Getting Better

It’s natural to expect to become a better writer over time. Students, especially, should expect to be better writers at the time of their graduation than when they started in their program. Specifically, they should become better at writing about a particular range of subjects, defined by their curriculum. But they should also, more generally, become better at writing about anything they happen to be knowledgeable about. This ability is a valuable one.

What does it mean to be good at writing about things you know? Let me emphasize, first of all, that not all people have this ability. They may be very knowledgeable about something but have never found a way of writing effectively about it. This is very often the case with “know-how”, i.e., the knowledge needed to do certain things, like cooking or playing the piano. Now, in a certain sense, you can’t be knowledgeable about “academic” matters without knowing how to write about them because the ability to write about them is part of the competence of knowing. But, in another sense, there are many knowledgeable scholars who either don’t write very good prose or write well only with great difficulty. These people want to become better writers separate from their desire to know more.

One of the reasons I promote the “writing moment” is that it lets you experience your competence as a writer in a particular way. One question you can ask is whether it is easy for you to write at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words about something you know in 27 minutes. Another, perhaps more important, question is whether you enjoy those minutes. Does it give you pleasure to write about things you know? It is my view that being good at something means, in part, being able to enjoy it. (This also goes for cooking and music.) Enjoyment is a trainable skill, we might say; knowing how to do something pleasurably is simply an advance on being able to do it painlessly. And if it pains you to do something you are doing it wrong. You’re not good at it.

By focusing your efforts on a single, well-defined claim (stated in the key sentence), and limiting yourself to a specific time in a specific place, you are giving yourself an occasion to have, and therefore potentially to enjoy, an experience. Too many people, too often, try to write without actually experiencing the pleasure it affords them. It is of course because, in their experience, it’s either tiresome or painful to write. But I suspect that, in an important sense, they’ve never really had the relevant experience. They’ve put words together on a page but they’ve never really tried writing. They haven’t given themselves the opportunity to enjoy it. That’s tragic because it costs so little — indeed, it only takes a moment — and brings such great rewards.

I suspect that pleasure is often just the feeling that we’re getting better at something. Maybe that’s always what it is.

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