Friday, November 30, 2012

The Concept of the University

One of the great ironies of the twentieth century may well be that as management came increasingly to be viewed as a science, research came increasingly to be viewed as a business. This came to mind again yesterday as I was reading Peter Drucker's classic Concept of the Corporation, from 1946, which, as he explains in his 1983 epilogue, was quickly applied to the reorganization of major U.S. state universities. Ironically, it was completely ignored by the company that Drucker based the book on: General Motors. He explains this, in part, by the resistance among GM's leadership to change, especially at the level of corporate policy:

It was not so much the specific changes that upset the GM executives but my suggesting that policies must be considered as temporary and subject to obsolescence. To the GM executives, policies were "principles" and were valid forever, ot at least for very long periods. "We spent twenty years thinking through and developing these policies," one of them said to me. "They have been tested in practice. We know they are right. You might as well ask us to change the law of gravity." (p. 240)

This conflict, he suggests, may also have been at the heart of what he considers his marginal status in academia (I'm not sure this is more than an affectation on his part, I must admit). Drucker approaches management "as a practice", not a theory, not a science. GM's executives, by contrast, thought that their corporate policies "were absolutes, like laws of nature":

They saw themselves as the pioneers of a science. And thus the thesis underlying Concept of the Corporation (and all [Drucker's] management books) that management is fundamentally a practice, although, like medicine, it uses a lot of sciences as its tools, was totally unacceptable to them.

It is important to keep in mind that what Drucker calls a "corporation" is constituted by these managerial practices. A corporation is what it is not by virtue of what it makes but how it is organized, how it is managed. But his model is clearly a manufacturing company—one that makes cars.

So why is it that university administrators, already in 1946, thought it could be used as a guide for their efforts? That's a big question. All I want to do in this post is to point out that the resistance of GM's executives appears to be not just "scientific" but "academic". By embracing Drucker's "concept", university administrators, it seems to me, were transforming the essence of higher education. Let me say a few words about what I mean.

A corporation is an organization of human effort. It organizes the capacities of people and machines. Management is the practice of organizing work. A university, by contrast, doesn't primarily organize capacities for work. In an important sense, it should organize a receptivity to "play". The enjoyment of art for example or the pursuit of free inquiry. Theory is to the university as practice is to the corporation.

By organizing itself as the embodiment of universal truths, GM, perhaps unwisely, conceived of itself less like a corporation than like a university. But a university does well to resist change at the policy level precisely because its fundamental purpose is not to organize the relations between people and machines in work, but the relations between people and reality, the "universe", if you will. That reality is much less changeable than we have grown accustomed to believe. To turn Drucker's formulation to my ends here, we might say that the thesis underlying the concept of the university (and my blogging about scholarly work) is that research is fundamentally a theory, although, like business, it is governed by much policy. But precisely because those policies really are rooted in "laws of nature" (eternal principles of reasoning, for example), "retooling" the university for some mythical "21st Century" is as odd as believing that a 20-year-old corporate policy is a valid basis for making cars.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Disciplined Imagination

(with apologies to Karl Weick)

In his comment to my post on imagination, Thomas Presskorn suggests that I am violating the spirit of Wittgenstein's Tractatus by identifying its "concerns" with my own. Russell locates those concerns as follows:

There are various problems as regards language. First, there is the problem what actually occurs in our minds when we use language with the intention of meaning something by it; this problem belongs to psychology. Secondly, there is the problem as to what is the relation subsisting between thoughts, words, or sentences, and that which they refer to or mean; this problem belongs to epistemology. Thirdly, there is the problem of using sentences so as to convey truth rather that falsehood; this belongs to the special sciences dealing with the subject-matter of the sentences in question. Fourthly, there is the question: what relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other? This last is a logical question, and is the one with which Mr. Wittgenstein is concerned.

"Scholarly writing," Thomas says, "concerns everything but [the fourth question, i.e., Wittgenstein's]". This is certainly an important thing for me to get right. So what is the proper concern of a writing coach for scholars?

I generally leave psychology on the side. I have a few ideas about the role of "the unconscious" in writing, and the need to give it a chance to help us write, but "what actually occurs in our minds" doesn't interest me very much, and I am suspicious of anyone who proposes to tell me about it.

Russell rightly leaves the question of "using sentences so as to convey truth rather that falsehood" to the "special sciences". I follow his lead. While I encourage scholars to write down their "justified, true beliefs", I leave all standards of truth and justification to their peers within their discipline, i.e., their own special science.

Epistemology was once a respected, autonomous philosophical discipline and included philosophy of science, which presumed to explain "the scientific method" in generally applicable terms, i.e., terms common to all the "special" sciences. But after the project of developing a unified account of science was abandoned (so that now philosophers of, say, biology have little to talk to philosophers of even, say, physics about) I have decided to leave epistemology also to the disciplines themselves, encouraging authors to engage with the methodological and meta-theoretical debates that define their field, even as they apply particular methods framed by particular theories with some measure of self-assurance.

