Knowing and Writing

Scholarly writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. To learn how to do it well it you must start with something you know. If you are always trying to discover what you know–or, worse, what the truth in fact is–in the act of writing then you are not practicing the relevant craft. It is like trying to learn how to draw hands without actually looking at a hand and trying to draw it. Start with your own hand. Draw a picture of it. Do it again and again and you will become a better draftsman.

If … the artist finds himself constrained, by any consideration of expression, treatment or style, or by his deference to the peculiar nature and limitations of his tools and materials, to adopt or invent a convention or a symbol and to substitute the semblance of a bunch of bananas or a bent fork for a representation of the human hand, then the particular problem dealt with in this book does not arise. (Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands)

Writing down what you know is similar in many respects. Many scholars find themselves constrained, let us say, by theoretical considerations that force them to substitute the equivalent of bananas and forks for accurate representations of hands. For them, “writing” is simply stringing together a bunch of conventional symbols, sometimes slightly bent. What they should do is begin with a clear statement of what they know–a simple, declarative sentence they believe is true and can justify in prose. Then they should work for about half an hour crafting a paragraph that supports, elaborates or defends it.

It has become clear to me that I have to spend more energy on this point in my coaching and teaching. This separation of knowing from writing and its careful articulation, i.e., parting and then joining them, cuts against what very many people think they should be doing. Indeed, it’s the opposite of what they’ve been taught to do. Until this point of departure is established, my technique is more likely to obstruct progress than to support it.

The separation of knowing and writing takes discipline. Its basic form is this: Always decide the day before what you are going to write. That is, bring something you know before your mind today and then write about it tomorrow. Let sleep keep them distinct. Also, choose something that you knew already last week. Put a weekend, at least, between your learning process and your writing process, between your research and your paper.

2 thoughts on “Knowing and Writing

  1. The quote and its attendant metaphor are brilliant. I shall incorporate them in a lecture early this coming semester for new course in applications of microeconomics in business. The lecture is to present the advantages and disadvantages of verbal, graphical, and mathematical models of a common economic phenomenon. Bent forks, bananas, and … blather?

    A question for you and the folks you coach: I find a verbal presentation to others between the knowing and the writing is invaluable — am I peculiar or is this common?

  2. I define knowledge as (1) justified, true belief, (2) the ability to hold your own in a conversation with other knowledgeable peers and (3) the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph. So, yes, definitely, verbal presentation is in there. It’s part of the craft.

    A few years ago on my other blog we talked about Kleist’s belief in “the gradual perfection of though while speaking”.

    I love that Oliver Senior quote too. It’s one of my favorite books, actually. There’s much to learn from how we draw hands about how to write paragraphs.

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