Jargon, complex prose, and the writing process

Recently I was speaking with a writer who bemoaned the fact that in her field of study people (including her) tried to write complicated, jargon-filled papers. This was not a new idea—I have heard that in many fields, especially those that value post-modern philosophies that writing complex prose is a matter of pride, or perhaps of ego: I have heard it suggested that writing prose that no one can understand will actually earn the author respect because people will assume that they’re just so smart. (Of course, there are also many who mock these same authors as being bad writers.) Many famed scholars are known for their difficult prose—Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida are particularly renowned for these issues.

I don’t know what other writers are thinking when they write—at best I can interpret the words they have chosen—but I believe that often difficult and complex writing is the product of honest attempts to clearly convey complex and difficult ideas.

Consider, for example, legal writing—another field notorious for difficult, jargon-filled writing.  Do we want to assume that that lawyers and judges write difficult prose because they want to impress everyone with their erudition? It seems much more likely to assume that lawyers and judges want to be understood, but the nature their work involves significant complexity that is difficult to communicate.

The way I see it, ideas are complex. And, in the world of scholarship and research in which new understanding is sought, it seems possible that a new idea—a new perspective—will not easily be conveyed in the language that developed to express old ideas. I’ve struggled to understand some very difficult writing that, in the end, rewarded me with very interesting ideas. Those ideas might possibly have been written in clearer and simpler language.

But, as the post title suggests, I’m more interested in this question from the point of view of the writing process. Getting back to the writer I mentioned in the opening paragraph and the idea of trying to write complex prose, I want to speculate on the impact of such an attempt to the scholarly writing process.

It seems to me that trying to write complex and jargon-filled prose adds a layer of difficulty to an already difficult task. Doing good scholarship is hard. Analyzing data and developing theoretical explanations for observed phenomena is hard. Exploring logical concerns with theories is hard. Coming up with a clear, coherent, and consistent explanation for anything is hard.

Not only is it hard to come up with good explanations, it’s also hard to write clearly about those ideas.  Perusing any user’s manual will demonstrate how easy it is to write unclearly about something that is often fairly simple. So, if you’re a scholar trying to develop explanations/theories, your job is made difficult both by the conceptual complexities and by the difficulties of writing.

To me, it seems like trying to write complex and jargon-filled prose adds yet another layer of complexity and difficulty.  Not only do you have to figure out the ideas that you want to express, but you also have to work to make the expression complex. it’s an extra layer of effort.

Therefore, my suggestion is always to try to write as clearly and concisely as possible while also paying attention to important details.  My belief is that if you focus on the ideas and the details, and you try to be as clear as possible, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up with difficult convoluted prose anyway. For my part, I try to write clearly and often end up with weak and muddy prose.

I don’t know what Butler was thinking when she wrote, but it’s easy for me to believe that she (and other scholars who write difficult prose) was doing her best to be clear, and that at some point she said “I have to stop working on this project to move on to another.” What was left was no exemplar of elegant prose, but it was not (necessarily) the product of an attempt to obfuscate.

For a writer who is struggling, I think the most important thing is to focus on what  you want to say and on expressing that as clearly as possible.  Trying to meet some stylistic standard is secondary and only worth your effort once you’ve gotten a good handle on the ideas that you want to express.

Product and Practice

Recently, I’ve written a couple of times about missing targets, and I’m returning to that same theme from a slightly different angle after talking with a writer who is trying to get on track with his dissertation work.  We had been talking about setting up a regular practice of writing and he reported that he had missed a day during the prior week. That’s no big deal, but it had me thinking.

This man is in a professional program; he’s not going to be an academic, so he won’t be in a publish-or-perish career that will require public demonstration of his writing. In his situation, it makes good sense to focus his attention on the product he is trying to complete—his dissertation. But I was also thinking about the value of the practice—a subject I think and write about often.

Developing actual products of your work and your efforts is important—without actual products of your work, it’s hard to share anything with anyone.  All the same, each individual product is a one-shot thing (one shot, in the sense that’s only one step in a career, not in the sense that you only have one chance to get it right), while a career or a life is more of an on-going matter.

In the course of a life, which is more important, the products or the practice?  Asking about which is more important necessarily invokes questions of value that have uncertain answers (because different people have different values), but it’s an interesting question, I think.

There is no question that it’s good to have some sort of “product” to show for efforts—a graduate student quite naturally wants to produce the necessary dissertation.  Products are important.  Having something to show for your efforts is important.

