On Telling People What to Do

For many years now, I’ve been trying to explain what I mean by “writing processs reengineering”. I have assumed that people need to understand something about writing in order to gain control of their writing process and produce a satisfying product. But I’ve also long been aware that people won’t become better writers simply by understanding and believing me. At the end of the day, they have to do as I say or they won’t actually improve. Recent experiences have led me to consider a more radical consequence of this simple fact. Perhaps all my explanations are meaningless until my authors (scholars, students) have actually done some writing under the conditions I propose. Perhaps I should tell them what to do first, and only afterwards explain what I mean. This is something I’m going to experiment with after the summer break.

Before I explain to them what “academic writing” is, then, I’m going to give them an exercise to do at home. It can be repeated as many times as they like, but I will probably suggest they do it three times before we talk further, before I try to explain what they’re doing. At the end of the working day they are to write down a simple declarative sentence that they know to be true. This should take no more than ten minutes and preferable only five; they should choose something they know comfortably, not something they’re still trying to understand. Then, at the start of the next they are to compose a paragraph of least six sentences and at most 200 words that supports, elaborates or defends it. That is, they have to decide whether they want provide evidence for the claim, explain what it means, or deal with some possible objections. They are to spend exactly 27 minutes doing this and then take a three minute break. That’s it. They do this three days in a row and then we talk again.

The instructions I just gave should be interpreted in the same commonsense way one would interpret an instruction to draw one’s hand. Suppose I told you to take five minutes at the end of the day and look at your hand in some fixed, comfortable position. Within those five minutes, sketch its outline on a piece of paper. Then, at the beginning of the next day take 27 minutes to draw it as accurately as you can in the same position (you can look, you don’t have to do it from memory). However difficult you may find it is to draw an accurate representation of your own hand, these instructions, surely, are not hard to follow. I want you to think of my instruction to write that paragraph in the same way. You may be unhappy with the result as a piece of writing, but there should be no doubt about what you are trying to do: write at least six sentences that support, elaborate or defend a well-defined claim.

Why, you might ask, should you do as I say before I’ve told you what you’re doing? Here I think I will simply invoke the master’s prerogative. You came to me for advice on the assumption that I know how to write, that I have something to teach you. I gave you some advice that happens to be an instruction. It will take less than two hours to complete and it will be a better use of your time (and mine) than having me spend two hours trying to convince you that you can become a better scholarly writer through deliberate practice. You trusted me enough to contact me; I’m asking you to trust me just a little longer. After that, I’m happy to justify my methods.

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