Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Writing Process and the Learning Process

My last post has been getting quite a lot of traffic because of a tweet by Pat Thomson that described it as being about "not writing too soon". That's an entirely fair summary, but it makes me want to clarify something important. I don't want to leave the impression that writing should be put off until you, as it were, "know enough". My advice is that you should write what you know—but please don't forget that you always know something. That is, don't decide, on the basis of my advice, not to write for a few weeks while you're learning whatever it is you want to write about. Write about something else instead.

The misconception I'm trying to push back against is that we should always be writing on the project we're working on. Some people think that our writing should be collecting new discoveries for us, that if we don't write them down now we'll lose them. This idea is closely related to another widely held view: that knowledge is actually (and some say only) produced in the writing process. It's true that presenting your thoughts to yourself in writing can help clarify them, but real knowledge comes from your actual experience with the facts you are studying.

Your prose is a capacity to write your knowledge down, and you write in part to make a record of what you know that can enter a conversation with peers, and in part to keep your prose in shape. With that capacity in place you can go about the business of learning, i.e., becoming more knowledgeable, at a reasonable, comfortable pace.

This learning process should be separated from the writing process. You can never predict when you'll finally figure something out, i.e., when new knowledge will come to you. And you don't want to expose your writing process to that unpredictability. So at the end of every day, after having learned whatever it is you've learned, just take a moment (five or ten minutes) to choose between one and six things that you've known for a while to write down tomorrow, one half hour at a time.

For at least half an hour every day, you should be writing down things you learned weeks, months, even years ago. In addition to teaching and administration, you should then also spend some amount of time every day learning new things (by reading, thinking, analyzing, observing, etc.). You should not be learning those things as "preparation" for tomorrow's writing session. You should not be learning under the pressure to write. You should just be learning. And you should not be writing under the pressure to learn. You should just be writing what you know.

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