Thursday, May 31, 2012

Time & Notions

The other night, I had an epiphany while watching this episode of Alan Watts' "Philosophical Discourse" series. It was probably not the epiphany Watts himself was trying to get me to have, but it was profound nonetheless.

First, notice the prepared but extemporaneous performance. He is not reading his presentation off a teleprompter as a television speaker would today. He has clearly planned his performance, but not written it. There are a number of things he will say sitting at his desk, then he'll get up and write on his wall (I really like the aesthetics of it when compared to today's digital backgrounds and computer animations), and then he'll sit down again. In each position, he has a number of ideas to present. As a well-known popularizer of Eastern thought, he has no doubt said everything he's saying here many times before. These are things he knows well, and things he says in order to affect his audience in a particular way. But his exact words—the sentences he constructs—are (it seems to me at least) improvised.

Now consider: the program lasts 27 minutes and 6 seconds. Dwell on that for moment. Fathom it, friends.

If you really know something, I always say, you can write about it. More specifically, you can compose a prose paragraph about it in 30 minutes. Everyone has their own way of doing it, but I often break it down as a couple of minutes to retype the key sentence (which you bring to the writing session) and focus your mind, then about twenty minutes of writing, then some revision and reading out loud. After twenty-seven minutes, I suggest you take a three-minute break. Then it's on to the next paragraph or the next task on your schedule. That is, Watts is here composing himself on the subject of "recollection" for exactly the amount of time I suggest you write a single paragraph in a journal article. Not only that, he seems to be following a similar compositional arc.

My epiphany came when I realized how much he actually has time to say. Remember that I'm assuming he didn't just come up with it. His presentation comes from a deep and stable base of knowledge. Imagine if he had not addressed himself to a camera but spent the time silently writing at his desk. "Recollection is..." he might have begun. And imagine if he had now spent the time composing exactly six sentences, and no more than 200 words. Meditate on that.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Time & Motion

"Joy in his blood bursting his heart, - the bliss!"

It took Haruki Murakami 11 hours and 42 minutes to run 100 km. It takes me about half an hour to run five. Running every day, then, for thirty minutes I would cover the same distance in 20 days that Murakami covered in one. But notice that it would only take 10 hours of running, where it took Murakami almost twelve.

The fastest marathon runners complete the race in just over two hours. I could cover the same distance in about 4 hours, running 30 minutes every day for 8 days. "In 2005, the average marathon time in the U.S. was 4 hours 32 minutes 8 seconds for men," Wikipedia tells us.

But running for a whole day broke Murakami's heart. Afterwards, "the desire to run wasn't as clear as before," he tells us. It took ten years to get over it. By contrast, my current regimen of running between 2.5 and 7.5 kilometers every day is getting increasingly addictive. While Murakami "lost the enthusiasm [he]'d always felt for the act of running," mine is growing day by day.

"Recent studies have shown that pushing your body to run 26.2 miles can cause at least minor injury to your heart," Men's Health explains. That ultramarathon, then, may quite literally have broken Murakami's heart. Let's remember that Pheidippides, the original hero of the marathon, died in the process.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

And It's Not an Ultramarathon Either

"I am not a human. I'm a piece of machinery. I don't need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead." (Haruki Murakami)

In 1996, Haruki Murakami ran a 100 km marathon around Lake Saroma in Hokkaido, Japan. He devotes a chapter of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running to it and to its consequences, which he calls, somewhat understatedly, "runner's blues". When I read it I thought something like "post-exhaustion stress disorder" might have been more fitting.

As he describes it, the first half of the race gave him no particular difficulties. Although he had run further than he'd ever run before, he remembers it simply as "silently running". But then it begins to get hard. He runs for thirteen miles in constant pain, telling himself that he is not a living being but a machine. (Even this cannot explain his ability to go on, actually. The machine should have been breaking down. Seizing up.) Then he "passes through" into a meditative state, in which he is himself and at the same not himself. "The mind just wasn't that big a deal," at this point.

He had started running in the early morning and it was late afternoon when he finished the race.* He had been running for almost twelve hours. Although he was happy, another emotion took priority. "At this instant relief outweighed happiness. It was like a tight knot was gradually loosening, a knot I'd never even realized, until then, was there."

While he does not diagnose it this way himself, this feeling of a loosening knot, this relief which was stronger than happiness at completing the race, was really a kind of undoing. He had pushed himself too hard and, as a result, was now just relieved. Keep in mind that I think happiness is knowing you will doing something (like writing) the next day. "After this ultramarathon," writes Murakami,

I lost the enthusiasm I'd always felt for the act of running. Fatigue was a factor, but that wasn't the only reason. The desire to run wasn't as clear as before. I don't know why, but it was undeniable something had happened to me. Afterward, the amount of running I did, not to mention the distances I ran, declined noticably. (116-7)

It took ten years to fully get over his "blues". And yet, by the end of the chapter, he writes plainly of himself as "a writer who knows his limits". If so, it seems to me that he has learned it the hard way.

*Update: I had originally written this as though he finished with a time of 4 hours 42 minutes. In fact, he finished at 4:42 pm. His time was 11 hours and 42 minutes.

Friday, May 25, 2012

It's Not Really a Marathon

A blog called The Thesis Whisperer was recently pointed out to me. I haven't looked at it closely, but I'll be reading it regularly for a while before I recommend it. I'm sure it's a good place to go to discover that you're not alone, especially when you're struggling with your dissertation. One post caught my eye immediately. It suggested that writing a thesis is not a sprint, it's a marathon.

