Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Long Process

Your writing process should be recording truths you've been aware of for some time. You should be writing down things you've known for weeks and even months. You should not be writing down something you only discovered yesterday and barely understand today. Get your mind all the way around a subject and then write down the stuff that sits comfortably at the center of your attention.

Many of the writers I work with object at this point. They tell me their work is structured by "projects". They can't write down things they learned eight weeks ago because that was another project back—an eternity ago. We have to think about this.

First, the push to be "current" is really a red herring. Even if you did write only your freshest ideas down today, they wouldn't be published for months, or even years, anyway. So to write them down a few months later won't make a big difference in that regard.

Some people, then, say that their project is paying them to work on this thing, not on the last project and so there is no time, on any given project, to write about the last one. My response to this is two-fold. First, if project-driven research really means that researchers are only allowed to think about things for, say, six months at a time, and must then think something else for the next six months, then it is an evil we must fight. I don't think any project coordinator or program evaluator would push this line. It's absurd.

Second, it's really just a planning issue. A research project may give you six months of concentrated research time, where you're doing field work and analysis. But then there's that long wait before the results are published. Part of that time, after the funding period runs out, should be spent writing. All you have to do is borrow the writing time for your last project from your current project. You then wait to write your current project while doing your research for your next.

Once you get this process up and running, you're always paying back what you borrowed. And your writing is much more interesting to your peers because you've actually had time to think about it after your research was completed and your results were ready to be presented in prose.

You want your writing to have some permanence. You don't want to have changed your mind about your results in the time between submitting your paper and having it accepted, or between having it accepted and being published, or even between the time it's published and someone finally reads it. You want to recognize yourself in the writing even years afterwards. The best way to ensure this is to put your research process well out ahead of your writing process. The latter collects your most durable ideas. The rest can wait until your research confirms them better.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Article Design

Many years ago, as a kind of philosophical exercise, I tried to imagine the perfect object, the ideal thing. I quickly decided that it would be one that you'd immediately know what to do with when you see it. It would need no scientific investigation to understand. No owner's manual to operate. It would simply be obvious what it was for, and once you put it to that use you'd discover that it was perfectly suited to the task.

Scholars demonstrate that they know something by writing articles; and knowledge, I usually say, is the ability to write a coherent prose paragraph in 27 minutes. An article consists of about 40 paragraphs, so the problem of writing an article—or at least the first draft of an article—is solved during 20 hours of work.

The problem of article design is the problem of planning those twenty hours of work. It is the problem of mapping out the forty parts that will go into the larger whole. As a rough estimate, I normally say that an article is 3 parts introduction, 2 parts conclusion, 5 parts background, 5 parts theory, 5 parts method, 15 parts analysis, and 5 parts implications. If you go at it with the right attitude, these parts can be written in any order, but it's a good idea to write the introduction and conclusion first. Also, once they are written, you may find that my "ballpark" sense of their distribution is a bit off, i.e., that your paper will have a somewhat different form. That's fine. The individual parts still need to be made, and made "to specification".

The more articles you write, the better you will understand what a paragraph in each section must accomplish. While every discourse has its own requirements, its own particular style, the general rule is that a paper must engage your peers in conversation. In the coming weeks, I'll try to say something about how that can be done. But when designing our articles we should always keep Virginia Woolf's simple dictum in mind: "To know whom to write for is to know how to write."

In the background section you are trying to be informative. Who are you trying to inform? In the theory section you are evoking expectations of the object. Whose expectations? In the methods section you are trying to gain the reader's trust. Whose trust? Etc. The introduction is for the reader who has not yet read but would very much like to read your paper. The conclusion is for the reader who has just finished reading it. Once you know who that reader is, you know how to write. If you don't feel you know how to write, it may well be because you don't have a clear image of your reader.

Your article design, your image of your paper, should always be developed alongside an image of your reader. So, as I write about this in the weeks to come, I will always be asking you to think of your reader. Since I don't know you or your reader, my advice will necessarily be somewhat schematic. You fill it in, not just with your knowledge of what you want to say, but your knowledge of who you want to say it to.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Two Stories

I tell a number of stories at my writing seminars. A participant recently asked me whether I had ever written them down, one of them in particular. Some of them are already here on the blog, but not the one she was asking for. So here it is along with the story I usually tell immediately afterwards.

