Resources and Requirements

I’ve been noticing something about composition studies lately. It’s an attitude about conventional prose that sometimes looks like resentment to me. I’m sure I’m misunderstanding it in its particular manifestations, especially when I detect it in professional writing instructors, but I certainly sometimes see it in students, and even established scholars, and here I can have a long enough conversation with them to be pretty sure that they have misunderstood the problem in a way that pitches them less than constructively against it. They have a bad attitude, we might say.

In a nutshell, they think of prose as a requirement rather than a resource. They feel constrained by the demand to compose themselves in individual orderly paragraphs that each supports, elaborates or defends one thing they have good reasons to believe is true. They think that the fact that it doesn’t allow them to express their whole being, all at once, with perfect authenticity, is some sort of criticism of this one particular obligation that they have. They forget that the conventions of scholarly prose were developed to facilitate communication between scholars, not to inhibit it. They fail to appreciate the usefulness of familiar patterns in the presentation of our results to each other, especially when those results were arrived at by the use of recognized methods with the aim of improving established theories. Prose is, first and foremost a promise of something, not a demand. What is required of us is simply that we make our knowledge available to each other as a resource.

They only usually feel this way for a moment. I can normally talk them down from the precipice before they throw their research to the winds of New Literary Forms and begin to write dialogues, or poems, or even comic books. I try to tell them that writing prose, however hard it may be to do well, is easier to do at least competently than these higher arts. Much more importantly, it is easier to understand. It it is kinder to your readers, your peers, to tell them what you think in coherent paragraphs arranged to add up to a larger thesis. The reader can examine your ideas one at a time and make of them what they will. They can compare your reasons for thinking something with their own reasons for thinking the same or the opposite. They can pick your ideas up and put them down and use them as they wish to help them along in their own projects. They are not being asked to have a profound transformational experience when they read your prose, they are merely being given some things to think about and, with time, new knowledge to add to their own.

When we foreground academic “requirements” we make the work of writing less enjoyable than it needs to be. But, ironically, the best way to put them into the background is to incorporate them explicitly into our process. Some people feel constrained by an 8000 word limit on their articles. But in what sense is it a limit? Isn’t it just because they want to say too much on this particular occasion, to have too “total” an impact on the mind of the reader, to dominate it too completely, that they want more words to work with? To see what I mean, think of another requirement that can be usefully converted into a resource: the deadline. If I give you a week or a month or a year to write something, what does that tell us if we haven’t decided what you are going to write yet? And why not just reverse our thinking here and choose something to write about that we can reasonably complete within the given amount of time, the given amount of words.

What we need is a subject to write about that fits comfortably into the time and space we have been allotted or (as is more often the case) the time and space we have allotted ourselves to work. This takes an exercise of judgment and that judgment can be developed over time and through practice. This why I encourage writers to learn to master a single moment. At the end of one day choose one thing you know well enough to write a single paragraph about at the start of the next. Then spend 18 or 27 minutes writing it followed by a two or three minute break. Get on with your day. (That could be another paragraph, if you had decided that the day before as well. You could write up to nine paragraphs this way in three hours.) With time, you get better at choosing just the right thing to write about — a paragraph’s worth of your knowledge. The writing moment becomes more and more enjoyable as a result.

We begin to think of the dimensions of the paragraph, not as requirements or restrictions, but as resources. We have at least six sentences and at most 200 words at our disposal. We have exactly 27 minutes to bring it together. We are freed from distractions and interruptions as we write. We have one job and the time we need to do it well. We should feel free here, wealthy even, not confined to the cell of a debtor’s prison.

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