Rule #2

Never write about something you just learned this week. Always write about something you knew last week at the latest.

This rule tries to undermine even more radically the habit of trying to discover what you know in the act of writing. If you follow my rules, not only have you decided the day before what you will write, you have chosen to write something you knew already before the weekend.

What this rule is trying most of all to shatter is the illusion that your text exists “in real time”. It is trying to remind you that you don’t have to tell the reader what you know right now, in this moment. After all, your reader won’t be reading what you have written for several weeks, months or even years. There is no point in writing a text, at least not a text for publication, at the “cutting edge” of your knowledge because it won’t be published until well after you have learned so much more anyway.

Choosing to write something that you learned was true already last week will affect your style. You will write about it in a more permanent, less ephemeral tone. You are not running up to your reader and breathlessly communicating an “insight” that just occurred to you. You are simply writing down something you know in a form that will allow someone else, sometime later, to make use of it, or to offer some critical insights of their own that will improve your understanding of the subject.

Your style reveals the posture of your writing and it is your posture, in the moment of writing, that interest me. How are you comporting yourself toward the reader? What stance are you taking? You want to position yourself solidly between your own knowledge and that of your reader. You want much of the early excitement of your own discovery to have dissipated, so you can pitch claims coolly and calmly at your reader’s ignorance, fully conscious of everything your reader presumably knows. You use your awareness of what the reader knows to better bring your own knowledge to bear. You can anticipate their objections and you can build on the understanding that is already shared between you. You stand comfortably here, on two feet, solidly planted.

You can therefore write from the center of your strength. It’s a phrase I use often to try to remind people of the feeling of a comfortable run at a steady pace over varied terrain. Or the feeling of playing a piece of music you know well with others you have played with before. Or, if pugilism is your thing, the feeling of sparring intelligently over a few rounds with a well-matched partner in the boxing ring. Not all of your writing can be done in this way, from this center, but the great bulk of it should be. Rule #2 is intended to get you to that place, a place where you feel strong and comfortable as a writer, for at least 27 minutes every day.

Scholarship is not made of ideas we came up with in the shower this morning. It is grounded in a long tradition of thinking things through in a careful and orderly manner. Our writing is about that long, slow process of thought, not the momentary feeling of “getting it”. In an ideal world (perhaps I should say, in my ideal world) everyone would write about things they knew already eight weeks ago. But from the point of view training your style to bear the weight of, perhaps not timeless truths, but at least durable ones, it is sufficient that you separate your decision about what to write tomorrow from the research you have done this week. Put a weekend, I am trying to say, between your genius and your style.

[Click here for all the Rules.]

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