* * *

The first is the everyday tragedy of a couple of young lovers. They were perfect for each other, very much in love. All their friends thought they were destined to be with each other, to live happily ever after, as did the lovers themselves. There was only one problem: he was not, if you will, "the commitment type".

It was not that he couldn't be faithful to her. There were no other women. It was just that he was not very good at keeping his appointments. They would arrange to meet under the tree and he would forget to come. They would arrange to meet by the river and he would arrive hours after she had already left.

They arranged, finally, to meet at the café. This time, he arrives just as she had finally decided, after waiting for almost an hour, that it would never work for them. She had already gathered her things together and gotten up from the table.

As she sees him enter, tears well up in her eyes. But she is resolved. She walks towards him, and then past him. He understands the look she sends him. It's over between them. Their feelings for each other are not enough. Feeling slightly weak, he steadies himself on the bar, sits down, and orders a drink.

* * *

The second story is about you. Imagine, if you will, that you have a real job, one where you actually have to show up every day. One morning, you wake up with a terrible cold. An awful cough. Snotnosed. You're even running a fever.

So you call your boss and tell her you won't be coming in today. She's a good and understanding boss and simply tells you to get well soon. She'll find someone to cover your tasks until you get back. You climb back into bed.

Around noon the phone rings. It's a friend of yours asking about the book you borrowed, weeks ago, which he needs back because he's studying for an exam. He's just downstairs, in the café, and do you have time to bring it to him? You consider telling him that you're deathly ill, but you've been meaning to return the book for weeks and feel too guilty about it to make this his problem. The café is just across the street, after all. You're not that sick.

So you get dressed and drag yourself down the stairs and into the café. (Just outside a woman is crying. Inside, at the bar, a man is slumped on a barstool getting a drink from the bartender.) Your friend is sitting at a table, smiling, waving you over.

You lay the book down on her table and, at that moment, you feel terribly weak. You put a hand to your head and steady yourself with the other on the back of a chair. "Sit down," your friend says. "You look terrible." You sit in the chair and tell her how sick you are and that you really should be back in bed, and at that moment your boss passes by outside the café.

You don't see her, but she sees you. The moment passes, you get up, your friend thanks you for the effort ("You really shouldn't have!"), and you return to your apartment and your bed. You recover from your cold and return to work. Your boss does not mention the episode and you cannot quite explain the change in the mood between you. It is, of course, especially the next time you call in sick that something will be different.

The trust between you has been broken. It's a tragedy because your intentions were entirely good. The relationship has suffered merely because of the "optics", because of an unfortunate and entirely natural interpretation of "how it looks".

* * *

There is only one way to build relationships. You must make promises and keep them. The young man must promise his lover that he'll meet her and he must keep his appointments. If you tell your boss you need to stay in bed today, then you must stay in bed as promised.

Your relationship with yourself as a writer (or your writing self) is similar, except that, since you're the same person, your writer knows at all times exactly why you didn't keep your appointment. There are no optics. You know not seems.

Monday, January 28, 2013

My Philosophy of Science

"Popular opinion maintains that the world needs a republic, needs a new social order and a new religion—but no one considers that what the world, confused simply by too much knowledge, needs is a Socrates." (S. Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death)

"One might give the name 'philosophy' to what is possible before all new discoveries and inventions." (L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §126)

This is the first day of eight weeks of rigorous blogging. There'll be a new post up every weekday at 7:00 AM (Copenhagen time). In the old days, it would just have been written (in the half hour before being posted), but I'm trying something new this year, which is to live a little less in the now and develop my ideas more at their own pace. Not entirely at their own pace, mind you. That would mean you wouldn't hear from me pretty much ever. But I want to give my thoughts a bit more time to get themselves together before making them public.

I'll still be writing every morning in support of a claim or series of claims that I will have articulated the night before. That is, I will still be trying to set a good example for academic writers (who should be doing the same sort of thing). But these claims will be fitted into posts that will be scheduled for later publication and will, hopefully, also be revised before they go up.

