Monday, June 27, 2011

The Challenge of Multiple Projects

At the Colony workshop last week, I was asked to devote the next (and final) workshop to the difficulties of managing multiple writing projects. I quickly decided to frame this in terms of 16-week challenge, and when I went back to my last post on the subject, what did I find? Matt's question about "working on multiple projects at once"? The challenge is precisely both a question and an answer.

Planning is all about appreciating your finitude.

Let's assume you are going on vacation at the end of June and that you'll be away until mid-August (counting a few summer conferences and workshops, etc.). By mid-to-late August you want to start up again. My advice is to make a plan to that effect. Use the fall break as a midway point. In Denmark that's week 42 (October 17-23). Count off eight full weeks before and eight full weeks after the break. That's August 22 to December 17. You've now got two limited periods of intensely planned (not necessarily intense) work. On how many of those days will you devote three hours to writing? On how many, two? On how many, only one or one half? What about those days where you can't give your writing even 30 minutes? Can you give it 15? 10? 5? Try resolving to write five days a week for eight weeks, and to do this twice between the summer and Christmas.

Write all those writing sessions (from 5 minutes to 3 hours) into your calender, well aware that you might have to move some of them around a bit, and even reduce some, in order to accommodate your other activities.

Now you can start making some goals. How many writing projects do you have going right now, even in the very early "just ideas in my head" stage? Make a list of them, starting with those that have substantial parts drafted and outlined, and stop when you're really just jotting down loose ideas as they come to you.

Then pick, say, three projects for the first 8 weeks. They don't have to be your most developed ones, but if there is one project that you think you can realistically complete within those 8 or 16 weeks and send off for review, it can be a good idea to choose that one. Perhaps pick another that you're just trying to start up. And a third that you want to send to someone to read and comment on.

The important thing is really that you think of the "project" not just as "the paper" but the process of bringing the paper from one stage of development to another. Outline the project's current state, and then outline it's desired end state (i.e., at the end of the 8 or 16 weeks). And then imagine what you will have to do to get it there.

Now go back to those writing sessions you've planned and begin to put the tasks into your calendar. The more often you take this challenge, the better you will get at cutting your work out for yourself.

Update: I just noticed that Tanya recently posted on this subject here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Claims & Support

One definition of beauty is: aptness to purpose. (Ezra Pound, ABC, p. 64)

A few months ago I argued that as an academic writer your job is to support claims. Preparing for our afternoon workshop on argumentation, reading Booth, Colomb and Williams' classic The Craft of Research, I am reminded how utterly non-earth-shattering (indeed, entirely foundational) this idea is. In the workshop, we will look at the logic and rhetoric of academic argument, which is to say, we will look at what it means to support a claim in the context of a conversation among knowledgeable peers. I will define some basic terms, of course, like "claim", "reason", "evidence", "warrant", and "objection", and I will talk about what Graff and Birkenstein call "the moves that matter in academic writing". In this post, I want to develop the metaphor of "support" in the sightly less metaphorical perspective of the "craft" of writing.

Consider the apprentice carpenter who is learning how to build cabinets, chair and tables. The finished product must, crucially, offer support. It must be structurally sound, and this will come both from the quality of the materials and the workmanship that goes into joining them together. The master carpenter draws on years of experience with various techniques and kinds of wood and guides the apprentice, not so much towards the right techniques or right materials, but the right experiences of joining materials together soundly. Some joints work best with some kinds of woods, others not so well. The support that is offered by a shelf in a cabinet is not of the same kind that is offered by a tabletop or a chair, though they all, it is true, "hold up". The apprentice is exposed to the possibilities that are implicit in the materials, the way they hold their shape, and the way the "give" under various kinds of pressure.

A chair can be tested in various situations. The elegance of its design is apparent in the efficiency with which it passes these tests. Now, there may of course be a great deal of "ornament" in a piece of furniture, features that serve no useful purpose ("all this useless beauty," Elvis Costello sings), and one must evaluate these features by the way they manage not to get in the way of the table or chair's primary function, namely, that of providing a stable thing to sit on and to put, say, your food on when you eat it. That is, the primary function of furniture is to hold things up in various ways: books on shelves, bodies on chairs, plates on tabletops. The alternative would be to leave them lying around all over the floor.

