Friday, October 26, 2012

The Act of Writing

Let's narrow the topic to the act of writing scholarly prose. On my view, this act takes about 30 minutes and, properly speaking, only really happens if it happens daily. (That is, you are not behaving like a scholar if you write once every three months for 72 hours straight.) A scholar can commit between one and six acts of writing every day. I recommend 27 minutes of writing followed by a three-minute break.

I know that sounds rigid. Let me explain. Scholars do many different things and among their activities is writing. But some of that writing cannot be considered "scholarly"; scholarly writing requires a particular kind of attention. You know you are paying the right kind of attention when you are working on your text one claim at a time, which is to say, one paragraph at a time, for 27 minutes. In the act of writing, you are putting down something you know for consideration by other people who know something about the subject.

The art of writing scholarly prose effectively is really the art of using those 27 minutes effectively. It is important that the writer knows in advance (the night before) what he or she wants to say. The act of writing should begin at an appointed time and stop 27 minutes later, so there is no time to discover what you want to say. The first perhaps 15 minutes will be spent just writing—putting down things you are know are true and which support the major claim of the paragraph you are working on. After that, time permitting, you can do some editing. One important component of the act of writing, if you have the time and desire to do it, is to read your paragraph out loud. This will give you a good sense of what you are saying and whether you are saying it well.

Before you reject this approach to writing, let me point out that a standard 8000-word journal article consists of about 40 paragraphs. It can therefore be composed during about 40 acts of writing, or about 20 hours of work altogether. This will produce at least a first draft, but it will be much more "composed" than what most people are used to when drafting. I don't think 20 hours of work is a lot. Spread over eight weeks, it will require only thirty minutes a day, five days a week.

The point of this rigidity is that is it makes your writing process explicit. If you work in this way, you will soon learn exactly what you can accomplish in the act of writing. This can be a very assuring thing to know.


Z said...

This is a fantastic post and truly true. And such a relief.

I did well in school and in 4 years of an assistant professorship working this way, until people with fancier degrees and more confidence than I had convinced me otherwise. I have done poorly on research since and only recently decided to get back to this. It is so pleasant to find someone else thinks I was right all along.

Thomas said...

Thanks for the encouragement (and the plugs on your blog). Yes, it's strange that in the current academic culture valuing disciplined, careful work is almost a counter-culture. Your return to it is heartening to hear about.

fjb said...

I have no problem with the structural rigidity of the task, but (since it's a rare day when I don't find your advice helpful) I have to ask: if "there is no time to discover what you want to say" while writing, when do you see that happening. I can't think of anything I've completed and published that didn't include some ideas generated "in the act."

Anonymous said...

fjb - I first invented this for my dissertation and I was not thinking in terms of time but words: 250 words 6 days a week for a total of 1500 words a week. This took more than 27 minutes but not terribly much more, i.e. it could be done in half a morning and that did include some musing and looking things up.

But, basically, the theory was, when one stopped writing one knew what the next section had to say. So then, there was the rest of the day and the night, while asleep, to have the issue in mind and perhaps look up some more things about it, so that when one came back the next day to write 250 more words, one knew at that point what one wanted to get down.

I later moved to 30 minute blocks because of the job I had, where I didn't have as much as half a morning uninterrupted, so I cut back in terms of goals from a page to a paragraph. But in a sense, when you are writing every day you are never not writing; you are just relaxed because you have actually completed something, moved forward, each morning or each 24 hour period; this enables you (or me, at least) to be composing ideas while doing other things and then just sit down for 1/2 hour and write them out.

Thomas said...

@fjb: I think I'd distinguish between the question of what you're going to say and how you're going to say it.

Last night, I decided to write about that James Garner movie. And I even decided to treat myself to watching the whole movie, not just the relevant scene. I knew the night before, then, that I was going to say that "The writing space is like Garner's prison cell in Support Your Local Sheriff." Since I had just seen the movie, and had been telling (at least a version of) the story in my seminars, I was confident that I could compose a post about it in 30 minutes. Then, a 6:30 this morning I sat down and acted.