In this first post I want to announce the provisional result of some "identity work" that I've been carrying out. For years now, I've struggled with my identity as an intellectual, academic, scholar, writer, consultant, coach, philosopher ... I've even entertained the idea that I'm a poet. And I'm by no means through with these reflections, nor anywhere near settled in a job that might answer this question for me. But one thing became clear this weekend when I got into a twitter exchange with Steve Fuller and Babette Babich about the comparative value of science and philosophy: I am, whatever else may be true, a philosopher of science.

That is, I am engaged in systematic reflection about the nature of science and its value to society. I worry about it a great deal, even as I do my part to improve the discourse by supporting the efforts of scholars to become better writers. As a result, I have a lot of ideas about what constitutes knowledge (both in the sense of what "counts as" knowledge and what provides its principled foundations). And I also have some opinions about how well we know things these days, especially as regards the social sciences and, specifically, organization science.

Frankly, I think the situation is critical. I think there's something terribly wrong in the social sciences, both at the level of theory and the level of method, and, indeed, in the way theory and method are brought together. I think what is now simply called "the crisis" is deeply rooted in a crisis of the social sciences. I think the economy is coming apart, not because we don't know enough about it (we never have enough knowledge about society), but because we are, as Kierkegaard put it, confused by the many things we do know. We think we know too much. We are too certain that our problems derive from the ignorance that remains, and which we should run out and conquer as quickly as possible. Or, worse, that we already know what the solution is and it just needs to be implemented (Kierkegaard's new "republic").

I think, rather, that our problems derive from a lack epistemic humility. A lack of understanding, not knowledge. And I think it is the proper function of the philosophy of science to identify and insist upon the limits of the known (and knowable) so that we don't rush ahead based on cognitive models of social life that are simply unfounded. It is better to act in honest ignorance than merely "plausible" knowledge. And our philosophers are there to keep us honest in precisely that sense.

They must not just be critics of false knowledge. They must make us better able to live with what we know and don't know. They must keep the growth of knowledge from becoming malignant, a hindrance to life rather than an amenity. Much of this can be accomplished by a healthy intellectual lifestyle and proper mental hygiene. But every now and then an error must be surgically removed. I try to make myself useful in both ways.

My aim is to help us to live better with the knowledge we have, and don't have, about how organizations work. As a philosopher, I want to make it clear, I am not going to make any new discoveries about how they work. I will leave that to the scientists.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Writing Assignment

Next week, I'm off to Barcelona to teach a writing course for PhD students at the ESADE Business School. I thought I'd share the assignment I've given them with the readers of this blog. You can either use it as inspiration for assigning writing to your own students, or try it yourself. (If you want me to come to your institution to give the assignment and provide feedback, drop me a line at thomas at basboell dot com.) As I point out, it takes exactly two and a half hours to complete. Any longer or shorter means you're doing it wrong.

Dear Participants,

The purpose of the class is to introduce you to a way of writing. When we meet, I'm going to outline a reliable process for the production of scholarly prose, especially the prose we find in journal articles. If you master it, it will serve you throughout your academic career.

Please read these instructions carefully. They are not asking very much of you, but they are asking you to do something very specific. The more closely you follow the instructions, the more you'll get out of the exercise.

I'm not very interested in seeing writing that you have already done. I want you to do a little bit of writing specifically for me in preparation for the class and then a substantial amount of writing afterwards, which I will look at and suggest improvements to. If you follow my instructions, I will be able to help you develop your competence as a writer, that is, I will help you improve your writing process, not just the end product. You here have an opportunity to become a more effective, more efficient, and happier writer.

The purpose of this preparatory assignment is to make sure we're all "on the same page" when we meet. I want every participant to write exactly five paragraphs for a (real or imagined) paper. Together they will constitute the introduction and conclusion of what I call the "standard social science paper". While not all journals demand it, and some make slightly different demands, being able to write these paragraphs is a skill you will not regret acquiring.

Again, I don't just want you to send me the introduction and conclusion of a paper or chapter you are working on. I want you to do exactly 2.5 hours of writing. Each paragraph should be written in a pre-planned session lasting exactly 27 minutes (followed by a three-minute break). It should consist of no less than six sentences and no more than 200 words. It should state a single well-defined claim (we call this the "key sentence") and support it.

You can do this any time between now and our meeting. The important thing is to spend exactly 27 minutes on each paragraph, and to write all five of them.

