Thursday, January 07, 2016

Basic Exercises

Many years ago, I broke my arm and was not very disciplined about retraining it. For a long time, increasingly aware that I was leaving the lifting to my other arm, I thought that some of my muscles had atrophied from disuse. I sought the advice of a physiotherapist, but it turned out that my arm was not worryingly weak. Rather, the "map" that my brain used to guide my arm had been distorted by (if I may overdramatize a little) my cowardice and my laziness. The exercises I was given to retrain it, therefore, did not involve any weight, only discipline. I had to learn to use my arm in a way that didn't avoid that little twinge of pain. I was told to move my arms in particular circles in order to redraw my mental map of ordinary motion. It was not painful, but slightly uncomfortable; it was not difficult, but a bit boring. It had to be done.

At the time, it occurred to me that there was a lesson for writers in this story. Perhaps bad writing habits also distort the maps that we have in our brains. If you don't sit down every day and write some true, declarative sentences, you get out of shape (lose strength) but might not suffer any intellectual damage. If, however, when you do write, you studiously avoid writing simple, declarative sentences that can be true or false, that is, if you are always constructing some kind of qualifying clause so that you don't actually have to know what you're saying, then you may really need to retrain your ability to speak your mind.

There really are people who seem to be always trying to "get around" writing a simple declarative sentence, to "work around" having to say something true. Some do it very intentionally because they don't believe in Truth and, in some cases, a distinctive and effective style does emerge from it. Note that this is because they really want a map of the motion of their language that does not pass through any simple, declarative territory. But when I failed to retrain my arm it was not because I had anything in principle against using it to lift stuff. It just hurt to do so for a while, and I avoided the the work of bringing it back to a normal state of health. So my brain found a way around it. A new normalcy.

With this in mind, I came up with some exercises that can help you either retrain your style or keep it in shape. I just watched Bill Evans talk about the danger of teaching jazz as a "style" rather than a set of "principles", so I want to emphasize that these exercises do not depend on conforming to any particular style of writing, though they do assume that you are trying to find your own voice as scholar, i.e., an "academic" writer. These exercises are intended to make you better at writing down what you know for other knowledgeable people to read. The effectiveness of the actual style that results will always depend on those other people. And remember that I don't know who they are.

The exercises I want to suggest map onto my standard proposal for an introduction, i.e., the first three paragraphs of a paper. The idea here is to write three sentences (and subsequently three paragraphs) that you know to be true. But these sentences are to comport themselves differently towards your reader's knowledge. Since all three sentences are for the introduction of the paper, however, their truth is not going to be very "heavy". That is, these exercises are only training the motion of your prose, not its strength. There is almost no load here.

Here are the three exercises, which I will say more about in the days to come.

1. Write a sentence everyone knows is true. That is, write a commonplace. Write a paragraph (at least six sentences and at most 200 words) that elaborates on it.

2. Write a sentence about the same thing that only you and your peers know is true. That is, "theorize" the first sentence. How do people who have access to specialized knowledge and technical jargon talk about this thing that everyone knows to be true? Write a paragraph that elaborates on it. (Note that this may involve noting the disagreements that inevitably characterize discussions among knowledgeable people on any subject.)

3. Finally, write a paragraph (again around a key sentence) that only you know is true. Before you exercise your reflex for false modesty, please consider your data. Your peers may be very smart, but they do not have access to what your data tells you is true. Until you publish, only you know this stuff. There's an art of telling people who are able to understand you, and even prepared to believe you, something they don't already know to be the case.

I would recommend doing these exercises in well-defined "writing moments" of 13, 18 or 27 minutes, followed by a break of 2 or 3 minutes before you do another, or go on with your day.

1 comment:

Charles Wankel said...

Nice thought to create exercise for academic writers. I also like the way you push library skills. Students today fall into just using the Web otherwise.