Thursday, January 28, 2010


As I was presenting the various components of Writing Process Reengineering in Budapest last week, a number of participants began to draw parallels to factory production and soviet bureaucracy. Other parts of the workshop, however, especially those related to editing, suggested something much more like an art. So I proposed to meet them half-way: academic writing is not like working in a factory, but its also not quite like making a work of art; rather, it's a craft. The room in which you write is a workshop. Enjoyment comes from the increasingly masterful manipulation of materials. When writing, your materials are words.

This idea of "manipulation", of bending words to your will, of making them mean what you want to say, has got me thinking about my ongoing and planned hobbies. I play the piano every day and take a half-hour lesson once a week. My children gave me a sketch pad and some graphite pencils and chalk for Christmas. Finally, for some time now, I've been thinking about taking up boxing. What do these things—piano playing, drawing, boxing—have in common? And what do they have in common with writing? They are all things we do with our hands.

(A brief detour through the OED: Though the etymologies are apparently a bit hazy, "book" and "box" may come from the same root, namely, "fist". The Latinate term for boxer is "pugilist" and the Romans had something they called a "pugillaris", which was a writing tablet that "filled the hand". A kind of notebook. While it is still sometimes argued that "book" comes from "beech", i.e., the tree that supplied the bark for the earliest writing tablets, others say that writing tablet, i.e., that "pugillaris" is the basic sense.)

I think there may be an important insight to be gained from practicing various manual arts. My list is not the only possible one, but it strikes me as quite well put-together. It covers a broad range of activities, supporting thinking, feeling, seeing, and even hurting. Craft skills related to everything from music to violence. So this year, which will be my thirty-ninth, I will, in addition to writing and editing, make a real effort to (a) play the piano, (b) draw pictures of things, (c) learn how to box. The important thing to understand is that scholarship is not just something that happens in our heads. It is something we quite distinctly do with our hands.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Enjoy It First

Even the most devoted instructor cannot teach a good style or reduce the elements of style to a set of quickly learned techniques. We learn to write well, if we ever do, by reading good prose, paying close attention to our own words, revising relentlessly, and recalling the connections between written and spoken language.

Christopher Lasch

I sometimes get invited to hold workshops about academic writing. (I've just returned from three wonderful days in Budapest, for example.) I am mindful of the desire of participants to learn concrete "tricks of the trade", rules of composition, and guidelines for authors. Quite understandably, participants in my workshops hope that I will tell them something they don't already know. They assume that the reason they are not getting published as much as they would like is that there is something about publishing that they don't understand. That is, of course, partly true, and I do try to be as straightforwardly informative as I can. But there are real limits to what I can accomplish in a one-day workshop. What I can do, however, is to emphasize the importance of individual discipline and social environment.

You cannot learn to write publishable prose overnight. Nor can an editor convert your notes into a publishable article by fixing the grammar. Successful academic writers are people who have made a habit of prosing their world, as Foucault might put it, and of conversing about it. They have submitted to a writing discipline and are embedded in a environment that reads their work. So I talk a lot about how to organize your time and how to build up a local community around writing.

Are you writing regularly? Does your writing schedule include periods of revision and proofreading? Does your reading respect your writing (and vice versa)? Do you have time to take your writing sessions seriously as learning opportunities? Do you study your own writing alongside the good prose you are reading? Do you have conversations with peers about the things you are writing about? That is, is there a "spoken language" for your research?

Like Anne Huff, I like to emphasize the role of "exemplars". Try to agree with your colleagues about a collection of, say, thirty journal articles that set a useful standard for work in your field, and then hold regular sessions to discuss those articles, either individually or in various combinations. What is it that makes them "good"? What distinguishes them as publishable prose? You can talk about whatever you like: theory choice, methodology, empirical conclusions, and, of course, style and composition. This ongoing conversation about the standard-setting articles in your field will then support your own attempts to write likewise publishable prose.

Scholarship is a long journey. There are about a 1000 days between the start of a PhD program and its completion. Perhaps another 1000 between your assistant professorship and your associate professorship. After that, you probably have another 10,000 days as a scholar before you. You have to be relentless about your writing in those days; you have to be paying attention. But you also have to enjoy it. Spend the first 1000 days or 2000 days of research learning whether or not you enjoy the work of articulating what you know in "academic prose" and talking to your peers about the ideas that are published in the literature. It's going to be a big part of your life.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Keeping Time

I'm in Budapest this morning, having arrived late last night. So this morning's post is going to be a short one; in fact, it will essentially be a transcription from my notebook.

Here's how the inspiration struck me. After a departmental strategy seminar, now on the bus on my way to pick my son up from school, I was thinking about "the problem" that a well-planned writing process solves. There are in fact two potential problems. First, some people have trouble finding time to write, i.e., they are kept from writing by other presures or a simple lack of discipline (sitting down in front of the machine every day). But there is also a second group of people, who are actually able to set time aside for writing, and do close the door, shut out the world, and set their mind to writing. But their writing never gets anywhere because they need to learn how to use their time.

The insight that struck me was that, here as elsewhere, the rule "use it or lose it" applies. Those who can initially find time to write, but who then don't make good use of it, will slowly find themselves distracted by other tasks. One day they find themselves without time to write at all.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ideas and Prose

"I must think French and write English, be very still and talk wild, act the sage and remain a fool or a dunce." (Henry Miller)

There is a big difference between having an idea and writing it down. This difference is amplified in the case of having an idea in, say, Danish and writing it down in English. The situation becomes even more complicated when the idea is based on reading in English (or, worse, French or German.) Finally, in the act of expression, an idea is often clarified, and once an idea becomes clear to us it begins to change.