You should know the day before you write what you are going to say. That means you should know which paragraph you are writing and what its key sentence is at the latest before you go to bed the day before. Notice that this means that if you want to do it all on the same day, you'll have to decide what all five key sentences are at once. If you spread it out over a few days, you'll only need to decide on one key sentence per day. My recommendation is that you spend one week (5 days, 27 minutes per day) doing this. But it's up to you.

Do the best you can. But don't spend more than the allotted time. One of the purposes of this exercise is to see for yourself, and to show me, what you can accomplish in 27 minutes.

Choose a topic that is quite familiar to you. You can either imagine a paper you might write about something you know well, or choose a paper that you're already working on, but make sure you have a good sense of what it will say. If you have to struggle to understand the ideas you're writing down, you will not be able to focus on the specific problem of writing. Confine yourself, then, to something you know now, not something you hope to learn in six month's time or a year from now.

Here are the paragraphs I want you to write:


1. Describe the current state of our world.
"We live in an age of increased global competition." It should not be that boring, but it should that sort of thing. You are here establishing a "common place" for you and your reader, a point of departure. You should say something that is interesting, and of course true, but not very controversial (or at least not in a way your reader will find controversial). It's what everyone who is familiar with this topic knows, even people who are not professional scholars.

2. Describe the current state of your field.
What is the overarching consensus or characteristic dispute (about the world you've just described) that defines research in your area? This is basically a short statement of your literature review or, better, a summary of your theory section. The paragraph should identify the key concepts in your analysis. It should re-describe the world of paragraph 1 in theoretical terms. This paragraph, that is, describes what the experts know about your topic.

3. Describe your paper.
"This paper shows that..." Feel free to use exactly those four words to begin this paragraph followed by a clear statement of your conclusion. Now, don't argue for the conclusion, but describe instead a paper that argues for it. You've already said what your theory is, so you don't need to say too much more about that for now. But do present your method. (Did you do interviews? If so, how many? With whom?) Summarize your results in one or two sentences, i.e., elaborate on the conclusion you've already stated. Also, summarize the theoretical or practical implications of your research in a sentence or two. What are you recommending? A reform of practices? A rethinking of concepts? New research? Let the reader know what your research implies for theirs.


4. State your conclusion.
This is the first paragraph of your conclusion. You can construct the key sentence here simply by removing the first four words ("This paper shows that...") from the key sentence of paragraph 3. Then support it. It offers you an opportunity to make the strongest possible argument, to the most well-informed reader you can imagine. Remember, this reader has just read—and presumably understood—your whole paper. State the results of your empirical analysis with authority (you've presumably earned it by now) and use theoretical terms without explaining their meaning (the reader gets it by now).

5. How does the world look now?
As a parting word to your reader, re-describe the world you presented in paragraph 1 in the light of your research results. It may be a world that calls for more research. It may be one that calls for new policies or managerial action. Whatever it is, it's a world that is now better understood than before we read your paper. The whole point of your paper was to make us smarter. The difference between paragraph 1 and paragraph 5 should subtly indicate the difference of outlook that this improvement implies. (If you read only paragraph 1 and 5 you wouldn't actually get smarter, but you'd get a sense of how much smarter you would get if you read your whole paper. They're like "before and after" pictures.)

The key to writing an academic paper is to appreciate your finitude. In this case, you have five paragraphs to write. You have no more than 200 words for each of them. And you have to write it in 27 minutes. Decide what you are going to say accordingly.

If it appears impossible, you've misunderstood the task. (Often, you've decided to say too much all at once.) Read the instructions again. Then, if you're still stuck, send me an email telling why you can't (i.e., why you can't even try to) write these paragraphs. There's usually a simple solution to the problem.

Also, please don't think I'm trying to make you write a paper in any particular way. I'm only trying to give you five simple tools that you can use to find your own way of writing a paper. The final form of the paper will always be up to you. After learning how to write paragraphs in this way, you simply have more options available to you.

Please send me the result of your attempt. If you did not want to do the assignment, or didn't have time (2.5 hours is all I ask, remember), please send me a mail letting me know why. I look forward to meeting you!


Monday, January 07, 2013

Emerging Topics for 2013

Here's a list of topics that people (and I myself) have come up with so far to write about in 2013. Thanks to Ryan and Thomas and the participants in my writing seminars for the suggestions!

