Deciding What You Want to Say

Good academic writers are people who can take a moment, or a series of moments, to write down what they think on a particular subject. Specifically, they are able to make effective use of twenty or thirty minutes to produce a paragraph of coherent prose. If they know something, they know that they know it, and also how they know it. So they can tell you what they think and why they think so. Working under a reasonable set of constraints, they can put all of this in writing. That, in any case, is the sense in which I try to help scholars and students become good (i.e., better) academic writers.

If you want to be a good academic writer, therefore, you have to learn how to make up your mind about what you are going to say. In fact, making up your mind is part of the much larger competence of being “knowledgeable”, and deciding what you’ll say in a particular paragraph is a way of keeping that competence in shape. This is why I recommend that you train it specifically and deliberately. The simplest way to do this is to take a very short moment, lasting no more than five minutes at the end of your working day, and write down a single true sentence that you know. A simple, declarative sentence that expresses a justified, true belief that you hold. Pick something that you already knew last week, even something you’ve known for months or years. Make sure it’s the sort of thing that you might use a paragraph to support, elaborate or defend in writing. Picking an idea with the right volume and attitude (the right message and rhetorical posture) is part of the craft. It’s something you want to be good at.

By waiting until the end of the day, you are making sure that it’s only the decision you are making. You will not write the paragraph itself; you’ll just decide what your paragraph will say. You are not yet training your ability to actually compose a paragraph; you’re training your ability to decide what to say. When the decision has been made, you’ll call it a day and begin your after-work activities. Relax. See some friends. Get something to Eat. Love. Pray. Sleep. You know the drill. The important thing is not to think about that sentence for the remains of the day. It may find its way into your dreams, but that is exactly where it belongs — in your unconscious. You’ve decided what you want to say, but you’re not yet in any position to decide whether it was a good idea, i.e., whether you made the right decision. You’ll find that out tomorrow.

Putting some conceptual space (and some actual time) between the decision and the execution, not only lets your unconscious prepare for the writing in the morning, it also sharpens your focus during the actual decision-making process. You go into it knowing you only have five minutes to think of something. So you’ll be picking ideas that are easily available to you, not ideas that you’re still struggling to understand. You’ll be calling on your clearest and most distinct ideas. (Descartes would be proud!) If you’re working on a project or paper, some ideas will be at the front of your mind, but only some of them will be clear enough to note down in a sentence given only five minutes of your attention. Those are the ones you want to choose from.

I know this all seems very artificial. But it is actually possible to develop this ability, and once you have it, you can apply it in more spontaneous ways. I will always insist that the best writing emerges from decisions that were made the day before they were executed. (In fact, most of the best actions are probably taken that way.) But those aren’t always the conditions under which real writing gets done. That’s why I’m suggesting you practice; for just a moment every day, or every other day, give your self slightly more ideal conditions than normal. Be a little more deliberate than you’re used to. Remember that athletes aren’t always competing, musicians aren’t always performing. Sometimes they’re just trying to get better. On Monday, I’ll say something about what to do with your decision when you get up the next day. Today, I just wanted to stress that making the decision is itself a valuable skill you develop through training.

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