As a metaphorical adjustment to a particular attitude about writing, it's probably going to help some people. But if we think it through, it's not really a very good analogy. No one is really a "sprinter"; and writing a dissertation is nothing like running a marathon. Importantly, for a metaphorical purposes, very few dissertation writers actually do either (sprint or run marathons). So to say that writing a dissertation is "like" these things is really to compare something writers (presumably) have a distorted view of with something they know very little about. It is true that Haruki Murakami runs marathons and that he compares running to writing, but he does not say that writing a novel is like running a marathon. What he says is: "Most of what I know about writing fiction I learned from running every day" (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, p. 69ff., my emphasis.)

Here's Ben's explication of the analogy at the Thesis Whisperer, which seems initially plausible.

...writing a dissertation is a lot like running a marathon. They are both endurance events, they last a long time and they require a consistent and carefully calculated amount of effort to complete them and not burn out.

But writing a dissertation is a not a single "event" and really doesn't require "consistent" effort. Certainly not the kind of effort that you have a finite amount of energy for at the beginning of the process (which is what it is: a process not an event). It's a long term project that you work on in bits and pieces, in fact, one paragraph at a time. It doesn't really take endurance because you will be taking regular breaks and you'll be recharging your energy every day. Consider: in order to run a marathon safely you have to be in good shape when you begin, but when you begin to work on your dissertation you can be as out of shape as you like. If you do it right, however, you'll be in shape when you finish. If you run a marathon without being in shape, by contrast, you're likely to hurt yourself.

Writing a dissertation, then, is, if anything, like training for a marathon. And here's the good news. As some fitness experts will tell you, running a marathon is not actually healthy. It's the preparation for the marathon, the regular training, running up to a half-marathon that actually improves your health. It's not actually an "endurance event". A little bit of work every day will do. Running the marathon itself wears you down; it makes you less healthy. There is an episode in Murakami's book when he's running an ultra-marathon that makes this point. I'll write about that on Tuesday.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Getting to Review

The editor's "desk" is the entry point to the review process. You finish your article and send it off to the journal and that's where it lands. If the editor chooses to send it back to you immediately, without sending it out to the reviewers, you have been "desk rejected". How does the editor make this decision?

There's an abstract and concrete answer to that question. In the abstract sense, the editor has to assess the degree of fit between your paper and the aims and scope of the journal. Is your paper about the right things? Does your research use a methodology that its readers respect? Does your research contribute to one of the bodies of literature that also shapes the thinking of the readers? Is it well-written enough? Does it seem finished? Can the editor actually think of suitable reviewers for the paper?

But there is also a more concrete way to answer the question of how the editor makes the desk decision. What does the editor do? How does the editor read you paper? I don't really know how your editor does it, but here's one way to go about it. First, the editor reads the title and the abstract of the paper. The question here is whether the paper that is being described is about the sorts of things that the journal is interested in and whether it reaches an interesting conclusion about those things. If the editor can't answer this question, the paper is likely to be desk-rejected, so you should make sure, when writing the abstract, that you state clearly and efficiently what you are talking about, and what you are saying about it. If if the editor is puzzled or unmoved by the abstract, he or she may still look at the whole paper, but properly speaking, if the abstract describes a paper that is not obviously suitable for the journal, the paper could legitimately be returned to the author with a remark to that effect alone.

Next, the editor reads the introduction. This is a very important section in this part of the process. After reading the introduction, which should not be very long (about 600 words, on my approach), the editor should know exactly what you are going to show, how you are going to show it, why you think it is important, and which scholars ought to think so too. Notice that if the editor does not know the answer to these questions, he or she can't send it anywhere in particular for review. After reading the introduction it has to be clear who the intended reader of the paper is. The editor can then find someone to represent that reader in the decision-making process for publication.

Next, your editor will now probably read the conclusion in order make sure that the paper stays on topic or "feels connected", as Andrew Shields put it in the comment to yesterday's post. The editor is now making a preliminary assessment of the quality of the paper, its argument and the writing. This will probably only involve skimming the text itself (though some editors pride themselves on reading everything that lands on their desk). It is usually easy to spot a paper that simply hasn't been finished and will waste a reviewers time.

Keep in mind that you are anonymous in the review process. If the reviewer feels his or her time is being wasted, he or she will blame the journal, not you. The editor is trying to protect the journal from this judgment because the journal needs the reviewers. When the reviewer gets the paper, the first thing they should do is exactly what the editor did, in order to decide whether they want to review it and are qualified to do so.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


In their comments to yesterday's post, Thomas Presskorn and Andrew Gelman have raised the worry that by encouraging people to submit their work regularly to journals I'm going to increase the amount of "half-baked" work that their editors and reviewers have to deal with. Thomas's version of this worry (as expressed at this blog) includes the ideas that authors might try to use review reports in the development of the article. That is, the author knows that the article is not finished, but submits it for review in order to gather input about how to proceed.

I should start by saying that I have not encouraged people to submit their work before it is finished. I have encouraged them to finish their work more regularly in order to be able to submit it. So if my advice is followed in the right spirit it should only increase the amount of finished work that is submitted to journals. That is, it will give journals more material to choose from, but not simply more material that has to be filtered out.

