Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What and How

In the comments to Friday's post, reader fjb has pushed against my suggestion that there is no time to discover what you want to say within any given 27-minute "act of writing". On my view, you decide what you want to say the night before, and then you "simply" write it down in the morning. "I can't think of anything I've completed and published," fjb counters, "that didn't include some ideas generated 'in the act.'" This is especially true, he says in a later comment, in the case of responding to objections. "It's hard to anticipate all that except in the course of expressing your arguments."

Now, it is certainly true that an idea might come to you while writing. But if it is not part of the supporting argument for the claim you happen to be working on at the time, you must note it down in a notebook and save it for later. Such an idea might of course end up in a published paper and we could say that it's been "generated in the act", but notice that it was not written down (in prose, at least, just in a note) at the moment it was conceived. The prose that presents this idea will be written sometime in the future, not now. Today, then, you are working on a claim that was not determined in this act of writing.

The basic distinction that I'm suggesting you observe is the one between what you want to say and how you want to say it. The "what" is determined in advance, and you don't discover it while writing. The "how" is what you have to spend 27-minutes working on. This distinction is actually quite central to my method. We might say that you are not using my method if you don't observe this distinction because the whole point is to know what (and when) you will be writing the next day. If you are waiting for the writing session itself to tell you what you want to say, then you don't know this, and this is robbing you of happiness as a writer. (Of course, if you are as happy as you can be doing things your way, then I am not saying you must use my approach. My approach is for those who feel their writing process leaves a lot to be desired.)

I want to make it clear, however, that even when you know what you will say in a particular paragraph, 27-minutes of work towards saying it will by no means be boring or uneventful. It may even hold surprises. You will discover lots of ideas you might not know you had in your attempt to support the session's key claim. That's certainly part of the fun. What you do not want to do, however, is to indulge in the hope that tomorrow you will "come up with something" and go to bed with no idea in your mind about what you will say.

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