Your writing does the same thing, I want to argue, for your ideas. It holds them up, keeps them from lying around uselessly in piles on the floor. Even your most decorative ideas can be given a place in your writing, a place where they don't interfere with the orderly arrangement of the rest of your ideas. Most importantly, by furnishing your mind with structures (arguments) that support your ideas, and keeping things relatively neat and orderly, you are building a place where you can invite others in. They, too, can test these structures by putting ideas of their own on them. To situate an idea within the structure of argument (whether your own or someone else's) is to make a claim. Instead of holding the idea up yourself, you are putting it down somewhere, but not all the way down on the ground. You can pick it up later.

I hope I'm making my point. You are trying to build something that will help contribute to an orderly conversation. It must have a certain elegance, a kind of beauty, but it must also, very importantly, serve the purpose of supporting the argument you want to make, the series of claims you are trying to get across. You will learn how to do this well, not by exposing yourself to a set of principles or rules (whether mine, or Wayne Booth's, or Gerald Graff's), but by going into your workshop and joining the relevant materials (reasons, evidence) together to support claims against all manner of objections. The carpenter has to imagine how the table he builds will be used. And he will build it in such a way as to indicate its proper uses. He will not build a coffee table to look like a workbench or a dinner table to look like a writing desk. Likewise, when writing, make sure you build something that will serve your purpose, and make sure that this purpose is on the surface of the text. It is much more likely to hold up under the criticism of your peers in that case.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Half Way

While there is a strong group of committed colonists, it is my distinct impression that a number of people who signed up at the end of May, thinking they would get a lot of writing done in June, have begun to have doubts. I would like to take this moment, halfway through the CBS Writers' Colony to address those doubts and, I hope, put them into perspective.

In my original call for participants, I may have set the bar a bit high. Here's what I announced to the faculty members at CBS (that is, all of the Copenhagen Business School received the invitation):

The CBS Writer’s Colony is an opportunity to plan and execute a month of work in a good-natured, supportive environment. Participants will meet regularly with Thomas, individually and in groups as schedules allow. But those schedules are expected to give a high priority to both the writing and the Colony. The participants will commit to planning and keeping a detailed record of their writing activities—as a rule, no more than 20 and no less than 5 hours per week. They can also expect to help each other think through their writing projects a little bit every day—whether by phone, mail or in person. Participation is free but obviously requires a strong commitment to both planning and tracking their writing activities. In exchange for this commitment, each participant will receive continuous individual coaching and editorial support with Thomas. You will also receive follow-up coaching and editorial support when you receive your review reports in the fall. [It was assumed that most people would be working towards a journal submission before leaving for vacation.]

The passage that I have here bolded appears to have caused some retrospective guilt among participants, and have even caused some to drop out, or at least to consider dropping out. I want to provide an argument here for "sticking with it", at least in a manner of speaking.

After all, the commitment here is not actually to work for (if you do the math) at least 20 hours in June. It is merely to plan at least 20 hours of work and "keep a detailed record of your writing activities". That is, you are meeting your obligations even if you don't get anything done, but have a clear and explicit sense of what you did instead during those 20 hours of work. I'm trying to raise our awareness of the vulnerability of the writing process; I am not running a gulag!

The idea is quite simple, really. If you thought you were "finally going to get something done" in June, before going on vacation, the Colony was a way to carry that thought through, taking it into the details of your activities, rather than being just a vague ambition. There are roughly 20 working days in June (in Denmark there are quite a few state and religious holidays this month), so it is not an insurmountable task to ask yourself, sometime in late May, what you will be doing on each of those days. How many hours, each day, can you devote to writing? One? Two? Three? Four? (Don't go above that, it'll only wear you out and leave you without energy for the next day.)

When that simple act of reflection has taken place, make some run-of-the-mill decisions. What hours of what days will you devote to writing? You will end with 20-80 scheduled writing hours. Great! Now just stick to the plan as best as you can, and keep a record of how well you are doing. Even if you planned 60 but worked only 10, your commitment to the Colony will show in the degree of awareness you have about where those 50 hours went. Why was 60 hours unrealistic? What kept "coming up"? If there's no good explanation, well, then you've spent the month of June learning an important lesson about your work discipline, at least as it pertains to writing.