That said, I don't think journals should complain about people submitting work to them. And I don't think they do; I don't hear this complaint from journal editors, but from other scholars and, sometimes, reviewers. Reviewers, however, should complain about the desk-rejection mechanism of the journal if they are asked to review a paper that is clearly half-baked. They should not complain about the author's judgment, but the editor's. The whole point of the review process is that we can't rely on the author's judgment.

There are some simple things you can look for in the first 600 and last 400 words of a paper in order to see whether a paper should be sent back to the author on purely formal grounds (I'll write a post about them tomorrow). A good set of guidelines for authors about the structure of the manuscript can also make it easy to see whether a paper is unfinished. However it chooses to do it, it is very much the responsibility of journal to figure something out. Journals want high rejection rates for good and bad reasons. Some want you to submit your work to give them an opportunity to publish it, some to have an opportunity to reject it. But if they want those high rejection rates then they have find an efficient way of processing submissions. Putting moral restraint on authors is not the right way to do this. (The problem of self-plagiarism, which Andrew raises, like the problem of plagiarism generally, is an ethical issue, of course. But not one that arises out of concern for the work load of editors and reviewers.)

In any case, what's driving increased submissions is the increased pressure to publish. My advice, to focus your own efforts (and the planning of your department) on submitting work, rather than obsessing about publishing it, is just a way of making something explicit that will happen implicitly anyway. In order to publish more you have to submit more. And when you submit more you will get rejected more. And that means you'll give journals a bit more work to do. But it really is their job.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Strategic Goals

I do believe that strategy and planning are closely related. Ann Latham says that "those who approach strategy as planning are severely handicapped by their current situation," but I have more often found that those who detach strategy from planning are just as handicapped by their unrealistic strategy. In the case of research strategy and, more specifically, publication strategy I think it is very important to do what Latham advises against, namely, to "filter ... opportunities through current capabilities." How can research institutions do that in practice?

My advice is to look back over the last five years of publications in the research group, department, or school in question. From all the work that has been produced select a set of articles that have been published in well-established, international, peer-reviewed journals—the sort of articles that you're unhesitatingly proud of. What you're interested in here is not some absolute figure of research productivity or quality, but a relative indicator you track over time.

It will, of course, be a finite list. If you take all the articles you've published in prestigious journals over the last five years, you'll have a manageable list, and since you're only discussing work that's actually been published, you don't need to have abstract conversations about the quality of every journal in your field. Once the list of articles you want "count" has been made for the last five years in total, you organize them by year. You now simply count how many articles you've published in the key, "indicator" journals in each year. This will give you a sense of your current situation and some sense of your future prospects.

Now, add some journals to the list that seem within your reach over the next five years but that you have not yet published in. (Keep in mind that I'm referring to "you" as a collective—a research group or department—but you can obviously do a similar exercise in your own, individual case.) These are journals that, if you do manage to publish in them, you'll count too. You are also measuring you past performance by whether or not you published in them in a particular year; you just happen to have published zero articles in them so far.

The list of journals is now a bit bigger, but still finite. Now your publication strategy has some goals, namely, that list of journals that you've either successfully published in in the past, or feel it is possible to publish in in the future. You must now make a plan for how to reach these goals. And the plan is quite simple: you write in order to submit to these journals. But you should of course plan to submit more articles to these journals than you hope to publish. A rough way to estimate how many more is to look at their rejection rate. If you school wants to publish in a journal with an 80% rejection rate, for example, it should plan to submit five articles for every one article it hopes to publish there.

Notice what this means. At the end of the year, you can of course ask yourself whether or not you met your publication goals for that year. But you can also ask yourself whether or not you met your submission goals. Publications are nice to show off, but they are difficult to plan. Submissions, however, are entirely within your ability to control. My advice to research directors, department heads, and deans, therefore, is have a strategy for where to submit and how often to do so, and then track success on that indicator, not the elusive prize of actual publication. Publications will come in a natural way from the disciplined pursuit of submissions.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Strategy and Planning

"Those who approach strategy as planning almost always filter any opportunities through current capabilities. Instead of determining what the organization must become to deliver in new and big ways, they never really think big." (Ann Latham)

"These days, a brand’s first job is to be interesting. And being interesting for most brands, most of the time means new ideas, new things to say, new ways to say it. ... Big ideas militate against that. Big ideas tend to stop you having new ideas." (Russell Davies)

Latham and Davies have been doing this much longer than I have, and they're better at it. But I'm starting to develop my approach to academic writing into a new perspective on research strategy at the institutional level, so I have to try to think like a business visionary. Now, obviously the point of putting these two quotes side by side is to indicate a tension. There's a lot of advice out there and it sometimes pulls in opposite directions. In this post, I want to pull in the direction of planning, i.e., Russell Davies' approach.

When thinking about research strategy, and even something as relatively pedestrian as a publication strategy, universities and departments sometimes make real efforts to "think big". Implicitly following Latham's advice, they try to "determine what the organization must become" rather than "filter [their] opportunities through current capabilities". This usually means developing research "platforms", and establishing special research units, around themes that have some currency in either the business world or policy circles. It explains the proliferation of research programs in, say, "sustainability". Many of the researches involved in these "strategic initiatives" have turned their attention on this theme, sometimes away from other things they would rather have been doing, and sometimes quite seriously twisted their attention in the process. They are pursuing someone's else's ideas, not their own.

