Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Shape of Form

This week I'm going to the University of the West of England in Bristol to hold my one-day workshop in Writing Process Reengineering. I've promised the participants (hello everyone!) that this morning I'd outline my basic approach, so that they know what to expect when we meet. They already have a program for the day (which I've summarized in this post). In this post, therefore, I'm going to say a few basic things about what one workshop participant of mine was kind enough to call my "philosophy of writing".

My view is that academic writers need to make a concerted effort to keep their prose in shape. What I do, therefore, is to offer a number of exercises that will help them develop mastery of form. Writers of course also need a number of purely "cognitive" or "intellectual" capacities, and very definitely some mastery of content, but these are specific to the field in which they work and, largely, a personal matter. You don't have to be a genius to be a successful academic writer, but you might of course want to be such a thing. Regardless of your level of intellectual ambition, you do well to keep the part of you that writes in shape. For convenience, I just call that part your prose.

What I call Writing Process Reengineering (WPR) is an attempt to get writers to appreciate the finitude of the problem. Today, your prose is in a particular kind of shape and you will not improve it noticably overnight. But you can make real strides if you subject your development to a program that resembles the sort of training people undertake to get into physical shape: start out with short sessions every other day. From there, develop a regular habit of writing. That is, mastery of the prose form is, in one sense, mastery of time and space. When and where will you write?

My workshops are really a long argument for the plausibility of two forms, one spatial and one temporal. The first is the 40-Paragraph Article (40PA). While actual articles will of course deviate from this ideal form, it is always possible to imagine an idea expressed in 40, roughly 6-sentence or 200-word paragraphs. Each paragraph makes exactly one claim and offers support for it. The key implication is the—for some people startling—insight that you have to know exactly 40 things in order to write an academic article. The forty paragraphs themselves are distributed across 8 five-paragraph sections: the introduction and conclusion count as one section, and then there's the background, theory, methods, three sections of analysis, and implications. Whenever you are "writing" (in the specific sense I'm after), then, you are writing (or revising) a paragraph in a paper of roughly this form. You are keeping your ability to write such a paragraph in shape.

Temporally, I offer participants what I call the 16-Week Challenge (16WC). You should never write for more than three hours a day, so a given 16-week period (of 5-day working weeks) has a maximum of 240 writing hours. That's a good ball-park figure to start with, but most people will have to find the 60 or 120 or 180 hours that constitute a more realistic estimate of their resources. These hours-available-for-writing should then be booked into the writers' calendars and they should decide which writing sessions will be devoted to which parts of the ideal 40PA form I just outlined. Here it can be useful to think of your prose as your ability to compose a coherent paragraph about something you know in 20-30 minutes (you will discover the limits of you own form in this regard). Taken together, then the 16WC and the 40PA give academic writers who want to embark on a program of personal development a complete frame, in time and in space, in which to train their prose.

The workshop provides you with a rhetorically robust concept of "knowledge" that corresponds to these formal exercises. It argues that your knowledge is your ability to hold your own in a conversation among knowledgeable peers—which makes it the basis of your strength and poise, i.e., grace, in writing. Gaining this formal mastery is a matter of getting prose into shape. Prose, that is, is "the shape of form".

Note: I like to lead by example. This post of just over 700 words took exactly one hour to write. I did of course start out knowing what I wanted to talk about. See you soon, Bristol!

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