This leaves us with the question of what makes a sentence "capable" of representing a fact. And the practical answer I propose is this: representing a fact requires the disciplined use of imagination, 6 sentences (min.), 200 words (max.), and 27 minutes at a time. That is how we "make pictures of the facts". It is a scholar's job to make particularly accurate pictures of the facts. And it is the philosopher's job to make scholars more capable of this task. That is why being a writing coach is the most philosophical thing you can be. And isn't that exactly the activity that Wittgenstein proposed at T6.53, Thomas? My only innovation is to put it in writing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


"He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it's probably only insomnia. Many must have it." (Hemingway)

You should know before you go to bed what and when you will write the next day. If, for whatever reason, you cannot decide what to write, or do not know when you might find time to do so, you should plan not to write. Just make a conscious decision before going to sleep not to do any writing tomorrow. Then, if you get an "inspiration" or some other urge to write during that day, simply note the idea down in your notebook. Don't write it out in prose, but set aside time the next day to write. Now, at least, you know what you want to say.

You may, however, have a standing plan to write at a particular time every day. I, for example, normally write a post for this blog every morning between 6:30 and 7:00. The night before, I settle on one of the many ideas I have in my head about scholarly writing. So what happens if I can't think of anything to write about, or I can't decide on any one of the many things I may be thinking about? (Blogging is actually a poor model here because the fact that what I write will be published immediately requires that I will have to want to say whatever it is I end up writing about.) Well, I can decide not to write a post that day.

This past Friday was the day after Thanksgiving, for example. We had been invited to celebrate with some American friends and I knew that I would get to bed late, stuffed with plenty of wine and food. So I knew there would be no writing early the next morning. It was a simple decision. Last night was different. I simply couldn't sleep. So I wrote this post instead as a kind of decision not to write a post tomorrow. I then scheduled it to post at 7:00AM, as usual. But I can't lie to my readers. This post is clearly a violation of my discipline.

Again, blogging is not a very good model. I would never recommend spending a sleepless night working on an scholarly article. (Especially if that work coincides with canceling tomorrow's planned work on the same article.) But since I have already cancelled tomorrow's post, and I have nothing better to do, I thought I might as well share my decision process with you. Sometimes you can't sleep. And it's only a blog post, after all.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Facts, Images and Sentences

"Those who practice this game forget that a book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialog it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory." (Borges)
In his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Bertrand Russell stated its central question as follows: "What relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another, in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?" Though he is sometimes accused of forgetting it himself, it is important to point out that Wittgenstein was not suggesting that a sentence can symbolize a state of affairs independent of a mind to comprehend it. That is, one part of the "relation" between the sentence and the fact is a sentient being who reads and writes it.

"We make to ourselves pictures of facts," said Wittgenstein (T2.1). It is one of those sentences in the canon that is utterly simple and profound. Whether we are observing the fact directly or reading a sentence about it, we form an image of it—what Wittgenstein calls a "logical picture". This operation is absolutely crucial to understanding a text.

A sentence is not straightforwardly an arrangement of words that represents an arrangement of things (i.e., a fact). This can be easily seen in the case of a sentence that includes a pronoun. "It was lying on the sidewalk," for example. What this sentence represents will depend crucially on the context that determines the meaning of "it". Ultimately, however, the context will include the whole world of the reader, which determines the meaning of words like "sidewalk" and "lying". This world is part of the context of the fact that is a sentence. Understanding the sentence depends on the reader's ability to imagine this world. And writing a sentence, therefore, depends on the writer's ability to imagine the world of the reader.

The role of imagination in reading and writing, and therefore the role of imagination in scholarly work more generally, is not often enough acknowledged in my opinion. We take the capacity of a sentence to symbolize (i.e., stand for, i.e., represent) a fact for granted and do not give ourselves the time to imagine the world that our writing (and reading) implies. A text comes to represent, not any particular arrangement of facts, but our generalized authority as scholars. Reading the text does not become an occasion to imagine something but merely one to acknowledge the position of an author in a verbal structure.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Epistemology of Plagiarism

"...there is the problem as to what is the relation subsisting between thoughts, words, or sentences, and that which they refer to or mean; this problem belongs to epistemology." (Bertrand Russell)

"Plagiarism," says Keith Ellis, "is an accusation with significant moral content." There is some truth to that, of course. But I'm not sure that he's right to say that "every public discussion about every claimed instance of plagiarism includes moralizing language and exhortations of punishment" (my emphasis). In most cases the moralizing really only begins in earnest after the plagiarist denies the charge. But it is certainly also true that there is a lot of "defensiveness and evasion from the accused, even when you otherwise might expect them to be willing to acknowledge [the mistake]". It just strikes me as unnecessary and pre-emptive and not very constructive. I think Keith and I agree on that.

This is why I've been arguing for a separation of the moral and intellectual (or ethical and epistemic) issues related to plagiarism. After all, when the plagiarism in fact is intentional, there is certainly a moral issue. But plagiarism is not just about giving credit where credit is due. It is not just about the original author's right to his or her "intellectual property". It is about the intellectual environment—the reading environment—in which scholarly works goes on. The plagiarist has, intentionally or unintentionally, obscured the source of what we know and therefore installed a barrier to future research.

This is the sense in which plagiarism is an epistemic matter. Indeed, it is first and foremost about the conservation of knowledge, not the distribution of rewards and punishments. Those of us who feel a sense of satisfaction when we discover and expose plagiarism are not enjoying a ride on a moral high horse. We believe we have made an important scholarly discovery. We believe that the work we did to discover it (the care with which we have read the relevant texts) should be rewarded (i.e., acknowledged) before the plagiarist is punished. And we fully recognize that the plagiarist's punishment must follow from an investigation that takes intention into account. But this is a secondary matter. The most important thing is that the error that the plagiarist has introduced into the literature be corrected.