And that's what Davies gets right, to my mind. If you impose a "big idea" on your organization, it will prevent you, i.e., your members, from having new ideas. That's because even if the big idea is "new" to the organization, and new to the people who will implement it, it is old in the sense that it existed before your organization and its members came up with it. The ideas that shape large strategic initiatives are given in advance. A truly productive (and joyful) research environment will generate truly new ideas, which means ideas that the researchers themselves did not know they were going to have. Such an environment will have a better chance of being, precisely, interesting.

If you want a thriving research environment you have to stop worrying about "who you are" and "what you must become". That is, you have to stop thinking like a strategist and start thinking like a planner. There is some truth is Latham's perspective as a perspective on strategy. Her mistake, I think, is to promote strategizing as something that should be happening almost all the time in the organization. Instead, you need to do exactly what Latham argues against: you must filter your opportunities through your capabilities. You have to get your people to do all the small things they are already capable of and, importantly, ready and willing to do. You have keep your researchers interested if you want interesting results.

This of course also goes for the individual writer. Don't try to reinvent yourself when trying to get published, don't chase after other people's priorities (as expressed in calls for special issues and conference tracks). Try to get your ideas published. You must constantly be doing things, making things, in order to exercise your capabilities. And what you should be making, of course, is a series of coherent paragraphs that support claims you believe to be true. Your research department should provide you with a good environment to do exactly that. In such an environment, new ideas will follow naturally from old ones.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Strategic Planning

Yesterday's post might seem a little airy. Also, it might seem to contradict my usual line about the importance of planning. (See this post, for example.) Am I telling you not to worry so much about a larger plan and just do things that you can make sense of later? No, I am suggesting that your plan, from day to day and week and week, should consist of things you can just go ahead and do. They are also, of course, things that you will say (in one paragraph at a time).

The force of this argument is really directed at higher levels of the university than the individual scholar. Research strategies are often developed around "themes" or "platforms" that in one way or another are attempts to decide what the department or school will be saying (or at least talking about) over the next five years. Instead of generating these big ideas, however, they should follow Russell Davies' advice and get their researchers, all whom are fundamentally smart and interesting people, to pursue their own small ideas, to express the knowledge they already have. Get those ideas written down and published. Build the brand of your university or department around what your faculty can do, not what you want them to say.

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".

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Russell Davies' Big Idea

One of my secret influences for work on this blog is Russell Davies, head of planning at R/GA. I don't remember how I stumbled on him, but I think it was while searching for models for YouTube videos about PowerPoint presentations. There is something about his style that appeals to me. It reminds me of Frank O'Hara. See, for example, his "Having a Coke With You" and compare Russell's easy manner in this interview.

He says that marketing is dominated by the "myth" of the "big idea" because the big organizations who advertise are at the same time trying deal with their own internal communicative complexity. "So what you really want," he notes, "is one big simple thing that you know you're going to say for five years." Sound familiar, scholars? Just as familiar should be his alternative suggestions. Stop worrying so much about what you are going to say and start doing things. Academics, and especially academic departments, should not worry so much about their "research strategy", and instead just execute one thing at a time. They should especially start writing—every day. Not big things, like articles and books, but little things, like paragraphs.

In 1955, Frank O'Hara and Larry Rivers published a famous little text called "How to Proceed in the Arts". It provides great advice such as, "Do you hear them say painting is action? We say painting is the timid appraisal of yourself by lions." Nice, no? Half a century later, Russell Davies wrote a blog post called "The Tyranny of the Big Idea". His five-point procedure begins:

Start doing stuff. Start executing things which seem right. Do it quickly and do it often. Don’t cling onto anything, good or bad. Don’t repeat much. Take what was good and do it differently.

And ends with: "And something else and something else."

I don't know enough about either man to say for sure that Russell Davies is the Frank O'Hara of advertising. But I know I'd like to have a coke with him.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


"No man ever knows enough about any art. I have seen young men with most brilliant endowment who have failed to consider the length of the journey." (Ezra Pound)

I've been rereading some posts from the archives of this blog lately. "An Unsuspected Discipline" is, if I do say so myself, a little gem about procrastination. It tries to dismantle "a particular illusion that keeps writers from meeting their deadlines" by invoking Borges's short story "A Secret Miracle". In the story, a playwright who has been working on a play called A Vindication of Eternity* is granted, by God (who suspends time), as much time as he needs to finish writing it (in his mind), right before he is executed by a firing squad (indeed, in the moment just before the triggers are pulled). It is an allegory, I argue, about "the fantasy of a single instant of infinite duration immediately before the text is due and everything comes to an end. That moment, of course, never arrives. Eternity is never vindicated. Never."

But what struck me about the post is the opening paragraph. "After more than a month of silence on this blog," I begin, and end up promising to "[set] a good example by writing a small, sometimes very unfinished, thought at least once a week." I've come a long way, to say the least! First of all, there is never an unplanned month of silence on this blog. Second, I'm now posting regularly every day. Five years ago, it seems, I had a very different attitude about this blog. I wish I could say that I was more disciplined about my off-line writing projects back then, but the truth is that I have been developing the discipline I've been writing about since I started this blog. The truth, in fact, is that discipline does not come at all naturally to me. Likewise, the first mention of jogging on this blog appears to come in January of 2008, also during a period when, it seems, I had let my discipline slide. Physical exercise is also something I've had to impose on my lifestyle very much against my natural bent.

All this just to say that I understand how difficult it is to go from being undisciplined about something, especially writing, to being disciplined about it. I'm not just generalizing from a sense of order that was instilled in me from birth. Quite the contrary, actually.

