The Second Discipline: Assertion

"Every writer has his own way of working. That's mine.
I take a drink before dinner." (Ernest Hemingway)

I’m trying to break the activity of writing down into small, manageable tasks. In my last post, I suggested spending just two minutes thinking about an intellectually interesting object. Basically, I was suggesting you train your ability to decide what to write about. Today, I want to take this only three minutes further, training your ability to decide what to say about it. Remember, this is all happening at the end of your working day, just before you begin to relax for the evening. Altogether, the first two disciplines should not take much longer than five minutes.

Spend three minutes writing a sentence that says something you know about the object you just selected. You can describe the background on which you and your reader find it interesting or you can make your theoretical expectations of it explicit; you can write about how you study it or state a result of your analysis of it; or you can discuss the implications of your research for theory or practice. The important thing is to write a true sentence about the thing you just decided was of “intellectual interest” to you and your peers in your research community (for students: this means your class).

Jot down a short simple sentence right away and then spend the time refining it. As you play around with it, make sure it’s always a grammatically correct sentence. That is to say, make sure that you’re always saying something intelligible, always making an assertion. You’re trying to come up with the key sentence of the paragraph that you will write tomorrow morning. A good way to keep yourself grounded is to write a sentence that you didn’t just discover was true. Don’t write something you learned today, or even this week. Say something you knew was true already last week. The underlying discipline here is that of drawing on your deep base of knowledge. You are training your ability to assert yourself with confidence. Much of that is about choosing what to say.

Since every tweak you make to this sentence leaves you (if you’re following my advice) with a complete sentence, you can end this exercise arbitrarily, i.e., not when it satisfies you but when the time is up. After three minutes, stop. Your working day is now officially over. Time to relax. I’ve been calling this “Discipline Zero”, the art of stopping, the skill of no longer thinking about your research. You need to be able to do this at the end of the day, but also at the end of every paragraph you write, so we’ll be returning to it again and again. Decide what you’re going to say. Then, like Hemingway, put it out of your mind and wait to see what your subconscious came up with in the morning.

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