Thursday, November 26, 2009

Belief and Imagination

There is an important difference between the literary and the academic style. The literary writer is first and foremost trying to get the reader to imagine something; the academic writer, by contrast, is trying to get the reader to believe something. In this sense, literary writing has an aesthetic aim, while the aim of academic writing is epistemic. But that is not to say that literature does not engage with our beliefs, nor that academic writing does not engage our imagination. The difference is merely in their primary aim.

Any sentence, in order to be understood, must affect the reader's imagination. But it cannot produce this effect if the reader does not believe something in the first place. We can understand the sentence, "He opened the window," only because we hold certain beliefs about windows and the people who deal with them. (We would be surprised to discover that "he" is a cockroach.) But we can interpret the sentence without believing that anyone actually opened a window. The aim of the sentence is to get us to imagine something, not believe it.

The sentence, "Organizations are social constructions," by contrast, is somewhat difficult to, properly speaking, imagine. It asks us to consider the truth of a proposition, not to form a picture in our minds.

Both sentences express simple ideas. Even when we make them more complex, however, they retain their aesthetic and epistemic focus respectively.

"He opened the window and listened to the hushed voices of the conspirators, who sat on the bench in the garden, entirely unaware of his eavesdropping."

"Organizations are social constructions but this does not mean that they are merely linguistic fictions. After all, reality itself is a social construction."

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. We'll see on Tuesday.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


"In stating as fully as I could how things really were, it was often very difficult and I wrote awkwardly and the awkwardness is what they called my style. All mistakes and awkwardnesses are easy to see, and they called it style." (Ernest Hemingway)

My piano teacher praised my "musicating" at my last lesson. I don't know if that's a word in English and I was actually surprised that it's a word in Danish. It means "to make music", and in this case she was trying to distinguish it from merely playing the notes. I still find it quite difficult to play the right notes (we've been working on the first prelude of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier) and her point was that even though I'm clearly struggling, I'm nonetheless trying to phrase at least a few bars at a time, and I'm varying my dynamics and tempi. I insisted that in playing quietly or slowly I'm only trying to give myself time to put my fingers in the right the places. Then, when I play loud or pick up the tempo a bit, it's because I hit a stretch that I find easier to play. So it's like Hemingway says, it's my awkward struggle with a difficulty that comes out as "musicating".

Perhaps musicating is a bit a like prosifying. We can distinguish "making prose" (really writing) from merely putting down words (in grammatically correct sequences). When I edit other people's writing I do sometimes notice a distinct struggle to write (to state as fully as possible how things really are). It can be seen in a suddenly shorter sentence, or a change of tense. Sometimes, no doubt, the writer is merely dealing "awkwardly" with a difficulty. But I can actually put myself in the mind of my teacher: she was encouraged by what may be the rudiments of a style.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Clean Text

From now until Christmas I'm going to try to write only about matters of style and grammar. That is, I'm going to blog as a copy-editor.

Editing is probably the most rewarding and most difficult thing I do. It is especially rewarding when I am given a text (as I often am, thankfully), that the author has carefully edited, even proofread, first. This allows me to tackle substantive questions of style and argumentation, rather than superficial questions of spelling and punctuation (often resulting from typos). It is a common misconception that the more unfinished a text is the more open it is to "suggestions". In a sense, that is true, but the openness is ultimately empty. A text needs to offer real resistance to the suggestions of an editor; it needs to push back against the editor's intuitions. There needs to be some friction, and if both the editor and the author understand this from the beginning, the process of improving the text can be truly gratifying—for both parties.

Grammar Girl has a nice post on proofreading that offers some standard advice. I think the most important thing to do (which is unfortunately probably quite rare) is to read your text out loud once or twice before giving it to your editor. This not only helps you to find typos, it also gives you access to the flow and rhythm of your text. You are forced to pay attention to it as prose, one word at a time.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Changing the Pattern

My one-week break from blogging somehow turned into two. I'm occupied with a lot of different things these days, some of which are quite new, and this is not leaving me with the sort of attention I need to blog often. So I am going to change my blogging and jogging pattern. Starting next week, I'm going to jog Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and blog only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Also, I'm going to base my blog-posts on readings of grammar and style guides. Lately, thinking of something to say every other morning has been a bit stressful. Instead, I'm just going to read something about style or grammar before I go to bed (Monday and Wednesday) and write a post about it in the morning.

In general, I think it is important to deal with your work-load pressures by making relatively small changes in the pattern of your tasks. If you suddenly feel you don't have time to write, always consider writing less before you decide not to write at all. Quick, sudden changes of direction, or radical changes in your range of activities can be very stressful. If you're going to shift your attentions from one set of things to another, do it slowly, and do it in way that is reversible at least in the short term.

Bob Sutton's current post is called "When is the change going to be over?". He rightly points out that we should expect constant change. But I would temper this with a call to managers, and of course self-managers (like researchers), to define relatively limited change processes that are set in motion and then brought to a close. There is change as such and then there is the change. I don't think is unreasonable to demand that the change should have a beginning and an end.