Friday, October 23, 2009

40 x 6

"In dieser Weise wird die zweifache Ausdehnung der Schreibfläche für die Übersichtlichkeit verwertet." (Gottlob Frege)

I've stressed the importance of a finitude in relation to time. In this post, I want to say something about how to situate a paper in a finite space. The space of the page.

I've actually also talked about this before: making outline limits your writing project in space just as making a writing schedule limits the project in time. But today I want to work on this in a more fine-grained way.

Ask yourself, How many sentences does a journal article consist of?

To get a rough sense of the answer, imagine a paper consisting of 40 paragraphs, where each paragraph has 6 sentences. Now, it should be possible to pick one of those sentences in each paragraph as your "key sentence", i.e., the sentence that states plainly the point you're trying to establish with the paragraph. You can make a list of those sentences.

Each will define a sub-unit of the the whole article. It's a good unit to work with for academic writers because a paragraph is judged not merely by its style and grammar, but by its coherence and content. It is in the writing of whole paragraphs that you express your ideas. When writing paragraphs you are constructing the components out of which you will build the whole paper.

Once you have identified the (roughly) 40 paragraphs you need to write, then, you have a good sense of your larger but not unlimited task. You will need to write roughly 240 sentences. A paper can actually be much longer or shorter than that, measured in terms of the number of sentences. But that number gives you that nice 6:1 sentence:paragraph ratio. The intention is to give you a sense your finitude as an academic writer.


Presskorn said...

Great Frege quote... The sole purpose of Frege’s Begriffsschrift is to lay bare – not to establish or constitute – inferential relations. I suppose the purpose of writing 40 key sentences is much the same, i.e. to lay bare the inferential structure of your paper. Actually writing the paper, we might say, is to establish or constitute a set of inferential relations, but that task is not that daunting when you know what it is that you want to establish. As you correctly say, it gives a sense of finitude to the task.

Thomas said...

It's one of my favourite quotes. It's what connects Frege's early work to Wittgenstein's later work (through Frege's later and Wittgenstein's earlier). All academic prose should be Begriffsschrift by other means.