Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Minimum, Maximum, Exactum

Try to write paragraphs, I always say, of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words in exactly twenty-seven minutes. Please don't feel this immediately as a constraint. Think of it like walking into a room that is just the right size for you to do a particular thing. It should feel safe and at the same time liberating. Some people, after all, set minimums only. They resolve to write at least 500 words a day, or to work for at least an hour. Others work to a "maximum" in the sense of trying merely to reach a goal. So they'll write 1000 words or keep at it for two hours, sometimes using both goals and stopping when they reach the first. To my mind, this is a terribly imprecise way of organizing your work. My approach may seem more rigid, but is in fact very flexible. Crucially, it provides you with an ordinary, workaday sense of success and failure.

You decide in advance what you are going to say, i.e., what the key sentence of the paragraph is, and when you are going to say it, i.e., when the 27 minutes are going to start. Now, since the minimum is six sentences, your first problem is to find five things to say that support the claim in your key sentence. Once you've written six sentences your writing problem changes. You are now thinking more in terms of the quality of your argument than the mere quantity of your sentences. Improving the argument from here on might involve writing more sentences, but does not, formally speaking, require it. When (if) you reach 200 words the problem changes again. You now know your paragraph is probably getting too long and you have to ask yourself why. Did you subtly introduce a new topic? Are you repeating yourself? Are you just needlessly verbose?

Now, it is of course possible that you fail to keep within the minimum and maximum bounds. (Academic writing is not like one of those ridiculous businesses where, at least in the fictional universe of their advertising campaigns, "failure is not an option".) But you only know you have failed because you have run out of time. Obviously, having written four sentences after five minutes is not failure. Nor is a 220 word chunk of prose at 15-minute mark. And by similar logic, you haven't succeeded when you've written 9 sentences using 176 words after 22 minutes. Anything could still happen! You could impulsively delete 5 sentences in the twenty-fifth minute. You could certainly find yourself writing another fifty words. You do have the option to sit still for five minutes, neither adding nor deleting, just reading the paragraph. But you have to keep at it.

The 27-minute "exactum", which is a word I apparently have had to coin for this purpose, keeps the process centered, grounded, anchored. Pick your metaphor. It gives the experience of writing a small sense of its Sisyphean fate. It prevents you from "just getting it over with". You start "in the middle" with a resolve to write for exactly 27 minutes. At the lower limit you have to write six sentences. At the upper limit you must stay within 200 words. That's the nature of the problem. Defined in its finitude.


Presskorn said...

"Exactum" doesn't seem to be a word, which you had to invent.

Besides from being an ordinary latin word, it also occurs the Latin grammatical tense, "futurum exactum" (also called "futurum perfect"), which actually seems to connect with the stress on planning, which is also figures prominently on RSL.

It is unlike plain futurum ("He will write"), which is merely the grammatical indicates that something will happen in the future,. Rather futurum exactum ("He will have written") indicates that something will have happened at this determinate point in the future. This grammatical tense, one might (somewhat loosely) say, expresses the determinateness of planning.


Thomas said...

I was aware of that sense, but I think it's only used that way in Danish. I meant that I couldn't find the word an English dictionary. Can you?

Presskorn said...

Sure, you are totally right about the dictionary-thing & I was slow in not picking that up.

Some rambling amateur linguistics concerning futurum exactum: I think it would be wrong to contrast Danish and English on this point. It seems to me that they are pretty on much par here. The sense of futurum exactum/perfectum is almost expressible in both English and Danish, but they are both unlike Latin and Spanish in having to use both auxiliary verbs and comparative time indicators to express to that sense.


You will have [auxiliary verbs] learned Basbøll’s writing method, when I return from London [comparative time indication].

You shall have [auxiliary verbs] learned Basbøll’s writing method, when I return from London [comparative time indication].

Jeg vil have [auxiliary verbs] scoret to mål, når du ankommer til kampen [comparative time indication].

On other hand, there seems to be an almost metaphysical difficulty in understanding what futurum exactum would be at all. Why? Because in the above examples, I think one would have to resist the extreme temptation to read the auxiliary modal verbs (“will”, “shall”, “vil”) as expressing epistemic or deontic modality. It’s not that I merely guess that you will have learned Basbøll’s writing method, when I return from London (epistemic modality). Nor that I command you to learn it (deontic modality). It would have to be more alike to alethic modality without being modality at all. It would express something like:

You have learned Basbøll’s writing method by the time I return from London later this year [sic!].

That sentence, of course, ungrammatical, so interpreted in that way we don’t have futurum exactum in English or Danish at all. These languages have a hard time expressing the absolute of certainty of something, say of having learned Basbøll’s method, when this something has not occurred yet.

This is perhaps also the sense in which futurum exactum expresses the metaphysics of the ideal plan: A plan which could refer to its planned future as if it was already a fact now .