Friday, May 22, 2015

Strong Kindness

"The reader ... is, of course, free to make what he will of the book he has been kind enough to read." (Michel Foucault)

My daughter has been singing the song for weeks, which is why that allusion to Rihanna slipped into my last post. "The reader," I had said, "is always fourfiveseconds from wilding. They have given you their attention. Don't take their kindness for weakness." Now, when I say the reader is always a few seconds "from wilding", I mean simply that we're all busy people and, if we grow impatient with a needlessly difficult text, we might, if not throw it wildly across the room, at least put it down and look for something else to read. And the other line from that song captures nicely the emotion that drives us away from the text. We feel that our kindness has been mistaken for weakness.

The important thing to remember is that, as scholars, we don't have to get our reader's attention, nor even hold it. The reader has their own reasons for giving it to us. We have to use it. We can expect the reader to read us carefully and deliberately and with curiosity. The reader expects to be addressed as someone who has a great deal of knowledge in advance. You must not try to teach the reader something that is already part of the reader's attention, part of their reason for reading you. Rather, what you say must depend on a great deal of knowledge to be understood. It is in this sense that the kindness of their attention is not weakness. On the contrary, it is grounded in their strength.

But in what sense is it right to call it "kindness"? Not, to be sure, in the sense that they are doing you a favour by reading you. To be kind originally meant to do something "with the feeling of relatives for each other". That is why "the kindness of strangers" is such a beautiful thing. And scholarly writing is very much based on this idea of being "of the same kind" even when one doesn't know one another personally. One presumes a shared body a knowledge, a shared tradition. And so we read each other's work, not with actual personal knowledge of the other, as we would read a letter from a relative, but with a presumption that we come from the same "background", that we've had the same, as it were, "upbringing". Our kindness displays this impersonal kinship. The reader is already listing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Third Minute of Your Reader's Attention

A good introduction to a journal article need not take more than three minutes to read. In the first minute, you construct a world of practice; in the second, you frame an object in theory; in the third you state your thesis. After the three minutes are up, your reader should know what you are trying to show them and how you intend to show it to them. This morning I want to talk about the third minute—the last paragraph of the introduction.

Remember that your reader already knows what (worldly) practice you are writing about and what (scientific) theory you are guided by. The third paragraph could begin "This paper shows that...," and then state your thesis in clear, plain language. The sentence will take maybe five seconds to read. Next, there should be two or three sentences—ten to twenty seconds' worth—about your method. Then, two or three sentences summarising your analysis (stating the sub-theses that amount to your larger thesis, which you've already stated). Finally, there should be two or three sentences that summarise the implications section of your paper, answering the question, "So what? Why is this important?"

This paragraph is useful to think about in part because it is possible for me to structure it at such a fine level of detail without knowing what you are writing about. If we assume (as we should) that the reader has already given you their attention, and we assume (as we can) that the reader can read 200 words in about a minute, then we can reasonably ask what the reader should be experiencing basically second for second. Reading, after all, is a linear process. We are designing an experience for the reader one word at a time; we control exactly what is "going through the reader's mind".

About five seconds to state your thesis. Fifteen seconds of method. Fifteen seconds of analysis. Fifteen seconds of implications. And, yes, please remember, friends, that, like you, the reader is always fourfiveseconds from wilding. They have given you their attention. Don't take their kindness for weakness.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Scientific Minute

After you have constructed a shared world for you and your reader, it is time to remind them of your world-view. This is the shared perspective on the facts that your scientific discipline establishes. Again, imagine that you have a minute of the reader's time. And imagine you already know how your reader sees the world. Give yourself 27 minutes to write at least six sentences and at most 200 words that remind the reader of your concepts, i.e., your "categories of observation", i.e., the mental equipment that turns the flux of your experience into stable "objects of inquiry". What theoretical frame are you bringing into this world to see it with?

As in the first paragraph, you are not going to say anything earth-shattering. You and your reader are still only trying to get to know each other. (This is the second minute of their attention.) Even deconstructionists have friends that their "hermeneutic of suspicion" doesn't shock or offend. In this paragraph, you are writing among these friends, or your peers anyway. What you say here will not surprise your reader; on the contrary, you are going to be telling them what they expect of the world. Whatever you say here, you are expecting the reader, in turn, to agree with, without much effort.

There are two general strategies for introducing your scientific point of view (the view of the world you share with your scientifically trained peer reader). You can either remind them of the consensus that brings the members of your field together, or you can remind them of the controversy that organises it into factions. Most fields will have both options available. There will be a traditional underlying consensus about some matters, and a currently ongoing controversy about other things. If you research bears mainly on the consensus (in order to challenge it, perhaps) you spend your minute bringing it into focus for the reader. If your research bears mainly on the controversy (weighing in on one side or the other), your should remind the reader where the lines of conflict run. (If you must, though I advise against it, you can define your field also by its ignorance, a "gap" in the literature.) Whatever you say here, however, even if you draw up the lines of disagreement, your reader should immediately agree with you. You are not yet taking a position in the controversy (where the reader may take the opposite position). You are merely acknowledging, uncontroversially, that it exists.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Being in the World

Think of your reader. Imagine a reader who is just about to read your article. They came to it by some familiar route—a reference in another article, a search in the library's databases, a colleague's recommendation, an editor's request that they peer review your paper—or perhaps by mere chance. Something about the paper—its title or abstract or who has cited it—has told them that they should perhaps read it, even though they know a great deal about the subject already. They want to know what you have to add. Now, remember that reading, like writing, takes time. It's a process that unfolds in time—roughly speaking, one paragraph at a time, one minute at a time. The reader is giving you their attention; what are you going to do with it?

