Thursday, September 01, 2011

RSL, Part II

The second part of the book will be the most practical, and the part that most approaches a "writing manual". Having described the workaday reality of research (in Part I), I now move on to the question of how we can manage that reality, both as individuals and in groups.

Part II is called "Writing Process Reengineering" as an allusion to my own practical circumstances, embedded in a department of a business school. Business Process Reengineering serves as a metaphorical model. It was developed as a way of rethinking and improving how businesses deliver goods and services to their customers. I have not tried to translate anything directly from the BPR approach (and don't really know very much about it, though that may change during the writing of these chapters); what I've tried to do is simply to present an image of the writing process as something that can be managed, and myself as the corresponding management consultant.

4. Finitude
The idea of managing the writing process is intended to provoke scholars of a more, let's say, "speculative" mindset. Indeed, one of the tutelary figures of this section of the book is Immanuel Kant, who urged us to restrain our speculative impulses by understanding the transcendental limits of our capacity to reason. For my purposes, this means getting scholars to realize that they do not have infinite resources at their disposal, nor are their projects infinite in scope. Their minds are not passive media for an absolute truth. There is, more importantly, no way to "transcend" the problem of writing by merely mental exertion. One must sit down for a limited amount of time and commit a limited amount of words to the page. Kant said that the fundamental categories of experience are time and space. Virginia Woolf helpfully pointed out that in, order to write, we need money and a room of our own, which is just a practical way of saying the same thing. The trick to mastering time and space is planning (cf. Kant's "schematism", i.e., scheming). And the key to planning is appreciating your own finitude.

5. Space
Where does your writing happen? If time is, as Henri Bergson said, what keeps everything from happening all at once, then space is what keeps it from piling up all in the same place. It is therefore important to define your space in two senses: first, where does your body go to write? What office or room do you go to when you write? What closed door can you sit behind without being disturbed? You have to make sure that this space is not also being occupied by things other than your writing. Second, where do the words go when you write? What text are you working on? What part of that text will you be working at a particular time? Here, the challenge is to keep your ideas from piling up in the same part of the paper. Questions about both senses of "space" should have clear and unambiguous answers each time you write. In this essay, therefore, I will talk about the space in which you write both as a room, i.e., a literal space, and as a page, i.e., a literary space. I will use these images to construct the space of the journal article and to suggest ways of gaining mastery over it, one paragraph at a time. The centerpiece of this essay is my all-purpose outline of a 40-paragraph journal article.

6. Time
When does your writing happen? Many academic writers make the mistake of thinking of time in terms of their deadlines. They will say they have 3 months to finish an article, or 2 years to write their dissertation. But most people write at their best in 2- or 3-hour sessions, preferably every day. So they do well to think about how many of those sessions they have until their deadline. They do well to think of each week as offering them only about 5 of these sessions, which occupy their attention for no more than half the working day. This essay will include my “16-Week Challenge” to train the writer's ability to leverage that useful property of an otherwise rather abstract notion. The reader is asked to think about how many of the ideally 240 hours in a given 16-week period they will spend writing. They will then think about how much they can expect to accomplish.

The central image of this section of the book is the central image of my workshops, namely, a rectangle carved into regular sections. It can represent the structure of a paper (divided into sections) or a weekly calendar (divided into sessions). My goal in writing these three short essays (15,000 words in all) is to leave the reader with a clear sense that the writing process is a real, concrete, manageable entity. That is can be imagined in some detail, and that the greater the level of detail, the more manageable it is. Though I have to admit that I'm providing a bunch of boxes into which to organize the process, it is also, I sometimes say, the box outside of which you think if you choose.

There you are. An overview of Part II of Research as a Second Language, the book. One more to go. Next week, I'm going to back to these posts and add links back into the archives. Then I'll really have my work cut out for me. But I'll also have a book proposal more or less ready to go.

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Jonathan said...

What is the articulation between part one and part two?

Thomas said...

I'm not sure I understand the question.

Jonathan said...

They seem like two different books, in way. I can see a lot of people interested in the manual without the first, more philosophical part, or vice versa. They are both equally interesting, but maybe to different sets of people.

Thomas said...

Hmmm. I guess I think both those books already exist. What makes my approach distinctive is precisely the seamless (!) way these two parts will go together. I'll post a summary of part III tomorrow. Maybe that will make it clearer.