When I talk about "rewarding" those who discover plagiarism I mean this mainly in the intrinsic sense of correcting the mistake. An untruth is replaced with a truth and this is always intellectually satisfying. I will hopefully one day feel this satisfaction when sensemaking scholars stop telling that story about the soldiers in the Alps as "Karl Weick's story" about "an incident that happened". But there ought also to be the usual "extrinsic reward". I do hope to one day be known as the person who corrected a long-standing mistake (or two) in the literature. But this requires that work like mine be published and cited, not for its shock value as a "scandal", not for its "significant moral content", but for its value as a corrective to what we believe.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Police

"I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write." (Michel Foucault)

"If Lester Bangs were alive today, he'd know exactly why Miles Davis used to call Wynton Marsalis 'the police'." (Ron Silliman)*

Andrew Gelman is not the plagiarism police because there is no such thing as the plagiarism police. But there is, at any self-respecting university and any self-respecting academic journal, a plagiarism policy, and there sure as hell is a "morality" of writing in the world of scholarship. The cardinal rule is: don't use other people's words or ideas without attributing those words or ideas to the people you got them from. Everyone makes mistakes, but if you make one you have to correct it. Don't explain why your mistake isn't very serious or "set things right" by pointing to the "obvious" signs of your good intentions. If you've used somebody else's words or ideas in a way that suggests to a reader that these are your words or ideas then you have committed plagiarism.

Don't say you've cleared it with the original author. The real victim of your crime is not the other writer; it's your reader. That's whose trust you've betrayed.

The case that Andrew posted has met with the usual range of reactions. One of the most common is to suggest that the critics, "the police", are overreacting, an echo, perhaps, of Foucault's "spare me their morality when I write". "There are many worse sins," says one. "I find it extraordinarily difficult to get agitated about this," says another, implying of course that anyone who uses the word "plagiarism" is in some kind of tizzy about it. One commenter also introduced the red herring of intention: "we cannot assume that the existence of plagiarism is prima facie proof of deliberate plagiarism". Ironically, the assuming here is being done by the defenders. They are assuming that those who worry about plagiarism in the work of others are outraged about misconduct. But nobody said anything about motive. All they did was to point out an error of scholarship that needs to be fixed.

I run into this regularly when I try to get my critical scholarship published. I am trying to bring an error to the attention of the community of scholars (so we will no longer believe something that isn't true, or at least no longer believe it on a false basis), but I am then told that I have to be careful because plagiarism is a "serious accusation". I think that's the problem in dealing with these cases. It's the reason many cases are passed over in silence, I suspect.

*This quote originally referred to Branford Marsalis, which is what I'm pretty sure Silliman wrote in a comment stream seven years ago. But see Andrew Shield's comments to this post, which makes a plausible case that Wynton makes better sense here. I have decided to modify the quote to capture what Silliman must have meant. The comments are no longer available at Silliman's blog.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What to Do Next

When the twenty-seven minutes are up, you should stop working on the paragraph and take a break for three minutes. You will soon discover whether a three minute break is enough. There is no shame in organizing your process into 26 minute sessions plus 4-minute breaks, or 25 + 5. Whatever works for you. As long as the break isn't so long that your prose gets cold. After the break, you continue with the next thing you've got planned for that day. That may be writing another paragraph, or it may be some reading or analysis to prepare for tomorrow's writing sessions, or it may be something completely unrelated to what you're writing. The important thing is to have some specific task to move on to. The writing of this particular paragraph is, in any case, over now. Don't leave yourself an opening to keep struggling with it. You'll have a chance to work on it again further down the road.

If the next thing happens to be writing another paragraph, start, as I suggested on Monday, by typing out the key sentence. Notice that this means that the next thing you're writing has a very clear focus, and this sequence of shifts of focus is something you were aware of the night before.*

People are different and their writing processes may benefit from different ways of working through their material. Imagine three writers who have each set aside ten hours, two hours a day, in a given week. That means they will each write 20 paragraphs in all, 4 paragraphs a day. That's half a paper. Now, Writer A may write the introduction and the first paragraph of the conclusion on Monday, then the first paragraph of the background, theory, methods, and analysis section on Tuesday. Then the second paragraph of each of these sections on Wednesday, until there are four paragraphs in each section by the end of Friday's writing. Writer B, by contrast, may write four paragraphs for each section in a row. Writer C, finally, might write the three paragraphs of the introduction and the first paragraph of the background on Monday, continuing with the remaining four paragraphs of the background on Tuesday, and the first four paragraphs of theory on Wednesday. By the end of the week, Writer C has written the first 20 paragraphs of the paper in sequence. Whatever works.

*I should perhaps clarify that many writers prefer to establish this awareness immediately after their writing is finished for the day. Others like to reflect on tomorrow's writing tasks before they leave the office in the afternoon. Some do it in the evenings, after closing the book they're reading. And some, finally, glance at the key sentences for the morning to come just before they put their head on the pillow and go to sleep. Whatever works. What I mean is that you should know what you're writing tomorrow at the latest before you go to sleep.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What to Do Now

For some people, twenty-seven minutes is a very long time to spend writing a single paragraph. After seven or eight minutes, they've got eight sentences and a hundred-and-fifty words. Now what?

