Monday, February 09, 2009

Key Sentences

Tara Gray's Publish and Flourish performs one of its essential ideas in its table of contents. If we restate the subtitle as a question, the section headings, taken together, constitute the answer, and the chapter titles constitute its elaboration.

Q: How does one become a prolific scholar?

A: You become a prolific scholar by managing your time and then writing often, revising often, getting help from others often, and letting go of your work (to let it be reviewed) often.

That's what Tara would call her "thesis", and which she no doubt had posted on her wall as she wrote the book. Notice what happens if we just put her chapter titles together in a single paragraph, using elements from this "key sentence" to frame it:

You become a prolific scholar by managing your time and then writing often. Differentiate the the “urgent” from the important. Write daily for 15–30 minutes. Record time spent writing daily–share records weekly. Write from the first day of your research project. But writing often is not enough. Becoming prolific requires that you revise often, get help from others, and learn how to let go of your work. Post your thesis on the wall and write to it. Organize your text around key sentences. Use them as an after-the-fact outline. Share early drafts with non-experts and later drafts with experts. Learn how to listen. Respond to each specific comment. Read your prose out loud. Then kick it out the door and make them say "No".

I've tried to keep the editing to a minimum to emphasize the point that when you use key sentences as an outline, stringing them together should make immediate sense. It should provide an overview of your argument.

This idea was first suggested to me at a seminar by Walter Friedman of the Business History Review. After accepting an article for publication, he said, he would work with authors on the basis of what Tara calls an "after-the-fact" outline. That is, he would send them a document containing one sentence from each paragraph (that he had selected as "key") and then they would have a conversation about how those sentences could be sharpened and arranged for optimal effect. I've always wanted to use that method in my own dialogue with authors, and I take Tara's book as a reminder to follow up on that.

The idea should not be altogether new to readers of this blog. No matter how long it may be, you should be able to summarize your text in a single clear sentence. This goes for each chapter and each section as well. And it goes for each paragraph, too. Knowing what those one-sentence summaries are—indeed, ensuring that they actually appear in your text, will make a world of difference in your writing. It's a simple but effective method. Though it may appear insurmountably time-consuming, Tara is undoubtably right to suggest that "the work [will] pay off handsomely for you—and your readers" (48). Very true.

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