Monthly Archives: April 2014

Writing as Thinking

Pretty much the first thing I ever wrote on this blog was that we should use writing to clarify our thinking. Since this precept is central to how I think about—and thus teach—writing, I try to remain open to opposing viewpoints. To best serve the graduate student audience that I’m aiming at, I believe that I have to create a space that is both opinionated (since nobody needs more anodyne advice about writing) and relativist (since nobody needs more advice that assumes everyone to be the same sort of writer). Creating that space requires taking stands while resisting dogmatism. So while I’m deeply committed to the benefits of exploratory writing, I’m also deeply interested in the claim that this approach is wrong and thus hazardous to good writing.

In a recent post, Thomas Basbøll articulated his view that thinking ought to precede writing; in fact, he argues that we are doing writing a disservice when we collapse it into thinking rather than viewing it as the act of “writing down what we know in coherent prose paragraphs.” He is committed to a strong version of this thesis and clearly sees it as essential to the development of effective writing skills: “My view is that the idea that writing is inextricable from thinking is an affectation that undermines the efforts of writing instructors like me to identify the specific problem of writing, the literary problem of representing thought in prose.” This focus on writing as representation of thought suggests three stages of composition: thinking; writing down those thoughts; and lastly evaluating the writing on the basis of its fidelity to the earlier thinking. (Here is a follow-up post from Thomas on this topic, allowing that neither position in this debate can be absolute but reiterating his belief that much of writing ought to be kept distinct from thinking.) 

My disagreement with this position is practical, philosophical, and pragmatic. At a practical level, I worry that novice academic writers will be hamstrung by the need to engage in sophisticated conceptual thought without the aid of concrete expression. It is certainly my experience that postponing writing until the underlying ideas become clear is a disastrous strategy for a lot of novice writers. At a philosophical level, I just don’t accept thought as capable of acting as the sort of referent for writing that Thomas suggests. Finally, at a pragmatic level, I’m not sure that anything is lost if we don’t evaluate our writing for its sound representation of earlier thought. For the reader, the beauty of a piece of academic writing comes from its internal coherence, not its ability to instantiate the writer’s intentions.

My stark disagreement with this approach to academic writing raises the obvious possibility that I’m doing it all wrong. Writing this, I was reminded of the very first line of Winnie-the-Pooh, where we’re introduced to him as he’s being dragged down the stairs on his head: “It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.” Maybe that’s me. Certainly my commitment to the coextensive nature of writing and thinking doesn’t mean that I sail through the writing process feeling as if I’m doing it all right. Instead, as I sort through the mess that I make with my exploratory writing, I often wish that writing was more like recording and less like thinking.

Given my own writing struggles, it seems wise to consider a view that is so contrary to my own that it would otherwise get little airtime in this space. Ultimately, I am convinced that I can’t engage in the sort of linear sophisticated thinking that I need to do except on paper. Indeed, I began writing this post precisely because I wanted to figure out what I thought about Thomas’s post. In this particular case, I delayed writing longer than usual as an experiment in trying to think without putting pen to paper. But I couldn’t manage it, so I resorted to writing a quick draft of this post. I generally find that initial writing exhilarating; my doubts come because there is so much revising to be done to corral these insights and make them reader friendly. But the frustrating nature of the revision process isn’t enough to convince me that I would be able to do things any other way. And I’m anecdotally convinced that many of the students I work with wouldn’t either. 

Our goal as academic writers must be to write as easily as possible; there is no inherent virtue in suffering more than is necessary to create the best possible text. I focus so much on the difficulties because I genuinely believe them to be inevitable and because I believe that those difficulties may be eased if we acknowledge them. Acknowledgement helps, not because misery loves company but because struggles are easier when we know that they have an objective basis. There’s nothing worse than struggling and believing that we are doing so only because of our own deficiencies. But that doesn’t mean we should fetishize those struggles or turn our back on effective ways out. I’d love to hear what others think. Am I doing a disservice to thought by focusing so much on writing? Does writing actually suffer for not having a coherent referent? Or can we actually only find coherence within the text itself through our revision process?

