People sometimes ask me how they know they are improving if they are not getting feedback. My answer is to remind them that no one has to tell them they are getting into better shape if they are running three or four times a week; nor does anyone have to tell them they are getting better at playing piano with daily practice. The trick is to put yourself into the same frame of mind with your writing.

What that means is that you have establish conditions that allow you to experience your competence. When you set aside a time to run, and map out a route, you are defining the run in a way that (if you’ve done it right) let’s you relax and enjoy it at your own (if you will) pace. You decide how intense it’s going to be, and you therefore open yourself to the details of the experience. The same goes for practicing the piano. Since you are in control of the conditions, you can listen to what you’re doing. It should be clear to you what sounds good and what doesn’t, what is easy to play and what is hard.

With your writing, my advice is to decide the day before on a particular claim to support, elaborate or defend, at a particular time, in a single prose paragraph (of at least six sentences and at most 200 words). Deciding what you will say is like deciding what route you will run or what piece of music you will practice. Now that you know what you’re doing, you can focus on whether or not you are doing it well. Fixing the moment in time lets you concentrate fully until your time is up. Then you stop.

It’s difficult to explain this in a way that is as effective as simply having the experience. Try it. Try writing a predetermined paragraph for a predetermined amount of time. Whatever else you may think of that experience, it brings the act of writing, and your ability to carry it out, to the fore. That’s the entire point of doing it this way. It makes improvement palpable.

One thought on “Improvement

  1. Justified belief…

    I don’t know which of the recent posts causes me to encourage you to exercise your poetical self and your philosophical self. Certainly, I am compelled by watching Brian Wansink being tarred and feathered. I am also compelled by your posts about experience and writing success.

    I would like to see you return to a topic that has appeared on and off in your writing: social epistemology. How is it that a group shares knowledge? I am an amateur in this arena, but I like the idea I might know something by experiencing it and I might also know something that is shared with me and I have some justification for my belief in its ontological status. It may be a “reliabilist” justification.

    As you note in one post, Wansink may be right about many things that he shares with his audiences, but his statistics-based accounts do not warrant justified true belief. Likewise, the brickbats thrown by statisticians are not sufficient to count as justification that Wansink is wrong about everything.

    You write of a student who has no justified true belief that the orderly writing process that you propose works. It is likely that only experience can provide that justification. Doubtful that the student would find my testimony that it works to be justification. But I cannot fathom any so-called scientific account (statistical?) that would suffice, either. But in my small work group we share justified true belief in your writing process because individual experience and reliable testimony combine in powerful justification. Interestingly, I do not find my own experience (across multiple instances) as powerful as when it is combined with the testimony of colleagues (fewer instances).

    I haven’t expressed my thoughts as well as I should in this comment. I used up most of my cognitive capacity on four paragraphs about natural kinds in management research this afternoon (I still cannot write in the morning …) and I have been preparing three more for Wednesday. So I will task you with deciding whether and how to do better than this hodgepodge.

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