Having something to show for your efforts is not the only important thing, however.  Living well and having rewarding experiences is also valuable, even if there is no product.  As a writer, I find that writing with the emphasis on the practice is not only more enjoyable than writing with an eye on the product, it is also more productive. When I am writing for the practice, my emphasis is on using my time well.  This emphasis does not preclude working on some product, but it does make the product secondary to engaging my practice effectively.  

When I focus on a product, I can see the many difficulties that surround me, and I see clearly the many limits of my work and my abilities.  The pieces that I want to be insightful and interesting, often seem trite.  The pieces that I have tried to edit carefully, still have errors. It is, in short, very easy to become frustrated with the product of my efforts.  And frustration is a good way to get stuck working.

When I focus on the practice, my attention is much more directed towards my own efforts: am I engaging in the practice?  Am I giving myself a chance to benefit from the practice? Have I put in enough effort that the practice will pay off?

For me, at least, the practice is more valuable than the product (admittedly, I might say differently if I had ever had a very successful book), because with the practice, I feel more likely to produce multiple products, and thus I’m less dependent on the outcome for any single product.   And realistically, pretty much every person in an intellectual field will have to produce multiple written products. For someone aiming at a professional career—the dissertation writer I mentioned above, for example—the dissertation may seem like the one big writing product, and once it’s done, there’s no need for a writing practice. But that is, I think, a false vision: people in professional careers have lots of things to write, even if never as big as a dissertation.  Professionals write to colleagues, to supervisors, to subordinates. They write to describe their decisions and to coordinate with the people with whom they work.  They write to communicate with other organizations.  

Writing is a skill that is generally used, so developing a practice that helps you improve your skill and feel more comfortable about the difficulty of writing may be one that helps you in many ways and in many contexts.  Although developing a practice is difficult, and it may seem more efficient to focus on finishing a single product, developing a writing practice is the best way to finish a large research/writing project.

Missing targets, again

It’s not that long since I wrote a previous post about missing targets, to talk about the lesser importance of missing a specific deadline or target when compared to the much greater importance of developing and maintaining a regular practice of writing.  I wrote that previous post in the context of being several days late on my planned schedule of posting to my blog each Monday.  But the last time I posted a new post was on October 3 (or October 4, if I count my repost from the TAAOnline blog), so I’ve missed my targets by a much greater mark—an even greater failure with respect to those targets.

The thing is, what do I do about it?  I can’t go back in time and post something on Monday, October 8 or Monday, October 15, as would be in accord with my plan of posting each Monday.  My answer–which will probably not be surprising—is that the best response I can have is to get back to my practice of writing to try to produce material for my next post, which, ideally, would be posted by Monday, October 22. As I am writing this on October 21, there’s a good chance that I will, in fact, get back on my planned schedule of posting each Monday.  And I am optimistic that I will be able to keep that schedule in the future, though perhaps with occasional interruptions.  Getting back on track after missing a target allows each individual failure to be washed out by the weight of each time I do meet a target.  Missing two targets feels bad. Missing two targets out of 20, for example, doesn’t feel as bad.

It happens that the cause of my missing my blog target was that I was working toward another target, that I also missed.  I was writing the index of a book that will be out this spring, and that happened to be a big enough and difficult enough task that I missed my target for it: I had said I would be done by the 17th, and I didn’t finish and submit the index until the 19th.  The stakes of that project are much higher than the stakes of my blog post, in the sense that there are people who really care that the index gets done on time: the book’s author and publisher. At the same time, however, the missed target needs to be kept in perspective: the author may have been disappointed, but he is more pleased to have it done—we went over the index together on Friday and he seemed generally pleased, despite its limitations.  I have no direct feedback on how the publisher views the delay, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not going to prevent publication by the planned release date (in February of 2019).

When I had missed my target, I was certainly upset that I had missed it. But I also kept my focus on the project: I did not let missing the target keep me from making progress, and that was key in limiting the scope of my failure.  As an amateur musician, I have been thinking about this in comparison to playing music: one key skill a musician needs to learn in order to sound good to other people is the skill of continuing to play despite a mistake.  A single note/chord that is misplayed—whether by playing the wrong note or by playing at the wrong time—can be almost invisible (inaudible) to an audience as long as the rhythm is kept steady. The skill that the performer needs is to be able to stay on rhythm after playing a wrong note. Skilled musicians—professionals far above my skill level—make mistakes, but they keep playing, and we, the audience, may never even notice that they made an error. Inexperienced musicians, on the other hand, often become flustered by an error and they stop playing. And that—the larger break in the rhythm—is obvious to everyone.  The inexperienced musician focuses on the error, and loses the rhythm as a result. The experienced musician keeps focused on what comes next, and as a result, continues playing and the single miss gets washed away.