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Social Media and Writing Style

In the early days of this blog, an old friend and fellow blogger asked me whether I thought social media had implications for the way we write. My first thought was that it must; my second was that I had no idea what those implications might be. At a broad level, it seems clear to me that social media is beneficial for us as writers. When we write on social media, our natural ability to express ourselves may remind us that writing per se isn’t always the problem. Formal academic writing for an audience that seems both inscrutable and implacable can easily undermine our confidence. An opportunity to write more freely—with less anxiety about audience—can be a great reminder of our own writing ability. This reminder alone won’t solve our academic writing problems, but it can help us pinpoint what they are. Similarly, blogging allows us to find smaller topics and articulate what we want to say about them in a compact format. This blog, for instance, has accumulated somewhere in the range of 100,000 words thus far; if I’d had to figure out in advance how all those words fit together, you’d never have read any of them. (Pat Thomson had a great post recently about the value of the exploratory character of social media.)

But is there also a relationship between social media and the act of composition at the sentence level? Using social media often means learning to use language in a somewhat different way: our register is different; our vocabulary is different; our grammar may even be different. We embrace certain forms of informality (because Twitter). We develop a store of short words—‘apt’ is particularly handy when space is tight—and a greater appreciation of strong verbs. We treat grammar in ways that we daren’t in our academic writing; that is, we assume a sympathetic audience who will know what we mean even when we bend the rules. Even though we don’t turn around and write these terse but friendly sentences in our academic writing, the process of writing on social media can give us great insight into the boundaries of a strong sentence.

Even in the more spacious confines of a blog, our style may be affected by the fact that a blog post is written in a compressed time frame. Blogging works best for me when I put some pressure on myself to compose reader-ready sentences. I still experiment and tinker way too much, but I try not to make a big compositional mess that I then have to clean up. As I’ve said countless times, allowing ourselves the space to think through writing is an essential aspect of constructing complex academic prose; for me, the mess is an essential part of the academic writing process. Writing for immediate consumption, however, requires a more disciplined approach to writing.

As I thought over the implications of writing for social media, I came up with three ways that social media writing can inform our development as writers.

CONCISION: The first thing that will come to anyone’s mind when we think of writing on social media is brevity. Trying to say something in less than 140 characters, for instance, requires that we bring a whole new level of attention to concision. Even if we don’t always use those strategies in our everyday writing, we are forced to notice the potency of concision. If you regularly write extremely short sentences, you are inevitably honing your brevity skills. In doing so, you are bound to experience some of the benefits of limitation. Sometimes we will encounter the limits of limitation—i.e., the point at which something can’t be any shorter—but we will also learn the value of expressing ourselves in fewer words than we thought possible.

TONE: One of the best ways to understand the role of tone in writing is by having to shift that tone. Academic prose isn’t necessarily good or bad writing, but it is very particular in its tone. Social media writing, on the other hand, can give us a sense of a different style of writing and thereby help us see the distinct contours of a piece of academic writing. The benefits of this sort of relativism vis-à-vis writing seem evident to me. While people worry that the unique demands of Twitter or the text message will undermine writing ability, it seems entirely possible that the experience of writing in multiple registers will actually strengthen writing overall. Greater awareness of the conventionality of writing will increase the chance that we will be able to find ways to work productively within those conventions.

NUANCE: Short-form writing is also a great reminder of the importance of doing justice to ambiguity. For instance, I find that Twitter is great for sharing things that I like, but not so good for those things about which I have significant reservations. Without room for caveats, we are left without an easy way to disagree respectfully. Think about your average statement of scholarly reservation: “While I found the decision to highlight X extremely helpful, I was ultimately troubled by the reliance upon traditional categories of Y.” That’s 145 characters, even without actual content. So I don’t share that link; Twitter becomes for me a place to talk about the things I actively like or that I like enough to forego qualification. The limits of social media writing thus confirm one of the great strengths of academic writing: the creation of a space expansive enough to contain both agreement and disagreement. (This helpful Twitter chat on the relationship between academic writing and social media also touches on this theme).

Overall, composing text for social media is instructive for our non-social media writing. By writing things that are more direct or casual or polemical, we are better able to understand how those qualities may or may not operate within our formal academic prose. And, ultimately, being able to shift registers and understand how tone, evidence, vocabulary, and syntax all affect that shift can only improve our academic writing.

So those are my current thoughts about writing for social media. What did I miss? What has your experience been? Has social media changed the way you write or altered your awareness of writing style?