*This is wrong. The play is called The Enemies. Hladik had previously written a work of philosophy called Vindication of Eternity. I owe the mistake to what I assume is a typo in Harriet de Onís' translation, which appears in Labyrinths (New Directions, 1964). Here Hladik is described as "the author of the unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, or Vindication of Eternity" (the King Penguin edition, 1981, p. 118). Anthony Kerrigan renders this "the author of the unfinished tragedy The Enemies, of a Vindication of Eternity, and of..." in Ficciones, (Everyman's Library, p. 114). Kerrigan also describes the discipline as "not imagined" rather than "unsuspected".

Monday, May 14, 2012

Paragraph 39

Since a standard journal article has 40 paragraphs I've fallen into the habit, when talking to my authors, of referring matter-of-factly to "paragraph thirty-nine", i.e., the penultimate paragraph of the paper. It is also the first paragraph of the conclusion. It serves a very special function in the paper and is worth giving extra consideration.

You construct the key sentence of paragraph 39 by a simple procedure. Take the key sentence of paragraph 3, the one that begins, "This paper shows that...", and simply remove those first four words. That is, if the key sentence of paragraph 3 is "This paper shows that the financial crisis was caused by the performative effects of organization theory" then the key sentence of paragraph 39 is "The financial crisis was caused by the performative effects of organization theory." Notice that despite their similarities, these two sentences make very different claims. The second (§39) tells us something about the financial crisis; the first (§3) tells us something about your paper. Paragraph 3 will therefore provide a description of your paper to support your claim that it will show us something. Paragraph 39, however, will provide a description of the financial crisis to support the claim that it was caused by organization theory.

Like any other paragraph in the paper, you have around six sentences and no more than 200 words at your disposal. Remember your reader. At this point your reader has listened to everything you have said. Your reader knows what your key terms are and has read your entire analysis. Your reader knows what methods you have used to gather your data. Your reader has also been informed about relevant background details. Your reader even knows what implications you have drawn. That means you can expect a great deal of your reader in making sense of this paragraph. You can give it to the reader straight.

Paragraph 39 is not an abstract. An abstract merely describes an argument, and therefore looks more like paragraph 3 than paragraph 39. Paragraph 39 actually makes the argument. It is the part of the paper that expresses your major claim and adduces the strongest evidence you have for it. The strength of that evidence, of course, depends on the strength of the rest of your paper—mainly, the analysis section—but that's the thing I'm trying to emphasize: Your reader has already read the rest of your paper. You are therefore entitled to presume that your argument is strong. This is the paragraph where you state your conclusion and tell the reader, without blushing, why you think it is true.

For perhaps obvious reasons you do well to rewrite this paragraph several times. It is the statement of your ideas that the rest of the paper is putting you in a position to make. Getting clear about what it will say will therefore also help you write the rest of the paper.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Why Is It Hard to Write?

It is not my intention to make writing look easy or to belittle the difficulties that people have in doing it. The techniques I suggest are not ways of denying the difficulties of writing but ways of facing them. My point is that, like any other difficult activity, mastery will come from practice. If I told you to train every day in preparation for a marathon, or practice every day in order to learn how to play the piano, I would not be pretending that it's "easy". On the contrary, I would be insisting that it's difficult. I'm not saying that you just have to write every day, then; I'm saying that you really must do so.

One author recently told me that working according to my advice gives her time to reread every paragraph as she goes. (She writes it in about 15 minutes, which leaves about 10 to improve it before moving on to the next one.) But she doesn't like the editing part. She feels "discomfort" when reading her words. My response is that this is like feeling a bit of pain in your legs when running or getting out of breath. It's to be expected at the beginning, and getting into shape is all about getting through that discomfort. They key here—the "trick", if you will—is to remember that the discomfort will end. After ten minutes, you move on to the next paragraph. But the discomfort is just part of the job.

There are many sources of discomfort like that when writing. That's because it fundamentally isn't easy to write. The pianist must learn to execute a series of intricate movements with her fingers. The runner must build up strength in the right combination of muscles (which are different for a sprinter and a marathon runner.) Writing does not depend as much on physical strength and precision (typing is not really the problem here) but it does require both stamina and acumen. You sit down in front of the machine and choose words, one after the other, to represent your thoughts.

The writer and the pianist feels discomfort because she runs into her limits, she experiences her limitations. On the day of the concert, or the day of the marathon, she will take a step back from those limits. She will begin at a slightly slower tempo or pace. She will play the piece or run the course in a relatively "easy" way. All the practice, all the training, has made her aware of the difficulty, and she is now able to "perform" in an optimal way. If done right, she will not experience her limits, she will experience her abilities. She will not just barely succeed; she will simply perform at her best.

Too many writers forget this distinction between training (practicing) and performing. As result, they experience only the difficulty of writing and not the joy, as a paper is nearing completion, of rewriting it well within the limits of their abilities. They hand in the paper when the deadline arrives like a runner stumbling across the finish line. It doesn't have to be that way. But to say that is not to say that it isn't hard to write. We have to respect the efforts of the pianist and the runner, even if what they do "in the event" (and in a very particular sense) is not actually hard for them. What was hard was getting to that point.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Knowing How and Knowing That

Jason Stanley has a thought-provoking, if somewhat puzzling, piece up on the New York Times blog. It's being discussed over at I'm not at all sure that the distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge is a mere "fiction" that should just be abandoned. But I'm also not sure that Stanley is right about how firmly that distinction is held by ordinary people (i.e., non-philosophers). It seems to me to be in itself a practical distinction, which applies to everything that everyone knows. We are able to distinguish between knowing that something is the case and knowing how it is done.