Article Design

In 2013 I'm going to jump onto the "design thinking" bandwagon, I think. I know I'm behind the trend, but there is an untapped potential here to rethink what we are doing when we are writing papers. Thinking about an article as a design object will bring "what it is for" more clearly into focus. It will also, hopefully, help you to see that the paper's purpose is not exhausted by being published. The key to designing a paper is to imagine what effects you want it to have on the conversation that defines your field. This is no different from the way a designer thinks about how an object might change the practices it will be used in.

Taking Notes

Once you know how what you are "building" when you are writing a paper, you are in a good position to organize your materials, i.e., your reading, to that end. I'll try to think explicitly about what you should have in mind, and what you should have on hand, when you sit down to read. Your notes mediate between your reading sessions and your writing sessions (which, of course, I recommend you keep strictly separated), so they are an important tool in ensuring the quality of the writing you produce. While I believe that you should write down things that you know at the time of writing (not just things your notes say the books say), good note-taking techniques help you to concentrate on the particular ideas you've decided to write down today.

Revision Strategies

My approach to writing sets up your manuscript in an almost ideal way for editing. After all, if you've done it my way, you've got a text that is divided into roughly forty easily identifiable claims, and you can now ask about each of them how well they are made, and any series of them how well they cohere. But you can also use my approach to open a text that was produced in a less disciplined manner. Here my method will help you to make the shift from "writer based" posture to a "reader based" one.

Writing a PhD dissertation

Many of my readers are probably (and hopefully!) PhD students. While a PhD dissertation is a problematic object because it often doesn't look like anything else you'll write later in your career, it does offer an opportunity to develop the discipline that will make your life in scholarship enjoyable. Most importantly: if you think of your dissertation as making a series of claims (200-300 of them in most cases), you can use it to develop the all-important craft of paragraphing. This is the unit of composition that is at the core of my approach to scholarly writing. So this year I'll try to capture the attention of dissertation writers by regularly suggesting that the answer to their difficulties lies in the sometimes unimagined pleasures of crafting a prose paragraph.

The Concept of the University

There is increasing concern out there about what is happening to the university as an institution. I recently started reading Peter Drucker's Concept of the Corporation, which was published in 1946 and, according to Drucker himsself, quickly used as a key text in the redesign of the post-WWII public university. Again, seeing things from my narrow perspective, I conceive of the university as the site of the composition of paragraphs, i.e., a place where knowledge is shaped into claims that can be discussed, evaluated and, importantly, corrected if wrong. There is reason to worry that this function of the university is being lost in its eagerness to make a direct contribution to "economic growth", indeed, in its own eagerness to grow. I'll spend a few posts on the question of how to keep the university close to its core mission of conserving what we know for future generations.

That's what I've got so far. Please keep the suggestions coming.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Happy New Year!

Like I said before Christmas, I'm going to be posting without much rhyme or reason until Monday, January 28. Then you can expect the usual 7:00 AM post about scholarly writing for eight weeks (up to Friday, March 22). Last semester, I began writing posts in advance and scheduling them for automatic publication, and I'm going to to continue that approach this year, at least until Easter. That means I've got to come up with forty things to say. I thought maybe the readers of this blog could help me out.

What would you like me to write about?

I'll of course be writing quite a bit about what I'm now calling "article design", i.e., how to map out the roughly forty paragraphs that a journal article is composed of. And I'll also be talking about how to plan the writing process that is to produce those paragraphs. The basic principle is still to write at least one paragraph a day in 27 minutes. (You can adapt this is various ways to your own taste; some like 18-minute or even 13-minute paragraphs.)

But I'd like to talk about questions of style, too, and even a little bit about epistemology. "Knowledge—academic knowledge, that is—is the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph about something in 27 minutes," I always say. I'd like to reflect a little more about what this conception of knowledge really means. This means I'll have to walk back my recent dismissal of epistemological "concerns" a little.

Will I also have to talk about the "psychology" of writing? Maybe.

In any case, I'd like to know what you'd like to read about on this blog. Please just leave your suggestions in the comments, or, if your prefer, send me a mail (thomas at basboell dot com.)

Have a great 2013!