So what do you do if you miss a target?  Keep focused on where you’re trying to go; keep focused on the ideas you need to express and the audience you want to reach.  One missed target is only one spot in the larger fabric of your life. Keep your attention on the fabric that you want to weave in the future, not the flaw that happened in the past.

Having just finished the index of a soon-to-be-published book, I want to mention that book, and promote it, because I think it’s an excellent book, and I’m really very proud that I was able to help create it.  It’s called American Sutra, and it was written by Professor Duncan Williams of the University of Southern California. I hope that it is received with the enthusiasm I think it deserves.  It’s a book about Japanese American Buddhists and the discrimination they faced during the World War II era, which bring up many issues of religious discrimination (and combined racial-religious discrimination) that are relevant in the present day. It will be released in February, 2019, on what is known as the “Day of Remembrance” in the Japanese American community—February, 19—the anniversary of President Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which created the legal framework for the incarceration without cause of over 100,000 American citizens and resident aliens (many of whom would have become citizens if not for laws that prevented Asians from gaining citizenship).

Writing as a Refuge

For many, writing is difficult and painful. And, when that difficulty and pain are combined with the obligation to write, the very idea of writing becomes wrapped up in the sense that there could be few activities less pleasurable or rewarding.  Given where most of us get most of our first writing experience—in school—where the only reward for writing well is a good grade, it’s easy to understand how people don’t think of writing as rewarding in any meaningful way.

Obviously there are some people who like to write, even when they’re just school students. When I was in high school, I couldn’t understand those people at all. But now, it seems much more reasonable to me.

Writing can be a rewarding experience. There are still difficulties in writing, of course.  But the rewards of writing are significant. Writing—the act—can be valuable, even if we set aside the possibility of some reward from having written well. Regardless of what happens when to your writing after you send it off to others—whether accepted or rejected, celebrated or vilified—the process of writing can itself be rewarding.

One angle to take on the rewards of writing is to look at it as a “flow activity”—one of the activities that suits the characteristics necessary to create the experience of “flow”, as described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  Csikszentmihalyi describes the experience of flow as being one of the best experiences in life. Flow activities are challenging activities.  They are activities where your skills are stretched to their limits, where you have a chance to grow, and also where you have a chance to fail.  The best experiences, according to Csikszentmihalyi, are not many of the things that we might think of as fun—watching TV or a movie,  enjoying a gourmet meal, or other more passive activities—precisely for the reason that they don’t challenge us, because there is no growth, and no development. 

(On a side note, I think even connoisseurs of something—wine, music, art—gain as much pleasure from the difficulties overcome to become a connoisseur as from the simple sensual experience of the good [wine/music/art]—the sense that one has refined taste, and the experiences of bad [wine/etc.] are part of the pleasure. Or at least I have heard many who liked to think of themselves as connoisseurs speak with enjoyment of the unpleasant things they have done that help them think of themselves as connoisseurs—bad wines tasted, unpleasant concerts attended, distasteful exhibits viewed. They may not have liked it at the time, but after the fact, they find value in it, and perhaps an anecdote they like to relate. Of course, as I describe it this way, connoisseurship starts to take on some of the characteristics of flow activities—the necessary effort, the occasional failures, the challenges and opportunities for growth—that the simple pleasurable experience—the wine, the movie, etc.—doesn’t, by itself, have. The act of tasting one wine—which might be pleasurable—gets placed in the matrix of developing connoisseurship, and is no longer judged just in terms of the pleasure of drinking, but as part of a fabric of knowledge.)

As a flow activity, writing does require effort and it does have the possibility of failure, and thus it’s not an activity that is guaranteed to deliver pleasure.  There are days when writing is more difficult and less pleasurable. There are days when it takes a lot of effort to get started writing.  But as a flow activity, writing can be absorbing and positive.  And when it is, then it can serve as a refuge of sorts from other problems—at least from emotional ones.