Remember, whatever you do, do not stop working on the paragraph before your planned 27 minutes are up. To pass the time, try this:

First, read what you've written out loud. This could take about a minute. Read it slowly and deliberately, like you would speak the words if they were coming to you spontaneously. A well-written paragraph should be easy to read out loud. A piece of writing, it is said, has an "immanent orality", and rhetoricians will sometimes say that all textual interpretation is about figuring out how it would be "performed". When your readers are trying to make sense of what you've written, to understand it, they are really trying to "hear" it.

Next, retype it. That's another two minutes. Remember that before the invention and propagation of word-processing all texts were written and rewritten several times before they made it into print. I am certain that this had immeasurable effects on the quality of the prose that was produced. While the effect of less rewriting today is perhaps also immeasurable, it is, it seems to me, quite palpable. Your reader will be pleasantly surprised (without quite knowing why) to meet, in your writing, prose that has been physically rewritten (i.e., re-typed) several times as part of the process. Prose that has been cared for in this way is also, of course, more likely to be re-read. It deserves it, you might say.

Now, put a blank line between each sentence. Work on each sentence individually for, say, one minute. (This, then, will take you eight minutes altogether. If you don't have that much time, pick one or two sentences to focus on.) This is a great opportunity to perfect the grammar and punctuation of your sentences and to think about the order in which the important concepts appear. Also, ask yourself whether you are using the most interesting verb that is available to you in the sentence. The verbs "to be" and "to have" are often not the most interesting.

Finally, spend a couple of minutes putting it all back to together. Here, you should focus on the connections between sentences and the progression of the argument through the paragraph. It is sometimes said (and I have said this too) that you should work on the "flow" of the paragraph. But flow is just one kind of progress, and it's not always the most appropriate one. Sometimes you want the reader to feel like the paragraph is a series of careful steps taken towards a conclusion.

If you find yourself with a great deal of time to spare often, you might consider writing more difficult prose on more difficult subjects. It seems you have the strength to do it. Or you can cut your writing sessions down to 17 or 18 minutes (with a 3 or 2 minute break). But remember that you must plan this in advance. However much time you thought you would spend on a paragraph the night before, that's how much time you must spend on it on the day. Don't "reward" yourself for finishing early. All you are doing is punishing your writing self for being efficient. And remember always to give yourself enough time to both care about and enjoy the act of writing. This, too, is good for your style in the long run.

See also: "What to Do" and "What to Do Next".

Monday, November 19, 2012

What to Do

You have twenty-seven minutes. You have decided in advance what you want to say. All you have to do now is write it down in at least six sentences, at most two-hundred words. But how to proceed?

(The question "How to write?" can be answered at various levels of abstraction, often to various degrees of frustration for the questioner. "Write at least one paragraph, for at least half an hour, every day," is one answer. "Write what you know," is another. "Think of your reader," a third. When writers want something more specific I sometimes find myself saying simply "Put words together in a meaningful way, that's how." This week I want to see if I have something more useful to say about how actually, how exactly, to write a paragraph. As always, I want to emphasize that this is just a suggestion. If you're not doing it this way, you're not necessarily doing it wrong. But if you are unsatisfied with your way of doing it, you might try some of the things I suggest.)

First, write a sentence that expresses the truth you've decided to state. This is the key sentence. Make it clear, concise, to the point. You will find it is useful to have articulated this sentence as part of your decision to write. Simply type out the sentence as you conceived it the day before and then make sure it still says what you want it to. You don't want to spend a great deal of time agonizing about it; after one or two minutes, this task should be behind you.

Now, think of your reader. Ask yourself, what is the difficulty that this sentence implies? Will the reader find it hard to believe, or hard to understand, or hard to agree with? Once you have located the difficulty, write two sentences that addresses it head-on. If you think the reader will not believe you, write two sentences that provide evidence. If you think the reader will not understand, write two sentences that clarify the meaning of certain terms. If you think the reader will disagree, write two sentences that deal with his or her objections.

Alternatively, the reader may simply be intrigued. "Tell me more," you might imagine the reader thinking after reading the key sentence. Well, write a couple of sentences that elaborate.

In any case, you now have three sentences. You're halfway there. For each of the two new sentences, repeat the procedure. What's the difficulty now? Or should I just go on? Ask your imagined reader. Keep in mind that the difficulty may now have changed. You may have begun to elaborate and must now explain your meaning or defend your position. You may have begun to tell a story that is now becoming implausible enough to require documentation.

Hopefully, you've anticipated some of these needs in advance and brought some notes with you that help you craft one or two sentences to provide further support for the two supporting sentences you already wrote. Whatever you do, don't let an unforeseen difficulty make you break off your writing and look for something to read. Try to find the answer within yourself—less mystically, do the best you can on the basis of the preparation you actually did. Next time, you will prepare better, with this experience in mind.

After about twenty minutes, working in this way, you should have a good-sized block of prose. Maybe 8 sentences, 175 words, say. Now begin to make them more coherent. You may have to write a sentence that brings everything together at the end. Or you may just need to improve the intelligibility and flow of the sentences you've written. When the twenty-seven minutes are over, stop.

Until they are over, do not stop. Tomorrow I'll say something about what to do if you find yourself with a lot of time on your hands after writing the raw sentences.

See also: "What to Do Now" and "What to Do Next".

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Tasks at Hand

I have been somewhat vague this week. The idea was to talk about what you can do outside your writing sessions to ensure that they go well. My general advice is to work on your research with the writing task clearly in mind, albeit well in the future. Over the long term, this means that you should be preparing yourself to support individual claims in prose. This preparatory work is precisely what some writers find difficult. I wish I had something more specific to say about how to do it but my experience says that, as with writing, you will become better at it simply by doing it every day. One thing that is often useful is to put a little more time (and sleep) between the process that generates your ideas and the process that writes them down.