Sociologists, for example, may know that social movements mobilize a variety of resources in bringing about social change. They do not, however, know how to bring about social change. They study people (the leaders and members of social movements) who have know-how in this area, and whose "knowledge" is demonstrated in the effects of their efforts.

But there is something the sociologist does know how to do. The sociologist knows how to write about social change. One of the main dogmas that underlies my work on this blog is that if you know something as a scholar then you also know how to compose prose paragraphs about it. If, as an academic, you know that something is true, then you also know how to say it in complete sentences that are grouped into paragraphs, which are then in turn grouped into articles or books. (This is very much the distinction between "book learning" and "hands on" knowledge that a commenter has recently drawn attention to. And which also figures in the opening moves of Stanley's argument.)

While I believe the issue is purely terminological (and does not affect the folk distinction between "academic knowledge" and "know how", which is perfectly sensible) I would actually not use the word "knowledge" to describe "know how". I think there is a subtle kind of snobbery involved in valorizing what a pianist or plumber can do with the honorific "knowledge"—and, even more strikingly, by insisting that this knowledge is knowledge "of truths". It can be seen in the way Stanley thinks that someone who commits to repairing cars for a living at an early age might "rob not only her[self] of opportunities but also society of a potentially important contributor to literary analysis or mathematics". "Important", presumably, when compared to fixing cars.

In my view, the competent pianist or plumber demonstrates practical mastery, not "practical knowledge". All knowledge is essentially "theoretical" (as are all truths). People who are said to "know" how to do things actually wield power. Perhaps it is the scholar's fear of powerful people that gets him to attribute knowledge and a receptivity to truth to people who really posses power and a capacity for justice. Indeed, the ability to write, as Orwell said, is also more a kind of power than a kind of knowledge, and this academic "power" is the occasion for a bit anxiety among scholars. It is the "power of facing unpleasant facts."

Wednesday, May 09, 2012


The department I last worked at gave me Haruki Murakami's Wind-up Bird Chronicle as a going away present when I left. I read it over the Easter break and enjoyed it so much that I've moved straight on to his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which I've been meaning to read for a while. After all, it's a got a chapter called "Most of What I Know About Writing Fiction I Learned by Running Every Day", and I've long been arguing that becoming a better writer is like becoming a better runner. More specifically, most of what I know about blogging I learned by jogging every other day.

Murakami has an uncanny ability to write about familiar things in ways that make you see them again for the first time. It may not work out of context, but I was struck by this passage in particular:

When I first started running I couldn't run long distances. I could only run for about twenty minutes, or thirty. That much left me panting, my heart pounding, my legs shaky. It was to be expected, though, since I hadn't really exercised for a long time. At first, I was also a little embarrassed to have people in the neighborhood see me running—the same feeling I had upon first seeing the title novelist put in parentheses after my name. But as I continued to run, my body started to accept the fact that it was running, and I could gradually increase the distance. I was starting to acquire a runner's form, my breathing became more regular, and my pulse settled down. The main thing was not the speed or distance so much as running every day. (39)

Replace "novelist" with "scholar" and readers of this blog should be on the same page. It is interesting how "embarrassing" it can in a "neighborhood" of busy academics to begin to insist that you really are a scholar and that your writing actually gets done by sitting down and working at it every day. Especially if, at the beginning, the work leaves you panting and shaky.

But if you stick with it, working, say, thirty minutes a day in the beginning until you get into shape, you'll find that your discipline is quite normal. There are many other people in the neighborhood who write on a daily basis too, and nobody really noticed those early attempts—certainly, no one remembers it now that you're in shape. Murakami notes how dramatically his body has changed since he ran his first marathon.

When you compare me in these photos to the way I am now, they make me look like a completely different person. After years of running, my musculature has changed completely. But even then I could feel physical changes happening every day, which made me really happy. I felt like even though I was past thirty, there were still more possibilities left for me and my body. The more I ran, the more my physical potential was revealed. (41)

I noticed a similar effect especially during the period when I was swimming every day: "...physical changes happening every day, which made me really happy." Like I say, the same goes for someone who is writing prose every day. Here you can just replace "running" with "writing", "body" with "mind", and "physical" with "mental".

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Facts that Teach Us Something

"When you make a mistake, do not be afraid of mending your ways."

People who refuse to admit their mistakes bug Andrew Gelman. They bug me too. But complaining about it is probably just, as he puts it, "railing against universal human nature". The relevant aspects of human nature we are railing against are no doubt laziness, vanity, and cowardice.

I get this from Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave. "Three faults," he writes, "which are found together and which infect every activity: laziness, vanity, cowardice. If one is too lazy to think, too vain to do something badly, too cowardly to admit it, one will never attain wisdom" (20). "Sloth rots the intelligence, cowardice destroys all power at the source, while vanity inhibits us from facing any fact which might teach us something; it dulls all other sensation" (30). The fact that might most straightforwardly teach us something is of course one that we've gotten wrong.

Confucius tells us not to be afraid of correcting ourselves. It is interesting that we should be afraid of such things. Maybe he too was railing against something fundamental in human nature. Actually, I think it's more likely that we are perverted from our true natures by culture. It is something in the way our mistakes are treated when we are students that makes us fear admitting them when we become scholars. And I think I know what it is: our mistakes are too often tolerated, more often simply ignored. Too many scholars don't know what happens when your mistake is corrected. In other cases, perhaps, there is some sort of trauma. Our mistakes were punished too severely.