Writing requires skill, and it develops with practice. If you only know writing as an occasional task that you avoid, then, of course, it won’t become any sort of refuge—it will only remain distant and difficult.  But if you develop a practice of writing regularly—if you work on writing, and you regularly work through difficult patches in your writing practice—then the practice itself is more likely to have pleasurable moments—moments when you feel like writing is going well—and therefore it is more likely become a refuge.

There are plenty of activities that people use as a refuge. Hobbyists typically find refuge in their hobby. And realistically, many hobbies are flow activities—building models, artistic pursuits, athletic skills–all of these share the characteristic that they have difficulties, failures, and the possibility for growth.  Most people wouldn’t view writing as a hobby, but there are those for whom it is, of a sort.  Other activities that might not be considered “hobbies” might also be considered refuges, for example, mediation practices or yoga.

Writing, of course, can be part of a job or a set of responsibilities, not just a hobby. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be both hobby and work. Nor that it is impossible to mix a hobby with work—indeed, many people do mix a hobby with work by pursuing a passion that started as a hobby and turned into a career, for example, an artist who leaves a day job to make an art career, or an amateur cook who decides to open a restaurant.  And I think, on an emotional level, one can move in the opposite direction: if writing is a job, one can, with practice and the right attitude, turn it into something of a hobby.  It may be hard to imagine enjoying writing, especially if you’re required to write in your career, but it’s possible.  

Writing in any setting can be absorbing. It is challenging, and for all that reason, it can become some sort of refuge from other problems, if you focus your attention on overcoming the specific challenge of writing. If you get absorbed in the attempt to describe or discuss or reveal a certain issue, or the attempt to relate a certain narrative, it can take your attention away from other issues, at least temporarily.  And that is the refuge.  It is easier to find this refuge when you believe your ability is equal to the task—but that’s why practice is so important: practice improves your ability, and improves your understanding of how to apply your abilities successfully. 

For my own part, I have various issues that trigger me and create negative emotions when I focus on them—anything from the un-scooped dog poop in front of my house, to reckless drivers who endanger my life and those around, to political malfeasance, and other larger social or global ills. When I write, and I start to focus on putting a focused set of ideas on the page, on finding good ways to express those ideas in writing, and on trying to find a good way to reach an audience, all of those considerations may take my attention from the things that trigger me.  Sometimes I write about one of those things that trigger me, but even then writing can be a refuge if it directs my attention to actions that could be taken to resolve those difficulties.

I’m over 1,000 words, which has been my rough goal for these posts, and realistically, I’ve made my point and may be getting redundant.  Writing can take your mind from other problems—and that’s something that’s more likely to happen if you practice writing. Not everyone is going to become a writer, but if, for any reason, you have to write in your life, then turning it into a regular practice will help writing become less of an ordeal, and more of an opportunity to find refuge from problems.

Missing targets

For the last year or more, my plan for this blog has been to post something every Monday. For the most part, I’ve been good about that, but there have definitely been times when that Monday deadline has slipped.  Today is Thursday and I haven’t posted for this week, making me several days behind.  

The reasons for my delay are minor—nothing particularly bad prevented me from writing a blog post in the last several days.  On Sunday, I could have written a blog post, but I chose to spend my time writing fiction instead.  That was not necessarily the best choice–I’m not really a fiction writer, having chosen to (mostly) focus my efforts on non-fiction projects. (I generally try to focus my efforts so that I can finish projects, and I think my non-fiction projects are better in quality and more marketable than my fiction, so when it comes to trying to finish something, the non-ficiton gets priority.)

But the delay does give me a subject: what to do when you miss targets.  (I have plenty of other potential subjects, actually, but this one seems the most apt for a day when I’m behind schedule. It is necessary to choose a specific topic, and follow it, rather than vacillating between different possible topics.)

So, what do I do when I miss targets? Basically, I don’t do anything special.  And that’s really what I want to suggest as the main point of this post: don’t let missing a target throw you. Don’t let it stop you, and don’t let it slow you down.  If you miss a target, the thing to do is to focus your attention on the writing project and to get back to writing.  Realistically, if you miss a target, the only way to recover from that is to get back to work and to keep working to try to find a resolution for that miss. 