Beyond that, the specifics of research can vary greatly from field to field. A historian will have tasks that differ greatly from those of an economist. The activities of an ethnographer are not those of a philosopher. In fact, the whole style or temper of disciplines can be so different that it is unwise to say what scholars should be doing when they are not writing. But, outside their scheduled sessions, they should certainly not be writing prose. And they should probably be taking notes of some kind that will allow them to write prose when they've planned to do so.

Perhaps I can say this as a general rule: all scholars should be writing for their peers on a regular basis and reading the work of their peers on a regular basis.

To make sure it happens regularly, both of these activities can be scheduled. And to make sure that they actually happen, they should not be confused with each other. When reading, read, when writing, write. Don't bring your reading materials to the writing session. Don't break off your reading of a text when an idea hits you that you think you need to write down. Follow through on the activity that you've planned for yourself for the period of time that you've planned it. Give the part of you that wanted to do that activity the time it needs. It's a long journey. Stick to the task at hand.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


The important thing is to be learning something. As the writing process becomes more and more dependable—a stable, recurring opportunity to write down something you know—you will become increasingly interested in the research process that prepares you for it. Every day (at least ideally) you will have a moment or two (or six) to write a paragraph, to support a single claim with what you know, and you will begin to see your reading, your analysis, your thinking, and even your conversations with peers as activities that bring those claims into focus and indicate the basis on which you might better make them. Those activities, that is, become occasions for learning.

Scholars are sometimes said to be "learned". They have acquired learning, their competence is grounded in learning something. Unfortunately, many scholars spend a great deal of time learning how little they know relative to the great mass of "what is known" on their subject. There is always a book that everyone is talking about but they haven't read yet. And after engaging closely with their empirical material, whether that be ethnographic fieldwork in a particular organization or the early novels of a particular writer, they get the sense that what they don't know about the subject greatly outweighs what they do know. They have so much to learn, they think. While it is true that there is always more to learn, it is important to experience progress.

The way you experience that progress is to write paragraphs that support claims. And that is why the research process should be organized around the claims you want to make. When you read, make sure that your reading is answering questions. "What does the author mean?" for example. "How does the author know?" When you think, do really try to move from a vague sense of the importance of your theme, or the connections between themes, to actual claims about actual objects that can be true or false. Thinking can also move the other way: start with your claims and question them. Move from actual objects to possible themes. Just be aware that these themes must eventually re-focus on actual claims about objects. You are not just "doing research" you are learning the truth of things.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Phases and Moments

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er, with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.


When thinking about a particular project, some scholars distinguish between a research phase and a writing phase. (See Matt and Profacero/Z in the comments to Monday's post, for example.) The least recommended version of this is to have a non-writing research phase followed by a period of intense writing that spans a number of weeks of whole-day slogs at the machine. But the idea of distinguishing phases in your research project can be problematic for other reasons: it delays the act of writing scholarly prose until you have reached some satisfactory insight. Over time, this may affect the hue of your resolve.

While there are times when reading dominates over writing, of course, I recommend you distinguish, more precisely, between the research "moment" and the writing "moment" and to have both kinds of moments on a regular basis throughout any project. You should always be writing scholarly prose about matters that interest you. Since, while you're engaged on a particular project, its matter interests you, you should be finding time to write about it. The important thing is to identify those aspects of the project that you knew in advance of doing the research, or which you came to know very early on. This knowledge has a certain durability that it is well worth articulating in prose (and for an imagined peer) while you're working on it. This is what I call the "writing" moment of the project, actually a series of 27-minute moments. At the same time, you can pursue any number of intellectual discoveries during the research moment. Every day alternates back and forth between these two moments, keeping things in perspective. The "phases" of a project are distinguished by the proportion of one kind of moment to the other.

In my interpretation of Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy I side with those who say he's distinguishing between "suffering in the mind" and "taking arms" (not whether its nobler in the mind to suffer slings and arrows or take arms against them.) Scholars who get bogged down in the "research phase" are, when they're not succumbing to "bestial oblivion", as Hamlet puts it at another point in the play, at least the victim of their "craven scruple of thinking too precisely on the event". Remember that "a thought which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom and ever three parts coward." You have to isolate its wisdom by writing it down in prose. Make sure you maintain the pitch and moment of your enterprise. You don't want to lose the name of action.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Reading for Yourself

Let's take an easy case: writing a literature review. (We'll ignore for a moment the fact that you should never write a literature review.) During this process there will, needless to say, be a lot of reading. And there will also be a substantial amount of writing; in some cases a whole paper or chapter's worth of prose is required. This morning I want to push back against the image of a process that begins with ignorance of what the literature says, and produces, over a number of days, a written review of that literature. This image falsely suggests that "the literature" is a simple, physical object that one just has to look at and describe, like taking an inventory. That it is just a matter of honestly writing down "what has been written".

Your first task is to learn something about the literature yourself. You are not just reading the literature on behalf of your reader; you are reading it to inform yourself about what it says. Ultimately to inform yourself about the world you are studying. While reading the literature, you are taking notes to keep track of what you are learning about each book or article in the tradition you are reviewing. These notes are part of your records and are not intended to communicate anything to your peers. It is important not to set this task up as something you are doing because your reader (or editor or supervisor) has demanded it of you. You have read the literature for the same reason that you are doing, have done, or will do your original study: out of curiosity about something in the world.