My suggestion is that you begin by showing the reader that you live in the same world and are concerned about some of the same things within it. If your paper is about managing teams, describe a world in which people are managed in teams. If you are writing about the dynamics of home ownership, describe a world in which people make decisions about whether to buy or sell their home, or whether to rent or buy. If you are writing about sensemaking in a crisis, write about a world in which organizations sometimes lose their minds under exceptional circumstances. In that first paragraph, you have about one minute of the reader's time, about 200 words, to show them that you know something about the world in which they live.

Tell them something uncontroversial. You don't want to spend the first minute your reader has given you arguing with them about what color the sky is. Tell them something they are immediately going to grant is true. Don't be shy. Tell them the Internet has changed the way businesses communicate with their customers. Yes, that seems pretty obvious and trivial but, if your paper is about the use of Twitter to sell shoes, that really is the world in which we live, a world full of businesses and customers, connected by the Internet. The reader is not learning something about the world yet, they are learning something about you. They are learning whether or not you have some interesting perspective on a world that obviously exists. Anyone can say that the Internet has changed the way businesses communicate with their customers. But only someone who knows the subject can write a full paragraph about it that is both interesting and informative. You know when the Internet began to be used commercially, perhaps. Or who invented Twitter. Or you know, in detail, the story of a famous business that failed miserably because it did not understand how to use social media. Nothing in that paragraph needs to shock the reader in order to impress them. They should come out of that first minute, that first paragraph, thinking in a useful and detailed way about the world they already know they live in. You have brought that world to presence before them with your writing. Sure, it was always there. But now it has a certain urgency. It is something that is worth looking into, worth looking at a little more closely. It has become a worthy object of study.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Reader's Situation

Let's look at your journal article one paragraph at a time, but from the reader's perspective. Think of reading as a linear process, with a clear beginning and a clear end. There's a moment just before the reading begins and a moment just after it ends.

Let's imagine the reader in that first moment. What's on the reader's mind? Well, the reader has some reason to read your article. (Remember: the next thing that happens is that they begin to read.) The reader's mind, then, is full of expectations about what you are going to say. They probably know who you are, i.e., what field you work in. They come to the text with some questions and with a great deal of rather specific opinions. Even a few prejudices.

Then the reading begins. After about a minute, the reader will have gotten through your first paragraph. If you have written it deliberately, which is to say, in support of a clearly defined key sentence that says one thing you know, then the reader will now presumably believe one particular thing to be true (sometimes "for the sake of argument", sometimes in charitable "suspension of disbelief"). If you are following my outline, this truth will not be new to them; they actually believed it before they started reading, but now they are also thinking about it. It is a truth about the world in which they live. More specifically, it is about that area of the world that contains the objects of their research—and yours.

One minute later, they will have been reminded of the state of the field in which they work, which is also the field in which you work. They will be thinking about the constitutive controversy or consensus that defines their own research program. A minute later, they will know what your paper is going to try to show them and how you intend to show it. After three minutes of reading, then, the reader will have had three distinct moments of understanding: "This is the world in which we live." "This is the scientific field in which we work." "This is what the author wants to show me."

Over the next few posts, I want to think very carefully about these first three minutes of reading. A great deal depends on them. They determine how the next 37 minutes will go.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Scholarly Situation

Suppose you had one minute to convince somebody that something is true. That's a pretty tight time-constraint, but suppose you were assured in advance that you would have their full attention and that they would give your argument careful consideration. Finally, suppose that you know a great deal about this person's current beliefs. You know what knowledge you share and on what points you disagree; you also know what style of argumentation will appeal to them. While the one-minute time limit is of course a serious constraint, then, you are otherwise in a good position to persuade.

Now, suppose you were given exactly twenty-seven minutes to prepare your one-minute pitch. And suppose you were given full freedom to choose the medium in which you would present it. What would you do?

I want to suggest that the smartest choice of medium would be writing. If the person you are trying to persuade spends that minute reading carefully, you have the best chance of getting your message across. Give yourself at most two-hundred words (that's about what a person can read in a minute) and spend your twenty seven minutes writing a paragraph to support the truth in question. Write the best possible paragraph you can, starting from a point that is defined by the knowledge you share. Take into account the objections your reader will have (remember that you know a great deal about the reader's beliefs.)

This is the literary situation of the scholarly writer. You are working in the most efficient medium available for the transmission of knowledge to a very intelligent, very knowledgeable—highly "opinionated", if you will—and very attentive person, with whom you share a great deal of knowledge and the state of whose knowledge you know a great deal about. This reader is necessarily rather critical, to be sure. Your argument will persuade insofar as it is compatible with the reader's existing knowledge. The reader is constantly comparing what you are saying with what they already know (perhaps with what you have told them in the foregoing minutes, in the preceding paragraphs). They are trying to think the thought you are suggesting to them. In a word, they are trying to understand you.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Regular, Deliberate Practice

A favourite reader of this blog tells me she has stopped reading. Not only is my posting not as reliable as it has been in the past, my posts have been too long and impractical. (Maybe I was right, after all, to apologise for being so "philosophical".) My regular readers are important to me, so I'm going to do something about this starting already next week. I'll go back to posts written between and 6:30 and 7:00 in the morning, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and to writing mainly about how to write scholarly articles.

In fact, I think I need to write two articles of my own—one about the process, the other about the product. In the first, I will present in a comprehensive way my approach to establishing reliable "writing moments" for the composition of prose paragraphs. In the second, I will present my outline of the "standard social science article". My aim is, first and foremost, to be helpful. But I recognise that I also have a "normative" project. I think social science would be better off if its contributors were more deliberate about the presentation of their results. My posts for the next little while will be about clarifying my proposal for getting this to happen.