Monday, November 19, 2012

What to Do

You have twenty-seven minutes. You have decided in advance what you want to say. All you have to do now is write it down in at least six sentences, at most two-hundred words. But how to proceed?

(The question "How to write?" can be answered at various levels of abstraction, often to various degrees of frustration for the questioner. "Write at least one paragraph, for at least half an hour, every day," is one answer. "Write what you know," is another. "Think of your reader," a third. When writers want something more specific I sometimes find myself saying simply "Put words together in a meaningful way, that's how." This week I want to see if I have something more useful to say about how actually, how exactly, to write a paragraph. As always, I want to emphasize that this is just a suggestion. If you're not doing it this way, you're not necessarily doing it wrong. But if you are unsatisfied with your way of doing it, you might try some of the things I suggest.)

First, write a sentence that expresses the truth you've decided to state. This is the key sentence. Make it clear, concise, to the point. You will find it is useful to have articulated this sentence as part of your decision to write. Simply type out the sentence as you conceived it the day before and then make sure it still says what you want it to. You don't want to spend a great deal of time agonizing about it; after one or two minutes, this task should be behind you.

Now, think of your reader. Ask yourself, what is the difficulty that this sentence implies? Will the reader find it hard to believe, or hard to understand, or hard to agree with? Once you have located the difficulty, write two sentences that addresses it head-on. If you think the reader will not believe you, write two sentences that provide evidence. If you think the reader will not understand, write two sentences that clarify the meaning of certain terms. If you think the reader will disagree, write two sentences that deal with his or her objections.

Alternatively, the reader may simply be intrigued. "Tell me more," you might imagine the reader thinking after reading the key sentence. Well, write a couple of sentences that elaborate.

In any case, you now have three sentences. You're halfway there. For each of the two new sentences, repeat the procedure. What's the difficulty now? Or should I just go on? Ask your imagined reader. Keep in mind that the difficulty may now have changed. You may have begun to elaborate and must now explain your meaning or defend your position. You may have begun to tell a story that is now becoming implausible enough to require documentation.

Hopefully, you've anticipated some of these needs in advance and brought some notes with you that help you craft one or two sentences to provide further support for the two supporting sentences you already wrote. Whatever you do, don't let an unforeseen difficulty make you break off your writing and look for something to read. Try to find the answer within yourself—less mystically, do the best you can on the basis of the preparation you actually did. Next time, you will prepare better, with this experience in mind.

After about twenty minutes, working in this way, you should have a good-sized block of prose. Maybe 8 sentences, 175 words, say. Now begin to make them more coherent. You may have to write a sentence that brings everything together at the end. Or you may just need to improve the intelligibility and flow of the sentences you've written. When the twenty-seven minutes are over, stop.

Until they are over, do not stop. Tomorrow I'll say something about what to do if you find yourself with a lot of time on your hands after writing the raw sentences.

See also: "What to Do Now" and "What to Do Next".


Andrew Shields said...

I'll be adapting this for students to do an in-class exercise tomorrow morning, on Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death."

Thomas said...

That's cheerful news! Let me know how it goes. If they'll let you, send me some results to post!

Andrew Shields said...

Postponed until next week. (Had to spend a good part of the session talking about plagiarism ...)

Fides said...

There's a big assumption in this - that you already know *exactly* what you know and what you want to say. Maybe in scientific disciplines that is the case... but that's not generalisable to *all* academic disciplines, in my experience. See for example Daniel Doherty's "writing as inquiry" - writing can also be a process of clarification. Your guidelines seem to assume that that process has already taken place - correct me if I'm wrong.

Thomas said...

I agree that there is a kind of writing that constitutes inquiry. I simply insist that, in addition to that kind of writing, there is a kind of writing that consists simply in writing down what you know.

To practice (in both senses)* this kind of writing, you don't need to know exactly what you know, nor even exactly what you want to say, you just have to decide what you want to try for twenty-seven minutes to say in a single paragraph. I'm not saying there aren't any other kinds of writing. I'm drawing attention to a kind of writing that is, all too often, neglected, and which many writers would do well to work at a bit more deliberately.

By conflating "writing as inquiry" with "writing for publication" you are likely to undermine both processes. There is no academic discipline in which all writing is always also inquiry, though there are many scholars who have been made unhappy by thinking so.
*i.e., in the both in sense of doing it in a regular, orderly fashion, and in the sense of doing it for sake of improving your ability to do it.