What you (and I) don’t want to do after missing a target, is to focus your (or my) attention on the fact that the target was missed.  Turning attention to the writing project, gets you back on course toward whatever larger target you had been aiming for. Turning attention to the missed target doesn’t focus on what you want to create, it focuses attention on other things. If your goal is to create a piece of writing, it is crucial to keep your attention focused on the ideas that you want to express. If you start thinking about missing a target, not only is your effort distracted from what you want to create, but there’s a good chance that you will also have negative thoughts about yourself and your own work patterns.

Writing, writing well, and finishing writing projects, all require a big investment of effort.  It’s much easier to apply that effort if you are in a more positive emotional state. And it’s much easier to apply that effort if your attention is focused on the thing you’re trying to create instead of some personal failing.

In a way, this recommendation (keep trying; keep focusing on your project, even if you miss a target) is little more than saying “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” But it’s worth saying, I think, partly because the familiar aphorism is so familiar that it loses impact. And worth saying partly because the aphorism doesn’t contain any reasoning as to why it’s a good idea.

You might argue that my missing a self-imposed deadline for my own blog is very different from missing a target for a grant, for example, where that failure has significant impact. If I miss a blog post, nothing really happens to me.  Regular readers of my blog might be disappointed by the delay; they might even stop following my blog, but there is no clear and direct negative impact similar to what might occur if, for example, you miss a deadline for a grant proposal, for coursework, or for filing a dissertation or thesis.  There is certainly truth in such arguments, but that’s at a small scale: yes, the immediate impact of failing to meet some targets is greater than for others.  But on the large scale, the basic principle remains sound.  If you fail to get your grant proposal submitted on time, does that really change who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish? Or is that just a setback that makes it harder for you to pursue that goal?

There are times, of course, when failing to meet a target is a sign that you might want to find something else to pursue. But that’s a larger question, I think. It’s true that you want to use feedback about your performance to decide whether to pursue some course of action. But is missing a writing deadline a relevant reflection of your ability? I would argue that it is not.  If you submit something, and it gets rejected, then it’s totally appropriate to look at that feedback for guidance on whether to continue to pursue your goal—this is especially true where there are hard and fast criteria for judgement—a runner trying to make a national Olympic team whose best times are minutes short of qualifying should think carefully about whether they will be able to shave those minutes off their time in the future. But that’s a judgement based on reaching a target, at least in a certain way: the runner who completes a race too slowly has finished the race—so it’s a situation more akin to a writer who submits a paper that gets rejected than to the situation of a writer who misses a deadline and submits nothing. (And, it should be noted that getting a piece of writing rejected is not something that depends on clear criteria—judging writing is much more personal than comparing a runner’s time to some objective standard.)

In this post, I’m most concerned with the emotional impact of being late, of missing a deadline, not of missing a performance criterion.  In my experience, it’s pretty common for people who miss some sort of deadline to spend time and effort berating themselves for the failure to meet the deadline, and it’s really that dynamic that this post hopes to prevent.  Missing a deadline is not the end of the world. Missing a deadline is just a delay. I failed to post on Monday, and I planned, but I can still post today. I can still post another post next Monday.  If, for example, you missed a deadline to file your dissertation this month, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t make the next deadline to file it.  (Yes, for some people, there is a final chance to submit—some deadline set by a school that cannot be appealed—and such a deadline obviously is consequential in a different way from missing your target of filing this semester but them having to file next semester instead.) A lot of missed targets are not terminal issues, and for such targets, it’s best to focus attention on next steps and on continuing your project, regardless of having missed the target.  I think this especially true for people with big projects: if you miss some target in the course of working—you don’t finish a chapter on time, for example—it’s crucial not to let that miss keep you from working. 

Grammar, Content, and What Really Matters

Grammar is not one of my great interests. As both writer and editor, it is important that I have command of grammar, but, as far as I’m concerned, grammar is a secondary matter. It’s like enunciation in speech: it’s important because it facilitates that which really matters: the ideas being communicated. Yes, of course, it’s important to enunciate in speech: if you mumble, your listener has to ask “what did you say?” If your grammar is so poor that your reader cannot understand you, that’s a big problem. But if your grammar is imperfect while your ideas are perfectly comprehensible? Whatever. Grammar is secondary. The ideas are what matter.

