Reverse Engineering the Writing Process

I tried something a little different yesterday when presenting Writing Process Reengineering to a group of researchers most of whom were already familiar with my approach. Normally, I begin with the nature of academic knowledge, situate the problem of writing within it, and introduce the paragraph as the “unit of academic composition”. Only at this point do I explicitly introduce the reader’s “difficulty”, and give the writer the task of alleviating it.

It’s possible, however, to turn this completely on its head. We can start by imagining a single minute of the reader’s attention, the act of reading an individual paragraph of our writing. From this we can imagine constructing the experience the reader is having, i.e., we can imagine the “the writing moment” that produced the paragraph. We can then imagine a series of such moments, which will produce a paper, and then begin to analyze the competence — philosophical, rhetorical, literary — that such a paper represents. That is, we move from the reader’s experience to the writer’s knowledge.

I sometimes advise students to imagine their teachers as they read their essays. Let’s consider just one paragraph, perhaps half a page of writing. Suppose the teacher were to raise a simple question: “Does this paragraph look like it took 27 minutes to write?” Does it seem like something another human being paid careful attention to for about half an hour. Do the words look like they were chosen deliberately, under orderly circumstances, for the purpose of presenting a particular idea? Did the writer have my experience as a reader during the foregoing minute in mind? Did the writer make a specific effort to use that minute of my time to utmost effect?

You don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that quality can sometimes be derived from quantity. Simply by understanding the reading moment as a one minute encounter with a paragraph (at least six sentences, at most two-hundred words) and the writing moment to be 27 times longer, we imply or suggest a standard of quality. Some paragraphs will be so good that we’d be impressed to learn it took only half an hour to compose. Others will be so sloppy that we cannot imagine a serious writer having given it more than five minutes of their attention.

These judgments can often be made without any estimate of knowledge the writer possesses. Even someone who is wrong about the facts can present their ignorance and error clearly. We do, of course, have to begin by attributing basic academic literacy to the writer, i.e., an ability to read and write scholarly prose at whatever level the student (or scholar) is at. But under a set of “normal” assumptions, I think our estimate of the time that might have been put into composing a paragraph can be quite meaningful.

This estimate, in turn, tells us what we can spend our writing time doing. Begin with a simple, declarative sentence that states something you know. Decide whether the reader will find it primarily hard to believe, understand or agree with. If none of these seem relevant, ask yourself why you’re going to write a whole paragraph supporting, elaborating or defending it. It’s possible you imagine your reader will be merely bored with your claim, for example, and you’d like to get them excited about it. In some cases, that’s a perfectly legitimate writing task.

Executing any of these tasks — supporting, elaborating, defending or motivating a claim (you may be able to think of others) — is the core activity of any writing process. It’s the thing you do again and again. The paragraph is the thing you make and, through deliberate practice, become better and better at making. Once you’re good at this. I.e., once you are good at making effective use of a single minute of your reader’s attention, you can begin to arrange those paragraphs into series: essays and papers and chapters. You can begin to plan 5 or 11 or 40 or 120 or 240 minutes of your reader’s attention. That’s what Writing Process Reengineering is all about.

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