Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Write More, Publish Less

In Monday's post I said something that might seem contradictory. On the one hand, I said that there's "no shortage of writing in the world"; on the other hand, I said that "we need to write more".* What was I trying to say, then?

Well, obviously, my view is that there is too much bad writing in the world. By "bad" I mean writing that doesn't do its job, and there are of course many jobs for writing to do. My beat is academic or scholarly writing, and at the heart of such writing is what Bertrand Russell called the "essential business" of assertion. A scholar is able to competently assert and deny facts in prose. And, by "prose", I don't just mean writing in complete sentences. I also mean writing coherent paragraphs that each say one thing and support or elaborate it.

So when I say there's too much bad academic writing out there, I mean there's too much writing that presents itself as "scholarship" but doesn't actually consist of well-formed paragraphs that competently assert or deny facts. I am not saying that this is the only business that scholars are in, but I am going to insist that it is an "essential service", if you will, in the knowledge society. Even a scholarly journal article can include practical advice, normative recommendations, and political proposals. But the substance of the article should be an argument for the existence or non-existence of particular things in particular relations.

The solution is not to shame scholars into writing less. But it may well be to shame them into publishing less. (Along with this, of course, there should be a relaxing of the pressure to "publish or perish".) Instead of publishing bad prose regularly, scholars should write just as often, but without the immediate ambition to get into print. They should spend a long time both rehearsing their arguments and training their style, so that the work they do in fact publish clearly presents their justified, true beliefs about the world. Their peers are then in a good position to learn from them and to correct them on points of fact where they happen to know better.

In short, the contradiction between there already being too much writing in the world and the need to write more, not less, is resolved by the suggestion that we should leave the great bulk of our writing unpublished. Professional athletes get most of their exercise off the actual track or field on which they compete; professional musicians do most of their playing outside the concert hall. Professional scholars should do most of their writing as preparation for publication. They should write more and publish less.
*Truth be told, I added that "more" to Monday's post just before writing this one. It's what I meant.

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