When you write or speak, what really matters is the message that you want to convey.  If you’re appreciative of someone and you write to them to express that appreciation, what really matters is that they recognize that you’re showing your appreciation.  If you make a grammatical error in conveying that message—for example, you write “Thanks. Your great!”—it may or may not prevent the recipient from understanding your purpose in writing. If the recipient does understand that you meant “you’re great,” what is lost due to your grammatical error? The recipient of the  poorly written thank you note might be disappointed by your poor grammar while also understanding your gratitude. But how much is really lost? (I ask that rhetorically, believing that not much is lost, while certain that some people will think that the decline of grammar is a terrible thing. But still, the grammar is secondary to the content.)  I’m pretty sure that a lot of people agree with me logically but not on an emotional level: If you ask people explicitly whether content or grammar is more important, people will usually answer “content,” but if you ask them to evaluate a piece of writing, their complaints about grammar are quite likely to come first.

Saying that the message is what matters does oversimplify a little bit, because communicating ideas does not solely depend on the ideas themselves: communication of ideas is influenced by the audience’s view of the speaker/writer, and the manner in which ideas are expressed influences the audience’s views. The first of these concerns—how preconceptions of the speaker/writer influence evaluation of what is expressed—is outside of my discussion of the importance of grammar. (If an audience is predisposed toward the speaker/writer, they are more likely to accept the ideas being expressed, and if they are predisposed against that person, they are more likely to reject, a phenomenon that has been termed “reactive devaluation.” While this is interesting, it moves away from this essay’s specific focus on grammar.) The second concern—how the presentation of ideas influences the audience’s view of the speaker/writer—is a matter of concern for grammar, but I will still argue that it is secondary. It’s not trivial that poor grammar might lead to someone forming a poor opinion of you and your work.  If the material you send to an editor at a journal or publisher is rife with grammatical errors, that will certainly influence their decision. But what if that material has only a few errors?

Here’s a question: would you rather be a person with good grammar and no ideas, or a person with good ideas and poor grammar?  Which person would you rather have as a student? Which person would you rather hire as an employee?  Which person do you think more capable of picking up the skill that they lack? Is it easier to get the good grammarian to have interesting ideas or to get the interesting thinker to develop good grammar? I’m simplifying to make a point about relative value: it goes without saying that it would be better to have both perfect grammar and great ideas, but on a more day-to-day, practical level, if you’re sitting down to write, and you have to ask yourself whether to focus your efforts on getting your grammar right or getting your ideas in order, which effort should you prioritize? My suggestion (obviously) is work on the ideas and to worry about grammar later (this is not to say that you don’t try to get grammar right, or that you don’t fix an error if you see one, but that your attention is not focused on grammar).

When I started writing this post, I was going to focus on one grammatical construction—passive voice—and discuss it, because I had been talking with a writer about how her advisor was strongly opposed to the passive voice.  I have generalized, because the more general issue—the relative importance of grammar and content—is the more important issue. For a scholar or researcher, the ideas are first and foremost. They’re much harder to get in order, and they’re something that the scholar/researcher must do him/herself in order to be able to claim credit for doing original work. In fact, if a scholar/researcher can get the ideas in sufficiently good order, it’s perfectly acceptable matter of scholarly ethics to have an editor check and fix grammar. Indeed, if you’re publishing a scholarly monograph with a substantial publisher like a university press, they will have a copy editor review and fix your grammar.  (This point can be taken as further evidence that an editor for a publisher will be more interested in the ideas of the proposal that you send than in your command of grammar: the editor/publisher will be planning on and budgeting for having someone fix minor grammatical errors. The editor/publisher will certainly have access to plenty of people who can write grammatical sentences; they will be looking for people who have good ideas to fill a book.) 

The work of a scholar/researcher is first and foremost evaluated in terms of the content and ideas. If the ideas are good, they will get accepted and (hopefully) discussed. If the research is well designed and conscientiously executed, the results will be valuable, even if there are grammatical errors in the presentation. (Again, I don’t want to discount the role that grammatical errors play in getting work noticed and accepted.)

Last week, in a post of advice for dissertation advisors, I wrote about this general issue—about how the content is what matters for a scholar, not the grammar. This version of the same discussion is more directed at the writers than the teachers: when you write, where is your attention? Are you worrying about getting the ideas right or are you spending time and effort on grammar? For a lot of people, time spent worrying about grammar can take attention and energy away from the work that really does matter. Again, it’s the contents that matter most. Grammar is not trivial, but it’s not what the writing is about (unless, of course, you’re actually writing about grammar). 