It is only once you have satisfied your own curiosity that you are in a position to tell your reader about it. At this point you are not simply reporting on your reading; you are communicating your understanding of the subject matter, based on your careful review of everything that has been written been about it, to the reader. Indeed, you are presenting your view of that literature to a reader that is presumably familiar with it, at least at some level. Preparing for the writing of the review, then, is much more about making decisions than making discoveries. You can't plan the discoveries, even though you plan your reading (you can make list of texts to read). And that's why you can't really "prepare" your writing for the next day the day before. The basis of your writing forms at an entirely different pace. From day to day you merely write on that basis.

This of course also goes for writing up your field study or the results of your interviews or your data analysis. In all cases, you need to divide your process into two moments: one in which you discover the truth and another in which you decide what to say. The truth you communicate should have some lasting value (keep in mind that it will be probably not be published within a year of writing it down), so it should not be a very recent discovery. It should be something you've got your mind pretty well around already. It is perfectly normal, of course, to discover, in the act of writing, that you didn't really know what you thought you knew. But to make that discovery you have decide what you're going to try to say first.

Monday, November 12, 2012


"The readiness is all."

My advice is to always decide the night before what you will be writing on any given day. Further, I propose not to bring any source materials, whether that be books or articles you've read or primary sources you're writing about, with you to the writing session. (I've noticed that this is an important difference between my approach and, say, Jonathan Mayhew's.) You should only bring the notes you've made in preparation for the writing you are about to do. When you write, you should be writing down something you know, indeed, something you already knew quite comfortably at least last night. You should not be discovering what you want to say in the act of writing. This requires a clear separation of the research process and the writing process, i.e., the process that generates ideas and the process that commits them to the page. Many scholars find this to be quite a radical idea.

Authors I work with sometimes say that my approach very quickly draws attention to what happens in preparation for writing. To plan their writing also means to plan the work that happens the day (or days) before any particular paragraph is to be written. And I am sometimes asked whether I have any advice about how to organize that time as well. I am always hesitant to say something about this, however, because in the end nothing should depend on advance preparation. You've decided to write something you know down, that is all. How you came to know it is none of my business. At the end of the day, no matter how you conduct your research, there are things you know, and all I am saying is that you should devote between one and six half hours to writing them down in coherent prose paragraphs.

If one of those sessions does not go well, some writers tell me that this reveals their lack of preparation. They thought they knew but had not worked hard enough, or effectively enough, the day before to make sure. They articulated a claim, but they discovered in the act of writing it that they were unable to support it adequately. This week, I will offer some suggestions for how to structure the non-writing research time (ideally, work done in the afternoon). But I want to emphasize that I do not, in fact, believe that such organization is necessary. If you choose something you think you know well enough to write a paragraph about every evening, and then write that paragraph every morning, you will become better and better, not just at writing such a paragraph, but at choosing which paragraph to write.

My aim is Socratic. I don't want to help you become more knowledgeable. I want to help you better distinguish what you know from what you don't know.

Friday, November 09, 2012

A Paragraph is Not a Box

Writers I work with sometimes interpret the 6 sentence/200 words rule of thumb a bit too strictly at the beginning of the process. They imagine I've defined a paragraph as precisely as a Shakespearean sonnet (14 lines of iambic pentameter, with a couplet at the end). As an exercise, it is perhaps worth trying, but only to see that 200 words in 6 sentences makes for very long sentences. What I'm saying is: in most cases, you will write at least six sentences and at most 200 words. And I'm suggesting that you make such a paragraph in 27 minutes. The dimensions of a paragraph are not a frame to stuff words into but a space in which to make a limited number of moves or gestures. I recommend you view the paragraph as neither a set of requirements nor a set of limitations but as a resource. Or, better, a space of freedom.

The key sentence provides you with what Ezra Pound called "a center around which, not a box within which"* to write your paragraph. The space of the paragraph opens up along dimensions that are set out in that claim. If the key sentence names a particular event, your paragraph will describe it in detail. If the key sentence identifies a controversy in the literature, the paragraph will present arguments on both sides. If the key sentence says you conducted interviews, the paragraph will tell us with how many people, under what circumstances, with what questions in mind. When you focus on your key sentence, you will find that twenty-seven minutes is plenty of time to compose yourself. You will feel the intellectual space around you as comfortably proportioned. Part of the art of writing a key sentence is to conjure up this space in which to work.

*Update 27/11/16: I originally came across this phrase in Rosmarie Waldrop's introduction to Curves to the Apple (2006), where she calls it "Pound's postulate" and uses it to describe her use of the prose poem as a form. That form essentially consists of what I call "paragraphs" (although they are, of course, more poetic than the paragraphs academic writers normally produce). It turns out, however, that Pound was not talking about literary form at this fine-grained level. Though I'm sure he would agree that the "form" of, say, a sonnet shouldn't be a approached as a box to stuff a certain amount of syllables into, Pound was talking about how to organize a literary magazine. Specifically, he was offering advice to Robert Creeley about how to run The Black Mountain Review.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Aim Small, Miss Small