Wherever it comes from, it certainly is annoying. More than that: it is distressing to think how many false ideas must be in circulation simply because people are too vain to face facts that might teach them something.

Monday, May 07, 2012


"The coming to presence of Enframing is the danger."
Martin Heidegger

"Don't write a blog," says Chris Hedges. "Especially," he adds for good measure, "if you're a good a writer." Ouch! Actually, his reasons are pretty good: all good writing is rewriting. That's true. But I find it comical that he puts down blogging and, in the same breath, defends the weekly column as a literary form. He spends, like, days writing his columns, so it's much deeper than anything I could do on a blog, right?

Of course, he doesn't understand what blogging can be. He thinks it's "just sort of banging something out when you get out of the shower". As if banging out a column every week is really going to turn your prose into literature. He "crafts" his columns, he says; well, I craft these blog posts. I think about what to write during the day (sometimes, like last week, I've got the whole week's posts planned out in advance), decide on a core claim before I go to bed, and get up in the morning and write the post in exactly 30 minutes.* I'm not going to claim it's high literature, but I'll be damned if I'm going to let a columnist condescend to me. There's a lot of things I admire about Hedges, I should say, and I've even taken his side on my other blog, but this writerly pose of his is altogether overwrought. Yes, a book is "slow food" for thought but, no, blogging does not mark the absolute limit of meaningful writing. There's a way to mean something in any medium.

So... I just got myself a twitter account. As with my mobile phone, I understand "the danger". "As the danger," Heidegger tells us,

Being turns about into the oblivion of its coming to presence, turns away from this coming to presence, and in that way simultaneously turns counter to the truth of its coming to presence. In the danger there holds sway this turning about not yet thought on. ("The Turning", in TQCT, p. 41)

It's easy to make fun of that kind of Heideggerian bombast. Simon Blackburn did a capable job of it in his review of Contributions to Philosophy. Where he also points out the problem of translating terms like Ereignis as "enowning", which yields passages like this:

Time-space is the enowned encleavage of the turning trajectories of enowning, of the turning between belongingness and the call, between abandonment by being and enbeckoning (the enquivering of the resonance of be-ing itself!)

I'm going to skate along on the surface of all this rhetoric and explain my strategy for using twitter.

I will not simply turn about in an enquivering oblivion that loses itself in the everydayness of the hustle and bustle of commenting on passing events, passing into oblivion. Rather, I will use Twitter to recover forgotten posts from this blog. Keep in mind that many of them were written in that disciplined way I just talked about. This means that each post really expresses a single, well-defined point. And that point is usually expressed in a sentence in the post itself. My tweets will consist of strong claims that are linked to posts that elaborate them. My tweets will not be of thoughts "not yet thought on" but thoughts being recovered from oblivion to be appropriated in the event of being. I quiver (appropriately) at the prospect.

*A confession: this post took a bit longer than 30 minutes to write. I spent a half hour on the weekend drafting the first two paragraphs about Hedges after I came up with the idea. I completely agree with him that "writing takes time", my point here is that this time can be spent in many media, including blogs and tweets. But let's not forget the danger: time can also be wasted there. But then a book can be as complete a waste of time as a tweet if written (or read) carelessly.

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Body

"Is a bit of white paper with black lines on it like a human body?"
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Scholarly writing articulates what you know. I have long promoted a definition of knowledge at three levels: (1) knowledge is justified, true belief, (2) knowledge is the ability to hold your own in conversation, (3) knowledge is the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph in 30 minutes. Knowing is a mental state, a social relationship, and a practical competence. It is both a state of the mind and a state of the body. If you know about something, you don't just see it with a particular set of eyes, you are able to do something with your hands.

Knowledge is an ability to move your body in particular ways. And it is the ability to mark up a page in particular ways. Meaningful ways. If you know something you are able to make a piece of paper behave like a human body. You mark up the page and it comes to look human; other human bodies can understand what it is doing. There is a correspondence between what you are able to make happen on the page and what you are able to make your body do. Whenever we are reading, we are answering Wittgenstein's question: how is this piece of paper with black lines on it like a human body? In what sense?

Suppose you know how to bake bread. Writing well about it means articulating what your body can do in the kitchen. It will give the reader a way in to acquiring that skill himmerherself. In the case of academic writing, however, it is hard to imagine "what your body can do" that might correspond to a journal article you want to write. That's the thing about academic writing. It's the sense in which academic knowledge is more "abstract". But you must keep in mind that when you are writing you are always doing something with your body. Your knowledge is something your body can do, even if the only place it seems to do it, when it is not writing, is "in the head".

"Writing well is at one and the same time good thinking, good feeling, and good expression," said Buffon (and is quoted by Connolly before his remark about coordinating "what is not there", which I quoted earlier this week). It is important not to think there is some direct relationship between your words the facts in the world and the words of others, that, in a sense, the discourse does the writing and the reading. That will only make you anxious. What happens is that one body writes and other bodies read. These bodies are in the world, anxiously and resolutely in the world. Make sure that your words are coming from your body. Make sure that your writing articulates it.

Postscript: Last week, I had an epiphany, which I undertook to express by sketching a "phenomenology of writing", a description of "what it is like" to write. This is the last post in that series. The reference to Buffon, I now note, is also reference back to a post on my "philosophy of writing", from almost exactly a year ago. And the philosophy remains more or less the same.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Joint

"The time is out of joint."

