Writing as Experience

Reading is an experience. As a writer, you are deciding what your readers will experience while they read what you have written. At one level, you determine exactly what they will experience, you decide exactly what will happen to them: one word after another will pass through their consciousness in the exact order you have arranged them. At another level, a great deal hinges on your ability as a writer and their competence as readers. Ideally, you will make them think something or feel something, or perhaps merely imagine something, but it will, in any case, be something you wanted them to think, feel or imagine. If they picture a white cat on a red rug, it’s because that was your intention. It was what you meant. Good writing makes the reader experience your meaning.

Now, experience takes time. It takes about five minutes to read a thousand words or about three words per second. In academic writing, a paragraph is normally at least six sentences long and should therefore occupy a minute of the reader’s attention, so about 10 seconds per sentence. That’s about 30 words. Of course, you won’t write an entire essay of 180-word paragraphs consisting of 30-word sentences, nor will your reader spend exactly one minute reading them at 3 words per second. But these measures give us a fair approximation of your problem as a writer and, therefore, the general sketch of a solution. Writing a paragraph means arranging a sequence of words that conveys your meaning (a thought, a feeling, or an image) in about one minute. At the end of that time, it should be clear to the reader what you are trying to say.

In academic writing, meanwhile, it should also be clear how you know. That is, after about a minute, the reader should understand the claim you are making and the basis on which you think it is true. This may mean that you cite your sources, whether they be scholarly papers or newspaper articles, or invoke your own data, whether qualitative or quantitative. Or it may just mean that you provide an argument, reasoning from premises the reader presumably shares. The reader may agree with your claim or not, and may find your basis solid or otherwise. (Note that the reader may agree with you and yet find your reasons wanting.) But before the reader moves on to the next paragraph it should be clear what you think and why you think so.

“A writer’s problem does not change,” said Hemingway. “It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.” You are not, or at least not usually, going to be communicating the full experience that produced your conclusions. You are not sharing your experience as a researcher with the reader. Rather, you are sharing your knowledge, the result of your experience. You are not telling them what happened to you in every detail but what it is like to be where you are. You’re telling them what the world looks like from your point of view and, by sharing your methods, how they, too, can see the world from the same vantage if they want to put in the time. First and foremost, however, you’re sparing them the trouble. If you write truly enough, many months of your effort can be represented in a single minute of the reader’s attention, a single well-written paragraph. That’s a marvelous thing in itself.

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