In The Patriot, there is a scene in which Mel Gibson's character, Benjamin Martin, heads off a group of British soldiers in the woods with his sons. His goal is to rescue his oldest son who has just been captured and to avenge the death of another son, who has just been killed. Before the action begins, Martin reminds his sons to "aim small, miss small". That line was added during the filming, as the Internet Movie Database explains: "When teaching Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger how to shoot a muzzle-loading rifle, technical advisor Mark Baker gave them the advice to 'aim small, miss small', meaning that if you aim at a man and miss, you miss the man, while if you aim at a button (for instance) and miss, you still hit the man. Gibson liked this bit of advice so much he incorporated it into the movie, just prior to the ambush scene."*

Writers often take what might be called a "broad view" of their writing task. They might set aside a whole day, for example, to "work on the paper" they have been thinking about. When the day begins, they find they aren't really sure what they're supposed to be doing and, predictably, they don't accomplish nearly as much as they had hoped. Even those who set aside a morning to "write the theory section" are giving themselves a big task for a long time. They soon discover that it's unclear exactly what they have decided to do. And even those who sit down and actually write, say, a thousand words at such times, are likely to find that they are not making the sort of progress they had hoped to make. At the end of the day, there seems to be just as much left to say as there was before they began.

These writers need to work on their aim. It is because they are aiming to write a whole paper or section that they find themselves not hitting their targets. Instead, they should be aiming to write a paragraph. They need to set up an "ambush" on their writing problem, and then make sure that they're not just trying to "defeat the enemy" or "rescue their comrades", but to hit the individual buttons on their foes' coats. The key sentence in a paragraph is the point of your aim. You spend the paragraph trying to make that point rather than "saying something" on a certain topic. Even if you miss this narrowly defined "button", you are still likely to "hit the man". That is, you'll end up with about six sentences that support the claim you want to make.

In the tension of waiting for the British to come within range, Martin offers up a short prayer. "Lord, make me swift and accurate," he says. Maybe that's the way to begin your writing session. Define your targets. Aim small. And pray for accuracy. Then, "with wings as swift as meditation", sweep to your revenge!

*For a more detailed unpacking of the lessons of this scene in the movie, see this post I wrote for Jonathan Mayhew's Stupid Motivational Tricks. Unfortunately, the YouTube clip has seen been removed for copyright reasons.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012


A key sentence should be clearly written. While it may not be obviously true, it should be obvious what would be the case if it were true. It should be as free as possible of qualifiers that soften its point and therefore make it true in any case. A key sentence should have a relatively narrow range of interpretations at the outset, and the rest of the paragraph should support the claim it makes in precisely that sense. Perhaps most importantly, the meaning of the key sentence should be clear to the writer. It should already make sense the night before the paragraph is written, and it should gain in clarity as the writing proceeds the next day. Indeed, it is perfectly normal to rewrite the key sentence a few times while writing the paragraph. Writing a paragraph should clarify the meaning of its key sentence.

The key sentence of a paragraph should also be interesting. Keep in mind that it expresses roughly one fortieth of your argument in a standard journal article. If you were to list the forty key sentences in a paper separately without their supporting paragraphs (and you do well to do this every now and then), you should not be left with a list of trivialities. Some of the claims, of course, may only be interesting in the context of the other claims. Indeed, some of them may depend on the others for their meaning, and even their clarity. But in this context it should be clear why the reader needs to be told these things. It should be clear why the reader should be interested.

* * *

In other news, Profacero reminds us that learning anything is like learning a second language. It is a "myth that only sports, music practice, and foreign languages need daily work". I completely agree with this. Whatever we become good at we become good at by concerted, daily effort, in a word, through discipline. In the case of becoming a scholar, the relevant discipline is simple. Write paragraphs on a daily basis about something you know for people who are knowledgeable on the subject. If you are an undergraduate and think you might want to become scholar, start now. Don't let anyone tell you scholarship is different, that it is best accomplished by binging and fasting. That's a myth.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Thought and Style

A key sentence is not an element of thought but of style. It is important to remember that it is not your mind that divides into paragraphs but your text; the key sentence therefore does not summarize an idea, it summarizes the expression of the idea in a particular context. Some writers make the mistake of thinking that there is some ultimate set of claims, whether theoretical, methodological, empirical, or normative, that it is their task to make. But when trying to come up with key sentences, your goal is to choose, say, five theoretical claims out that infinity of claims that could present your perspective on the world, or the five claims that best summarize your procedure for the purposes of this paper, or the fifteen claims that summarize the facts you have discovered, or the five further claims that tell us what is now to be done. There is no epistemological basis on which to determine whether you have selected the right claims. It matters less what you think and more what you want to say.

Everything is connected. A key sentence's effectiveness can therefore only be assessed in the context of the paper as a whole, i.e., by looking at the other key sentences that together summarize the paper. Making a particular claim will work in one context and not in another because, no matter how true a claim may be, whether or not it makes sense will depend on the other claims you are making. It is the paragraph that must be assessed in terms of how well it supports the key claim, not the claim that must be assessed by how well it corresponds to something in the real or ideal world. In an important sense, there is nothing in the claim to correspond to anything until it has been comfortably composed in a paragraph and installed in a paper. Key sentences make explicit your rhetorical decisions about what to say. This gives you a focus for your efforts to say it. Of course, in the end, what you say must also be true. But what that means is a larger question.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Key Sentences

The key sentence expresses the central claim of a paragraph. The rest of the sentences in the paragraph elaborate or support this claim; that is, they either proceed from or tend toward it—centrifugally or centripetally, if you will. Either way, the center of a well-written paragraph should be immediately apparent; there should be no mystery about what constitutes the core and what constitutes the periphery. If you were to pare it down to its essential content, to what it is basically trying to say, you would arrive at the key sentence. All the other sentences are there to help that central sentence deliver its message. They are gathered around it.

