Monday, May 12, 2014

Writing Down Things You Know

Because it is so easy to follow, it seems, my advice is also easy to caricature and dismiss. When I propose that you train yourself to write prose paragraphs of at least 6 sentences and at most 200 words in exactly 27 minutes about claims you have chosen the day before, it may seem like I'm imposing completely arbitrary constraints on your writing, stifling your creativity. But I would emphasize that it it only seems that way. You won't know what this will do for your creativity until you try it. And this (trying it), like I say, is exceedingly easy.

We all know a great many things. But we normally think of "knowing" as a state we're in, not as an activity we can carry out. All I am suggesting is that you spend a few minutes or hours each day actively engaged in knowing. And I am describing an activity in which that could happen.

You will, in an important sense, not be learning during this activity. The "content" of the paragraph you will be writing will be something you have learned, preferably, long ago—weeks, even months, earlier. Of course, you will be developing your skill as a writer, and in this sense you'll be learning something. (We always learn something when we do something carefully.) Indeed, it will be a particular kind of writing skill you'll be learning, one that is too often neglected. You will be practicing how to write down something you know.

We can't learn how to write down what we know if we don't practice. We must carry out the action of writing down what we know. The only way to do that is to choose the item of knowledge to be written down in advance. And by "in advance" I mean, simply, the day before.


Anonymous said...

I am taking this to heart this week and next. I have been following an ugly process over the past month that was too much think-and-compose-as-I-write. I had two major grant proposals to complete which were subject to ridiculous time constraints and far to much kibitzing from colleagues, program managers, and university grants officers. Bleah! No time for the reflection and composition to occur in advance of writing the next day.

I am finding your method to be refreshing as I am 18 paragraphs into a new paper that follows one of your designs (Cutting your Work Out for You, 07 Sept 2012). Thank you. Sincerely.

Axldemic said...

What a simple yet radical idea. It's helpful for me, as well, as I prepare to start preparing for my comprehensive exams. It also puts me in mind of Sondra Perl's Guidelines for Composing, which begins by asking, "What do I know about?"