining, as it is sometimes suggested, that you are explaining it to your grandmother. But don’t make it too easy either, by imagining that your reader is 100 years in the future and understands everything much better than you. Look around you. Think of your peers. And ask yourself how hard it is to explain this to them. Then choose a difficulty setting that’s right for you by deciding exactly what you’re going to tell them. Give yourself a proper challenge–one that you can imagine will be fun to meet. Tomorrow you’ll find out if you got the setting right.

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