My advice for writers, especially for scholarly writers: write to clarify and explore your ideas. Don’t waste your time worrying about grammar. Yeah, I get it: Your professors will complain about bad grammar, and fixing that bad grammar will reduce complaints. Still, write to clarify and explore your ideas and to heck with good grammar. Once you’ve got the ideas in order, then work to get the grammar right, too. But first, get the ideas in order.

Expressing your voice and motivation

Talking with a scholar yesterday, I was emphasizing the importance of finding one’s own voice.  I was thinking about that point in a very specific sense with respect to the writing she had shown me—especially with respect to the importance of making clear reasons to care—why did the author care? Why should anyone else care? Even a scholar who is trying to present objective research can show us why she/he chose to pursue that particular course of research—presumably because the findings would have some value. When scholars make their motivations and purposes clear in their writing, it helps the reader connect that work to larger ideas.

I was going to write my weekly blog post with respect to those issues, but this morning as I was checking headlines, I saw an article on motivation and advice that connects to these issues from a somewhat different angle—the angle of motivation as opposed to purpose.  When we think about purposes, we can think of them as a form of motivation—“I did X because I wanted Y”—but now I’m thinking more of motivation in a more primal/emotional sense—a sense of willingness to act, and a drive to take action, rather than some specific goal to be reached (some goal is needed for the motivation, but the focus now is on the drive to act abstracted from the desired ends of the action).

The article on motivation and advice reports on a series of studies that showed that people found motivation when they gave advice.  The common presumption is that people who are struggling to accomplish something should seek advice—that by seeking advice, people will be more able and likely to succeed.  The study suggested, instead, that people already had important useful knowledge, and that taking action was the crucial missing element in success.  In the study, giving advice led to the advice-givers feeling more confident about their own knowledge and ability, and thus were more likely to take action.  In one of their studies, done with students at a middle school, “Advice givers spent 38% more time on their homework than the advice receivers spent over the month following the intervention.”

The authors of the study consider a number of reasons that giving advice helps with motivation which I will roughly summarize as the power of focusing on the assets (knowledge) one does have.  When one gives advice, one “conduct[s] a biased memory search by considering one’s past successful behaviors in order to generate advice for others.” When giving advice, the focus goes to strengths and successes (the bias, from the flip side, being that one does not focus on failures).

This basic dynamic of focusing on strengths as providing motivation is related to another study I once read about (but cannot cite), which suggested that optimists were more likely to succeed than pessimists for the precise reason that they overestimated their abilities/performance and thus were more likely to persist in their efforts.  The pessimists might have been more accurate in their assessment of their abilities and performance on the small scale, but that accuracy seems to have worked against them in the long run.  Of course, when giving advice, one is not misrepresenting things (or at least…well, here’s a matter for speculation, actually: to what extent do advice givers simplify problems, thus creating an unrealistic assessment, parallel to the optimists?), but merely focusing on past successes.

Winding this back to the scholarly writer who is presenting work in a neutral, abstracted way: if what you write is scrubbed clean of your motivations and the knowledge that you have, it takes your attention away from the strengths of your own work, and frames everything in a neutral light that avoids focusing on exactly that which is most important to you.

If you are trying to write a dissertation, your work is supposed to be original. So what makes work original? What makes work original is the thing that you have observed that others have not. From one direction, we could say that “the thing you have seen that others have not” is a purely objective thing, for example, you were the first to see the moons of Jupiter (well, that’s attributed to Galileo, but the first to observe some object or phenomenon).  That objective angle might be all there is to your originality.  But chances are that part of your originality was deciding to look for that thing in the first place, or in seeing some significance that others did not observe (indeed, seeing some potential significance that others did not observe is often part of the decision to look at something that others have not examined in the first place).

In expressing your voice, you focus your attention the depth and detail of what you know about the subject. In the studies mentioned above, the advice-givers worked more after giving advice because that focused on what they did know.  This is a reasonable attitude for the scholar to take, too. After all, what is an academic text but a form of educational work? Even the highest-level scholarly works written for other high-level scholars are educational in the sense that they attempt to educate people about things that they did not know. If you are writing a doctoral dissertation, master’s thesis, or other work of independent research, you are doing original research, and so you should be giving “advice” in the sense that you are educating others.  Focusing on what you have to teach others is important from the point of view of the content of your written work.  And, if we think of that same expression of your voice as a form of giving advice, then these studies of advice giving suggest that expressing your voice will also help motivate you. 

