Thursday, May 17, 2012

Saying and Doing

"And something else and something else."
Russell Davies

Scholars want to communicate their ideas. They want to say something to their community of peers. But too often this desire to say something, and to say something important, gets in the way of the actual writing. And the writing is important because it is in writing that a scholar's ideas has the greatest influence. It is the writing we assess the "impact" of. The worry about what they will say, however, gets in the way of the the problem of how they will say it. Russell Davies' advice to marketers is apt here: don't keep trying to come up with something to say to the customer. Come up with things you can do. "Start doing things."

In scholarship, it isn't really a choice between saying and doing, of course. The point is to approach saying as doing. What you have to "do" is to "say" something. And to say something you have to do something. That something is writing. Or perhaps its a matter of distinguishing between saying and writing. Writing is a way of communicating something without really saying it. Writing is more like doing something than saying something. The trick is to turn what you want to say into something you can do. Something you can do with your hands.

A journal article is made by doing a bunch of small things, not by saying one big thing. The small things add up, of course, but they don't have to become huge to be meaningful. In fact, if we know anything about academic discourse it is that the fate of an "idea", i.e., that which determines whether an idea is "big", is really out of our hands as authors. All we can do is assemble those all-important paragraphs. We can write between one and six of them every day. And we can put them together in interesting arrangements. Then we publish them and see what other people make of them.

Writing is something you do. But remember: if I tell you writing is action you must reply that, no, "it is the timid appraisal of yourself by lions".

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