Wednesday, April 06, 2011

How to Write

[These are the notes I used for a lecture in Leicester last month. The comments in square brackets have been added for this post.]

Academic writing is the craft of articulating what you know. To articulate is to join(t), to separate and to connect. [The verb "to join" here means "to bring together and attach"; I'm using the verb "to joint" to capture the act of installing joints where there weren't any before.]

How many things do you have to know to complete your writing assignment? [We all have "writing assignments", not just students. The pressure to write a journal article, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, is an assignment to be completed. When they leave school, many students will get jobs that will assign writing to them as a matter of course.]

What do I mean by "know" here?

To know something is to be conversant about it. [You are not just joining things you know to each other. You are joining what you know to what others know.] Knowledge is not just a mental structure; it is a social posture. The virtue of structure is strength; the virtue of posture is grace. Call this strength and grace "intellectual composure". It is a facility (ease) with words.

[I am here trying to emphasize that education is not about putting something in your head. School is an opportunity to train your hands. It is what you are capable of when you leave school that matters.]

To know something is to be able to com-pose a prose paragraph about it, to put words about it together.

We write sentences. We compose paragraphs.

The paragraph is the unit of composition.

A paragraph consists of exactly one claim, expressed in one sentence and supported by about six more. It is about 200 words long.

Now, how many things do you have to know? (Hint: divide your word limit by 200.)

"The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water." (Ernest Hemingway)

"To know whom to write for is to know how to write." (Virginia Woolf)

The ideal introduction consists of three paragraphs, answering three questions: What is going on in the world? What is going on in the literature? What am I going to say?

Academic writing is not "the loneliness that is the truth of things" (as Woolf said of literary composition). It is not about knowing who you are, but about writing knowledgeably for others.

[You would not expect to learn how to play the piano simply by watching other people play. Why do you imagine you can learn a subject simply by reading and going to class?] Like any craft, mastery comes from practice. Write a prose paragraph every day. [Suppose you already spend five or ten hours a week studying, i.e., reading, for your classes. Take one or two of those hours, twenty minutes a day, say, to write. Don't say you are already too busy. I didn't say take an extra 20 minutes. I said write instead of reading for those twenty minutes.] You will not regret acquiring that discipline.

* * *

[The more I think and talk about it, the more committed I become to the idea that what I teach can only really be learned by doing. While I do sometimes offer tips and rules to students, I try to avoid the appearance that I'm trying to ameliorate their ignorance about writing. I am, rather, a kind of moralist. I am not passing on knowledge, but sharing wisdom. It is a very practical wisdom, of course, a craft sensibility. The students must learn to appreciate the materials that their discipline works with. They must get a feel for quality. The only way to do this is to pick them up and touch them. To get their hands dirty. To write.]


Anders Ƙstergaard Jensen said...

Excellent blog post on the process of learning how to write properly. As a former CBS student, I can only agree that students should practice writing skills more as part of their academic studies. CBS students are good at doing a budget or flicking together a business application --- but their general skills in communicating and delivering an important message are most often non-existent. Writing skills are today such an inherent part of the average career that the university, in my opinion, should offer courses in proper English academic writing.

I think you will enjoy this article in the Danish news paper, Politiken (in Danish only, sorry):


Thomas said...

My view is that we should drop the (often tacit) assumption that one can know something without being able to write clearly about it. Knowledge simply is the ability write intelligently on a subject.

Knowledge only gets you so far, of course. But we should not call the other things that get us through "knowledge". And universities should stick to the important task of imparting and examining knowledge. It should reward only articulateness.