Explicitly Stating Intentions

In some ways, this blog is merely a continuation of a project of ten years or so, but switching it to a new URL is a beginning of sorts, and it can be useful to state intentions.

My general intentions for the blog are to post weekly, generally on a subject related to the process of writing, especially, but not exclusively, academic writing. My hope is that reflection on issues of the process will help writers find insight into their own processes. I often try to blend abstract reflection on ideas with specific practical suggestions, but I have been known to get absorbed in philosophy to the neglect of practical concerns. My hope is also that by presenting useful information about the writing process, I provide potential clients with evidence that my services are valuable. (I’ll risk the danger that my blog posts are so helpful that people who read them never need help again!)  Thus, to summarize, my intentions are multiple: 1. to blog with a certain regularity; 2. to cover a certain subject; 3. to help writers; and 4. to promote my business.

But those are only my intentions for the blog generally.  My intentions for this specific post are to describe my intentions for the blog, and to talk (well, write, actually, but…) about why I want to set my intentions, and, more generally, about the value I see in setting intentions/expectations/goals/what-have-you.

As a writer there are a few reasons that setting intentions/expectations/goals can be helpful. While I don’t think any of these reasons are rocket science or deep hidden secrets, I do think it worth trying to make them explicit as part of a program of convincing writers of the value of setting intentions.

Firstly, clearly stating intentions gives your readers a reason to read. By clearly stating that my intention is to help writers, potential readers who are interested in their writing process might be motivated to read. Admittedly, stating my intention also sends away potential readers who are not interested in writing, but that’s okay because I can’t really help people who aren’t writers. It’s not entirely out of the question that someone might enjoy my writing style, or might read my blog for a personal reason (like that they’re my friend), but on the whole, what I have to offer is help for writers. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to offer something that everyone wants—that’s got to be good for a business, right?—but rather that what I do have to offer is of value to only some people. By stating my intentions, I can create a connection with my readers.

A separate level of value in setting intentions is its value for my writing process. In this respect, setting intentions can be a two-edged sword: if intentions are poorly stated, disappointment can follow, and disappointment does not help a writer keep writing. At the same time, though, I believe that the other side of the dynamic is also operative: not only is there a danger of being disappointed after clearly setting intentions, but there is also a danger in not setting intentions, and not setting them clearly and realistically. Without setting intentions, you can spend a lot of time and at the end feel like you’ve got nothing to show for it (that may not be true—spending a lot of time writing, even if without clear intentions, can certainly help improve skill as a writer).

Setting intentions will help you focus efforts: if you say “I want to write a blog post”, that defines parameters. If you say “I want to write a blog post to help writers,” or “I want to write a blog post about setting intentions that will help writers,” all of these statements help me focus my efforts.  Having set an intention, I have a focus for my writing that guides me when interesting but tangential ideas occur to me, or ones that are interesting and completely unrelated. My intentions help keep me from getting distracted.

It can be frightening to set intentions—by saying “I want to get published,” a standard is defined that can be violated, thus leading to disappointment or frustration.  If I say (as I have), “I want to post a blog post each week,” then if I fail to post, I am disappointed. Multiple failures to post might even lead to sufficient disappointment in my ability to post that I start to think that I can’t live up to that standard. If I say I want to get published and I don’t get published, that is obviously disappointing.

But if we’re concerned with the psychology, isn’t it also worth noting that, because setting intentions is frightening—because saying “I want to get published” is intimidating—we might harbor the ambition without admitting it?  A creative writer might say “Oh, I’m just writing for the fun of it,” when, in fact, he or she wants to be published but is concerned about setting a goal and then failing to reach it.

It might be worth it to state ambitious intentions and then be OK with not quite achieving them. After all, if you fail to achieve a goal on a first effort, that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve it on the second. Indeed, often the first failure is crucial in providing guidance as to how to move forward. 

I’m going to wrap up even though I’ve got more to say. One of my general intentions for this blog—one on which I was pretty clear, but which I did not state earlier—was to write posts of about 1,000 words in length, and I’m getting right up to that now.  There’s more that I could say about setting intentions and the benefit in setting intentions, but I’m not going to cover it all.

Going forward, I want this blog to help writers. I want to provide guidance that helps people develop effective and productive writing processes and practices. My subjects and discussion will be skewed towards talking about academic writing, and especially common dissertation problems, because that’s where I’ve done most of my work, but a lot of writing issues are true for all writers.