So, that's my basic point. If you've signed up for the Colony, stick with it to the end. If you never got aroudn to making a good plan, you've still got two weeks left, so make one today, and see how well you can stick to it until the end of the month. Try only planning half and hour a day and see if you can protect those five remaining hours. Don't show me or anyone else that you can do it. Show yourself.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Work, Workshop, Work Camp

Two lessons of the colony so far. First, it's good to have weekly activity. On Wednesday, we had a great workshop about how to structure the claims in your paper and we also decided on the themes of two workshops to come:

On Thursday next week, we’ll meet to talk about an important complement to any writing process, namely, the READING process. We’ll talk about how to coordinate the work of reading with the work of writing, and, importantly, how to keep them separated.

On Wednesday, June 22, we’ll meet to talk about how to structure an ARGUMENT, both as an exercise in logic and an occasion for rhetoric. On the logical end, we’ll use Booth, Colomb and Williams’ version of Toulmin’s model of argument, which teaches us to think in terms of claims, evidence, and warrant. On the rhetorical end, we’ll be guided by Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say, which teaches us to approach academic writing as participation in a conversation.

Second, like any summer camp, you can't just let people leave when they start to feel a bit homesick. You have to explain that the colony is a temporary inconvenience and an opportunity. You decide yourself how many hours to put into it, and the only question is whether you actually did put those hours in. Then we can ask what you got out of it.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Writing Can't Be Taught

Via OrgTheory (thanks Fabio), Joseph Epstein gives it to us straight:

After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advanced prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject, inspissated into a single thought, is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned—and that, friends, is the sound of one hand clapping.

I don't have an opinion of Fish's book or Epstein's review of it. I just really like that way of putting it.

So why do I bother trying to teach it? Because you can actually help someone learn if they are willing to put in the effort. At bottom, piano playing or skating or drawing can't be taught either, but someone who has learned how to do it can help someone who does not yet know how (but really wants to) figure it out. It's all in the figuring-it-out-by-yourself. Read other people and try to work out how they did it. And practice.

If you just want to write, you probably already know how. If you want to know how to write well you've got some work to do. And only you can do that work.

There are lots of tricks, but they are not tricks to writing. They are things like: first, clarify the key sentence in the paragraph, then write the paragraph three different ways. Or: make the five key sentences in a section of your paper so clear that you can memorize them and when you tell them to someone else only once they can give you the gist of the section back.

The knowledge you lack will be acquired simply by writing. There is no other way.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Jogging as a Model

This morning I had to get my son to the train station for school camp. I normally get home from my jog at around seven, which would have cut it close. So I cut the jog down by 15 minutes, which is to say, by half. Just once around the park. It was pretty insignificant as exercise, but better than nothing, not just because I did actually break a sweat, but because it kept to the routine.

You can do the same for writing. Even a short writing session is better than nothing. It lets your routine know that there's still a place there in the morning for your writing. There's a will to hold that place.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Second Approximations

The ideal introduction to a paper consists of three paragraphs. With 200 words to a paragraph, that's about 600 words. More importantly, with 6 sentences to a paragraph, that's about 18 sentences. Let's agree that the sentences in the introduction should be true. And let's suppose that you're happy with your introduction at present, i.e., you've done as much work on it as you intend to do for now. What's next?

Well, you could just go straight to he remaining sections of the paper (theory, method, results, etc.). But here's something else you could try. (Remember you said that the sentences in your introduction are true; so you must know why they are true, right?) Decide where each of the 15 sentences that support the 3 key sentences of your introduction are themselves supported in the body of the paper. If you're writing a paper according to my ideal image of one, the five supporting sentences of the first paragraph each need a paragraph of support in the "background" section. The five supporting sentences of the second paragraph need (at least) five paragraphs in the theory section. There will be two or three sentences about your method in the third paragraph, and one or two about about your results. There will also be a sentence about the "implications".

Write the methods sections as support for the claims you make about your method in the introduction. The sentence about the results can now be the key sentence of the opening paragraph of your results sections. Each of the supporting sentences become the key sentences of five or six paragraphs elaborating your results. You can "unfold" them one more time (or just some of them) if you choose. The sentence about the implications can work the same way in your "discussion" or "recommendations" section.

The whole point here is that your introduction really sets up the rhetorical problem of the paper. The paper solves that problem. And the relevant difficulty is always that of supporting your claims. So you should always, as a second approximation (after first approximating your temporal resources), try to articulate 20 or 30 claims to support.