I've promised one of my weekly coaching groups that I will write about key sentences all this week. I'll try to compose my own paragraphs so they always have one and you can play the game of identifying it in every paragraph of every post. (Keep in mind that blogging does not always produce rigorous "scholarly" prose, but this week, like I say, I'll try to compose myself in proper paragraphs. Feel free to speak up in the comments if you think I've written a paragraph that lacks focus, i.e., does not have a clear key sentence.) Every night, before I go to bed, I'll decide on a couple of things to say about key sentences and then write them down in the morning. Hopefully, my posts will be both informative and exemplary.

Consider the two paragraphs I've just written. In both cases, the first sentence is the key sentence. Notice that the first paragraph does not just define the term "key sentence", it emphasizes the centrality of key sentences in their paragraphs. And this then is the theme of the rest of the paragraph. All the other sentences tend toward this point about the central claim. If I had instead talked about the "point" or "focus" of the paragraph, the other sentences could have been written with that image in mind. Notice also that the second paragraph actually has two claims in the first sentence, only one of which is properly speaking the main claim, and therefore the key sentence. It says, first, that I've made a promise to one of my weekly coaching groups and, second, that I will write about key sentences all week. The latter is the point elaborated by the paragraph, which talks about my plan for the week, you'll notice. I could have broken that sentence into two, like I did in this (third) paragraph. "I made a promise to one of my coaching groups on Friday," I might have said. "I'll be writing about key sentences all this week." Here the first sentence is not essential to the claim of the paragraph. It just gets us going.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Homage to Jason McCullough

"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean."
Raymond Chandler

In Support Your Local Sheriff! Jason McCullough (played by James Garner) is the mysterious stranger who comes to town. He is an excellent shot and a very quick draw and has the sort of confidence in dealing with violence that comes from long experience. It is clear, moreover, that he lives by a code of only taking on challenges that are comfortably within his skill set, and only when absolutely necessary.

Indeed, although it's unclear whether he actually ever meant it, he is not even initially interested in appearing courageous in any conventional sense. If the job becomes impossible, he does not have any scruples about leaving it behind. It's only when he tells the woman with whom he is increasingly smitten that he intends to leave town that he realizes how cowardly that sounds. And then he finds a way of meeting the gang of thugs that is descending on his town in a way that will give him a victory without having to cause a "massacre".

In the movie he never once meets an equal in anything he does. The closest he comes to an actual challenge is one in which he is seriously outnumbered. It should be noted, however, that he survives one encounter by luck. Or, rather, he is saved by someone he could not, as he himself points out, reasonably have counted on to save him. That, too, however seems to be something he has experience with. He has a kind of "grace". And he knows it.

We like McCullough for a simple reason, I think. His competence greatly exceeds his interest in succeeding. He doesn't want a "reputation" (because that "is likely to get a man killed".) He moves among men who are sometimes well-meaning, sometimes entirely malevolent, but generally ambitious and inept. In a word, McCullough is "cool". His competence is not stretched to the limit by his striving. He is working from the center of his strength and this keeps his nature good.

And he succeeds. He rounds up the bad guys. He gets the girl and makes her his wife. (She's even the richest girl around for miles!) And as we are told in the epilogue, he goes on to become governor of the state. He's a man worthy of our support.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Who and Why

A well-organized writing process coordinates the question of what you're going to write with the question of how you're going to write it. It also specifies a where and a when for the writing. But these practical matters should not entirely overshadow the, shall we say, existential questions of who is writing and why you are doing it.

There is a decidedly practical reason to write scholarly prose: your career as a scholar depends on it. Now, it is very possible that this is a deep existential reason for you as well. After all, you may identify so strongly as a scholar that without an academic career you don't know who you are. Indeed, it may be very important to you not only to be seen as a scholar but to be known as an author. In that case, writing is going to be an essential part of what you are doing when you are being yourself.

On the other hand, many scholars today have, unfortunately, come to see writing as something they are compelled to do by an almost alien force. Or, rather, much of the writing they do is done as a reaction to this pressure. They must "publish or perish" and they will publish (these particular texts) only in order to avoid perishing. The sense in which this is an "existential" issue is a bit too practical. It's simply "do or die".

The who and the why of writing intersect interestingly in the conversation (or, more formally, the "discourse") that it hopes to make a contribution to. As an author, your identity (both personal and social) is shaped by the conversation you want to participate in with your peers. Who "you" are depends on who "they" are. And the best reason to write is because you find that conversation interesting and want your peers to know something that you know. Not only do you like talking to them; what they think is important to you. And it's not just what they think of you that matters. It's what they think about the object you study. You are profoundly interested in influencing how they think about a particular area of the world we share. You want to change their minds.

You should not raise these existential issues at the beginning of every writing session. Indeed, you want to leave them at the margins of your writing until the session is over. But they are worth reflecting on when choosing what you are working on. You don't have to be fully "authentic" at all times, of course, but you will find that your writing gives you more pleasure, and proceeds more efficiently, if it is something you are doing when you are being yourself. You will find that having what you yourself recognize as a good reason to write is good for your writing. It's good for your style to know who you are and why you are doing it.