Tuesday, March 06, 2012

What Everybody Knows

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
Thats how it goes
Everybody knows (Leonard Cohen)

Just because everybody knows something does not mean it is not interesting. The first paragraph in a paper can usefully be a collection of such interesting commonplaces and it is precisely their commonplace nature that, perhaps, leads us to devalue them in our writing. You don't have be a Zen monk, however, to know the importance of precision in ordinary things. The exercise I want to talk about this morning is intended to develop this precision, this ability to articulate the commonplace. Remember that "articulate", really just means to join together.

The instructions for this exercise are simple: Write a sentence that everyone knows is true. But what does it really mean to "write a sentence"? And are there not way too many things to choose from (doesn't everybody know quite a lot)? Well, begin with the topic of a paper you're working on or, at least, some corner of your field that currently interests you. Now, what does everybody know about your subject, specialist and non-specialist alike? Remember that it has to be something that you—an expert on the subject—also believe. You're not writing down what everybody thinks. You're writing down what they know.

Since you're writing down an item of knowledge it will not do to simply jot down keywords. You'll need to assert something, i.e., you'll need to write a sentence. Let sentences come into your head and then write them down. Let them be very simple sentences. Spend about four minutes writing down a whole list of sentences, then pick one of them to rewrite.

This rewriting is important. Put the sentence at the top of a blank page. Now, write the sentence again exactly as you wrote it the first time. Is there anything in the way it is written that feels "wrong" or imprecise? Don't fix it by editing; instead, start a new line and write the sentence again. If you can write it less wrongly that's great, but if you can't think of a way of doing it differently just do it again and notice what happens when you get to the part that didn't seem to work. Keep doing it for four minutes. Then take a break. You can then do it again, do exercise number 2 (which I'll explain tomorrow), or move on to other things. You can also decide to spend 15 minutes elaborating the sentence in a paragraph.

Remember not to strain at this. Pick a claim that you (and everybody else) knows very well and use words that you know the full meaning of. You are training your sense of the sentence, your sensitivity for meaning, the ordinary motion of your prose.

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