Monday, August 23, 2010

Aims and Scope

My sixteen-week blogging regimen begins today. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I will write a blog post from six to seven in the morning and post it. This morning, I want to say a few words about what I think I'm trying to accomplish.

This blog is about academic writing, especially in management studies. Like any weblog, the main purpose is to keep to track of my thoughts, but the public nature of a blog forces me to strive for a certain measure of coherence. Writing something with the knowledge that anyone can read it when you're done is a very different experience from keeping a private journal of your thoughts or working on a text that may or may not be published months from now. Tom Wolfe once said that many writers of his generation turned to journalism in order to "work some the fat our of their style". I blog, in part, to keep my prose in shape.

But my aim is of course also to share my experiences. By day, I'm the resident writing consultant at a major Scandinavian business school, and I spend much of my time editing papers written by researchers. I also help them to plan their writing processes. Through this work, I have become increasingly interested in the craft of academic writing, indeed, in the craft dimension of research in general. I think the craft of research is too often neglected with the vague (hardly articulated) justification that theory and method are more important.

Long ago, Paul Feyerabend wrote a book called Against Method. The spirit of my blog this semester might best be captured by the working title of a book I hope to make some headway on this semester, namely, Beneath Method. The theme will be the everyday "care" that researchers must take in their application of theories and methods, the sense in which theories and methods can never replace thinking. This is not just a moral theme (though there is a bit of that, I'll grant); it's also a very practical matter of making sure that you have enough time to do your work carefully.

While I will focus mainly on what is, in a sense, the "end product" of research, i.e., the write-up, it is important to keep in mind that a quality research paper depends on quality research. Careful data collection and analysis (method) is very important, of course, but so is basic scholarship: careful attention to what others have written on the subjects that interest you. This issue has occupied my attention for some time now.

But the overall aim of this blog is to help improve the quality of our prose. That means I will say a lot (I hope) about "composition", i.e., the art of putting words together in an effective way. While "good" writing can often be distinguished from "bad" writing in a general way, however, I want to try to emphasize the virtues of academic writing specifically. Academic prose is governed by a great many conventions that sometimes irritate non-academics and students (and even some academics), but once its scope and limits are understood the challenge of writing well in this area offers a great many satisfactions. Let me conclude with an preliminary attempt to define the genre.

Academic writing is intended for an audience of knowledgeable peers. Its aim is to present ideas in such a way that they can be discussed by the relevant experts, i.e., by people who are qualified to offer criticism, not of the writing, but of the subject matter that is being written about. This means that academic texts must present both the idea and the basis on which that idea may be defended in a clear and efficient manner to an audience that may be presumed to know almost as much (and on some points more) than the writer. This makes it very different from popular writing, where the writer presumes to know much more about the subject than the reader. The craft of academic writing, then, is the craft of writing "knowingly". It is the art of presenting what you know to people who know enough to decide whether or not you really do.

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