Last week, I warned against forgetting the distance between "the surface of your style and the depth of your ideas". (This morning, I must admit, I'm struggling to express what I meant by that.) Two different sentences can express the same idea. One sentence can certainly express an idea more adequately than another. And the same can be said of a group of sentences; one sentence may be a more or less adequate expression of an idea than another depending on the sentences that come before it and after it.

There is no formula for dealing with the disparity between thinking and writing. The only proven method is to think often and to write often, but not to do either for too many hours at a time. Plan your work so that you are thinking, looking, reading, walking, talking, listening and, of course, eating and sleeping, a little every day. This will give your ideas and your prose time to develop at their own pace. It takes time. Let it do so.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ten Steps to an Argument

Here's an exercise that might help you outline the argument of a paper or prepare a conference presentation. I'm going to be trying it out soon to write an abstract for an upcoming conference.

Step 1: articulate your main point (thesis) in a single, simple declarative sentence. Call it T.

Step 2: decide what you want your audience to do with that sentence. Do you want your audience to believe it, or agree with it, or understand it?

Step 3: write three sentences that state why your audience is not able to do this. That is, describe, in three sentences, the background assumptions against which the sentence is unbelievable, controversial, or incomprehensible. (These sentences describe your audience's mind before having read your paper.) Number them 1, 2, 3.

Step 4: write three sentences that state the background assumptions against which the sentence can be believed, agreed with, or understood. (These three sentences describe your mind on this issue, and your ideal audience's mind after having read your paper.) Number them 13, 14, 15.

Step 5: write three sentences that state your direct evidence for T. Number them 7, 8, 9.

Step 6: write three sentences that explain how someone whose mind looks like 1,2,3 would be convinced of 7, 8, 9. Number them 4, 5, 6.

Step 7: write three sentences that explain why someone who knows 7, 8, 9 will henceforth assume 13, 14, 15. Number them 10, 11, 12.

Step 8: Write the sentences down in order (following the numbering).

Step 9: Insert sentence T between sentence 12 and 13.

Step 10: Have an epiphany.

I don't know how well this will work yet. But I'll report back when I've tried it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Managing the Muse

Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three. (Stephen King)

If you're going to succeed as a writer, you will have to abandon, if you haven't already, the idea that you need to be properly "inspired" before you sit down to write. There are two basic reasons for this. First, waiting for inspiration undermines the stability of your writing process. Second, it implies too close a relationship between the surface of your style and the depth of your ideas. I'll try to say a bit about each of these.

The muse is famously independent—it is, indeed, often outright undependable. You never know when inspiration is going to "strike" and you never when your muse will get bored and leave you in mid-sentence. Making inspiration a pre-condition for writing, then, can be an enormous inconvenience. Moreover, if you live your life at the whim of your muse, he/she/it might have a difficult time finding you. As King points out, a regular writing process is a way of making sure your muse knows where you are, it makes a target of your mind so that inspiration will have an easier time of hitting you.

The second worry I have about depending too heavily on inspiration is that it undermines the authority of our uninspired self as a critic. If you write only in fits of inspiration you may find yourself estranged from your own writing, unable to assess its value, and unable to improve it through editing. You will write in bursts of brilliance and then send your results off to others on the assumption that they will recognize your genius. But your "genius" will in fact be someone other than you. Writing will become a species of possession (whether angelic or demonic)—you will not, at bottom, know what you are doing, and how you are doing it. "It made sense at the time" is not a good thing to have to say about your own text.

The best way to break your dependence on inspiration is to learn how to use a notebook. Carry a notebook with you in which to write down ideas that "come to" you. And never let a moment of inspiration cause you to sit down to write prose as such. Just jot the idea down, reflect for a moment, and then keep doing whatever you were doing. Just make sure that part of your writing schedule includes time to convert your notes into prose, i.e., time to relate your flashes of inspiration to your ongoing writing projects in a calm, reasoned way. If your muse feels like you're just writing his/her/its input down in the notebook in order to forget it, he/she/it may get more aggressive. Don't say you haven't been warned.

Monday, January 04, 2010

A New Year's Challenge

Everyone knows that New Year's resolutions don't work. That is often because they are formulated as vague goals (e.g., "lose weight", "quit smoking") rather than well-defined programs (e.g., "meet J. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings at 6:15 to go for a jog"). We can only resolve to do something, not to successfully achieve our goals. With that in mind, let me restate my standing 16-week writing challenge.

There are eight weeks from the first of February until the Easter break. There are then another eight weeks til the end of May. 16 weeks of 5 working days each is 80 days. If you imagine writing for three hours a day, that gives you 240 hours. Let that be the maximum limit.

Now, look in your calendar from February 1 to May 29. Block out the Easter and May holidays. Resolve to write every remaining weekday for at least 30 minutes and at most 3 hours. Book these sessions into your calendar. In an ideal world you would book 80 three-hour sessions (from 9:00 til noon). But you'll probably have to settle for about 75 sessions, many of which will only last 30 minutes. It all depends on your time (and, to an extent, your resolve).

How many hours of writing time does that give you? How much do you realistically think you can accomplish in that time? Set some writing goals on that basis. Then break those goals up into smaller tasks ("things to do") and assign those tasks time in your calendar. Like I say, try to be realistic.

Here's the challenge: write always and only when your calendar tells you to. Don't write when "inspired" to do so (unless this coincides with your writing schedule) and do everything possible to keep your appointments with yourself (the writer). I'll write a post soon about how to deal with fits of inspiration.

Use January to make this plan and think about what you want to get written before summer. Then resolve only to stick to your plan. Happy New Year!