Now, "in the act" I did of course come up with some ideas that I couldn't have predicted in any detail last night. And some of them didn't even make it into the post. But there's another post tomorrow where they might be useful. My only point is that I stuck to the task of saying what I had decided to say, and I acted specifically to solve the problem of how to say it, for those 27 minutes. I didn't interrupt this task with new questions about what I wanted to say.

fjb said...

I see the what/how distinction, of course, but it's clearer some times than others. I'm a philosopher, so the case of coming up with and responding to objections comes to mind - it's hard to anticipate all that except in the course of expressing your arguments. I'm not trying to make some big trouble for your system - I just think this point has some play in it.

Thomas said...

Yes, I was raised as a philosopher too. And I think philosophers are probably the hardest people to sell this approach to because they take objections to be so integral to the formation of their statements.

But give me an example. What claim might you plan the night before and then not know "what to say about" until you start writing because what you now want to say involves dealing with objections? Why is dealing with objections not just the "how" in the case of particular kinds of claims (i.e., particularly objectionable or controversial ones)?

fjb said...

The most obvious cases I can think of would be when responding to an objection require more elaboration than one anticipated in order to be either persuasive, intellectually honest, or both; explication of and selection among multiple interpretations of a passage (whether or not one is objecting to it) might be the genus of which this is a species. In some such cases, the "what" you might have thought (the night before) could be covered in one paragraph might require (let's say) two - or a long one, by your preferred 200 wd/6 sentence unit. I can guess one thing you might say to this: you aren't "whatting" precisely enough; you should have thought about how this bit of the paper is going to go to a sufficiently granular degree to have seen ahead of time that you would have to plan two paragraphs (and corresponding 27-min sessions). One might get better, with practice and experience, at predicting some of this; but I doubt that one could become infallible. You can't be certain that you've gotten everything of this kind (i.e., proportion, how much prose to take to make certain points well) right before you start writing, so I don't see what is gained by beating oneself up for getting it wrong -- or just for not having strictly followed the idea process - on occasion. (And you're right, the fact that I'm mainly concerned with certain kinds of philosophical article determines some of my worries.)

Thomas said...

Thanks for the example.

First, let me say that I never say you should beat yourself up over not succeeding at writing the paragraph you set out to write in any particular 27-minute session. I'll beat you up if you don't sit down and actually work on it, but I understand that success in any given act of writing is always only partial.

I like this idea of accurate "whatting". In fact, the point is not to know what you will write so much as that you will write this paragraph (and not some other paragraph). You have privileged, first-person authority about this, by the way, because it's more of a decision or act of willing than a form of empirical knowledge.

(An aside: I once wanted to bring Deleuze and Russell together around a notion of "territorial thissing".)

So infallibility is not necessary. Nor is it always necessary to be precise in your "whatting" ahead of time. My approach just says don't come up with some new what-to-write in the act. Come up with it before or after, just not during the 27-minutes in which you've committed yourself to one "what" and not another.

Then, when your writing is finished for the day, make a list of the other things you now want to say. And write them down in the same way.

The reason for this is that you want to write down things that are present to you, in your mind, clearly and distinctly, and relatively unchangingly, for at least half a day. You want to be writing something you didn't just learn, but something that has been comfortably part of what you know for some time. You want to write down ideas that aren't still taking shape, i.e., changing.

Or, at the very least, you want to see how changeable they are by taking a firm, steady, unchanging look at them for 27-minutes. Ask them to stay put and see how they react.

fjb said...

Thanks, this is helpful. And I should say that - given the poles of a strict version of your approach and the kind of disappearance down rabbit holes that I'm sure we've all experienced when trying to write without planning, I would (and in fact do) err much more toward the first.

"You want to be writing something you didn't just learn, but something that has been comfortably part of what you know for some time." I could still get better at this - philosophers, I think, can be prone to ignoring this worry.

I wish I had privileged 1st-person access to everything I'm supposed to.

Helpful exchange - thank you.