"Joint" may be the hippest word in the English language. Not only does it play a key role in one of the most famous sentences of all time, it can be used to mean both a marijuana cigarette and the male sexual organ. It can also be used to refer to a night club and to a prison. Or it can refer to a work of popular culture like a song or a film ("a Spike Lee joint," for example). If you're hip enough, I imagine, it can be used to refer to any work of art.

And the word "art" actually stems from the Latin for "joint". A work of art puts things together, we might say. (Just as a venue—"the joint down the street"—brings people together for an evening.) Hamlet was living in a world that was coming apart because of the lies told by the current king about the death of the previous king. To expose the lie he put on a play. That was his joint. If you're hip enough, you can call your journal article a "joint". "My next joint is going to be about cultural change processes in high-technology companies," for example.

To be articulate is not just to speak clearly. It is to be able to join words together in meaningful ways. And meaning is use. A good joint doesn't just keep things together, it gives them a particular range of motion, it limits their usefulness but also makes it more precise. That's what happens when you join words together in an article—notice that root again: art-icle, i.e., "It's the joint."* You limit their range of meaning but also focus their effect. A piece of writing is internally jointed (especially between the paragraphs) and also joined to the outside world. There are specific points of connection between your text and the work of others, some explicit (in your references) some implicit (in your choice of words).

Research is a conversation. You join a conversation.

*By linking to the Beastie Boys' "Shake Your Rump", I'm revealing my ignorance of music history. The line was in fact sampled from "That's the Joint" by Funky 4 +1.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The They

"Watt had watched people smile and thought he understood how it was done."
Samuel Beckett

There is the worry about how your writing relates to the world, and there is the worry about how it relates to others. On Monday, I distinguished these two worries in terms of the "truth" and "meaning" of your words. The world determines whether or not what you are saying is true; the others (your readers) determine whether or not they make any sense. In both cases, there is no particular threat. After all, you think you're right and you know what you mean. It is the entirely unspecific possibility of being undermined during some ill-defined confrontation (with "the facts" or with the reader) that is at work here, which is what makes us anxious. We might call it the possibility of critique.

What other people might think of our writing is very much a part of the experience of writing. Writing is an intrinsically social activity, even though, at the time that it happens, it also a very individual one. Academic writing, in particular, expresses the truth that is a conversation (as opposed to what Virginia Woolf called "the loneliness that is the truth about things"). In writing, then, we must fundamentally care what other people think.

This can be taken too far. As Heidegger tells us, our existence is largely determined by the way we have "fallen" into the world of everyday concerns. One aspect of this fallenness is our recourse to "idle talk" (Gerede) in which we say things, not because we know them to be true (i.e., because we have some evidence for saying so) but because it is what "one" says on these matters. This "one", das Man, is often translated as "the they". If we did not draw on this mode of speaking, and this goes also for our writing, we would appear very strange to our readers. We must say things sometimes that only tell the reader that we, too, are ordinary, well-educated, contemporary people. That we don't see the reader as some abstract "them" but as a concrete "we" that we're also part of.

(To see a classic example of writing that does not do this, let me recommend Beckett's How It Is.)

But we must not be so worried about this that we tell them only what they want—what "the they" wants—to hear. Nor must we write in such a way that they are only able to be impressed with our intelligence. We must write in a resolute attempt to engage with their opinion. And this means being willing to inspire criticism. We might say that in order to avoid falling completely into the everyday, we must be willing to risk saying things that fly in the face of common sense.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The There

"We cannot think if we have no time to read, nor feel if we are emotionally exhausted, nor out of cheap material create what is permanent. We cannot co-ordinate what is not there." (Cyril Connolly)

To exist, Heidegger taught us, is to be there. The idea that we might not be here is, of course, the cause of some anxiety, both in the mundanely "existential" sense of no longer being alive, and in the more common one of remaining alive but not really being present. This anxiety causes us to lose ourselves, to "flee from ourselves", as Heidegger puts it, into everyday concerns. We rush from one practical problem to another, never actually coming to rest here or there but always going somewhere else.

This is familiar stuff. And it also applies to our writing. We rush around our text, working first on one part, then another, never quite paying attention, never quite there. And it shows in the words we write. They are not "coordinated"; they aren't really there on the page.

I think part of the reason (we'll get to the other part tomorrow) is that we are vaguely aware of the precarious place of a text in the world. The text is going to claim that a number of things are true. But what if they aren't? What if the text we're writing says things about the world that are not the case in the world? Will the "there" of the text be wiped out by the sheer pressure of the facts on the text? That can't really happen, of course, but we sometimes feel like it might. And this leads us to be vague about what we are saying, sometimes qualifying every claim with a "may be" or an "I think" or "it may be argued", and sometimes saying nothing at all.

It leaves our text neither here nor there. What gives a text presence is our commitment to asserting facts. We have to face the possibility that we may be wrong about them resolutely, and we do this by writing about them as though we are right. But to really cultivate this presence, we need to give ourselves time to work on one claim at a time. This is a why I always recommend sitting down (here at your desk) to work on a particular paragraph (there on the page). Devote your attention to making the claim and providing support for it for a determined amount of time (like half an hour). Sit there and resolutely face the possibility that you'll be wrong. Not only are you then much more likely to get it right; even if you're wrong, you'll have shown up.

It takes a bit of practice, a bit of discipline. But you'll get there.