Mind, Voice, Style

If you are reading this blog you are probably a student or scholar working in a particular academic discipline. Take a moment and think of something within this discipline that you know well, something you have reason to believe is true. (At some level, after all, knowledge is justified, true belief.) It may be a simple, practical fact or complex theoretical insight. Think of something, in any case, that you might confidently assert among your peers. I’m not suggesting that holding such beliefs is the only thing you do, nor even the most important thing. I’m just reminding you that you do hold some beliefs in this way, and I want you to call one of these beliefs to mind.

Now subject this belief to doubt. Draw the belief into question. Ask yourself how you know that this thing is true. Ask yourself how good your reasons are, how likely your reasons to believe it are to be wrong. Keep in mind that it’s possible to be wrong for the right reasons or right for the wrong reasons. When was the last time you checked the sources that support your belief on this matter? Could new evidence have come to light? Might you simply be remembering the story in a convenient but ultimately inaccurate way? Pull the belief out of the space in which you are quite certain about it, and imagine it in a tougher room. Put it in a state of crisis. Think critically about it, just for a moment.

Now make up your mind. Is it true or false? What sort of investigation, if any, will you have to carry out to decide? What sorts of reasons will you bring to bear on this question? Are they the same as the ones you started with? (Your belief may remain firm during this process, though your reasons to hold it change.) Take about 10 minutes to consider the matter.

Okay, now find a peer to discuss it with. Ask them for 20 minutes of their time to talk through your doubts about something that you had previously been quite certain about. Your peer might immediately share your doubts, or even be quite sure you were wrong all along. Or this conversation itself might raise doubts in the mind of your peer. In any case, try to explain the conclusion you reached. Seek their input and advice. But don’t let the conversation go on and on. After twenty minutes, thank them and be on your way.

Finally, take a moment to write a single paragraph that supports, elaborates or defends your current belief on the matter. If your peer ended up disagreeing with you, you might consider writing the paragraph with them in mind, defending your belief against their objections. If your peer had a hard time understanding you, you might elaborate your meaning. If your peer found your assertion difficult to believe, try writing a paragraph that supports it with evidence. Don’t spend more than half an hour on this.

Hopefully the value of this exercise is obvious. It will let you experience your mind, your voice and your prose style directly. It will give immediate information about the quality of your thinking, your speaking and your writing. Pay attention to how you went about deciding what to think, what to say, and what to write. And notice that this is giving you important insight into how you think, speak and write. It’s also showing you how you can improve your ability to do these things.

Finally, please notice that they support each other. Or, at least, they support each other when you are doing them well. When you are not concentrating, however, they may undermine each other. In any case, the clarity of your mind and your voice will be apparent in the clarity of your style. Your style and your voice represent your mind, we might say; your writing and speaking represent your thinking. You do well to train these abilities and strengthen the connections between them.

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