Reflections On Writing Blog: Thoughts, Tips, and Suggestions

Reflections on seeking a publisher 2: A lengthy process

This is reposted from the TAAOnline Blog.

The process of proposing and publishing takes a long time, so patience is important. I started the proposal process nine months ago, and there’s a chance I may be working on a new proposal soon. There are ways that I could have saved time in the process, but even if I had been maximally efficient, I would still have been looking at a process of several months.

In February, I sent my first proposal to an agent who specifically requested sole consideration, which was fine with me, given that part of why I was trying an agent was to avoid doing multiple proposals. (I will discuss the question of giving publisher sole consideration in a future post.) The agent’s website said if I hadn’t gotten a response within six weeks that I should assume that my proposal was rejected, so I waited (and avoided the difficult task of preparing another proposal).  When I hadn’t heard within five weeks, I started to work again, thinking about to whom to send my next proposal.

At that point, I decided to try sending query letters to gauge interest, rather than a full-blown proposal. I figured that a brief query letter would require less effort than a full proposal, and being only a brief query about possible interest, not a full proposal, it skirted the issue of sole consideration.

At the beginning of the seventh week after sending out my first proposal (early April), I sent out my first query letter. My plan was to send out one every day until I got some interest. I chose to do only one a day because I wanted to write a letter that was specific to each publisher, and writing a good cover letter can take a few hours.

The fortunate circumstance of receiving a positive same-day response to my very first query derailed my one-a-day-to-several-publishers plan. The quick response was thrilling, of course, but it meant I had to do a full proposal, which took me away from writing another query letter. It was a few days of work and then a week to hear back. All of this felt like things were moving quickly and couldn’t be better—the first publisher to whom I wrote, and one of the top publishers on my list! The editor expressed interest in sending the proposal to reviewers (again, great!), but suggested some revisions to the proposal first. That took me a week, but by early May I had submitted a revised proposal. The editor confirmed receipt, warning me that she was going to a conference and then on holiday and wouldn’t be able to get back to me for a week or two. And that was really the end of it. Over the next couple of months, I received first a few promises to get to my proposal right away, and then later no response to my emails.

I procrastinated, hoping that the editor would follow up, so it was not until early August that I sent out a new proposal (yes, a whole proposal, not just a query letter—my strategy was not entirely consistent). It got no immediate response (and none since), and ten days later, I sent out another proposal.  This one got a next-day response—a rejection. It was as positive and friendly a rejection as could be imagined—the editor encouraged my proposing to other publishers, and even took time to answer some follow-up questions I asked in response to his rejection—but a rejection all the same. It was, by this time, late August.

For my next step, I returned to the plan of sending multiple query letters. And again, my first query letter received a quick response: the editor to whom I had written was forwarding my query to a colleague. The next day I received an email from an editor (the third in the chain) who  identified herself as the editor of one of the books my query mentioned as a competitor, and who invited me to send my proposal. That took me a few days, but my delay was basically irrelevant, as she was about to leave for a conference and then holiday.

Two weeks later—end of the first week of September—she decided to send my proposal out to reviewers.  That would take about eight weeks, she warned—an accurate estimate, as the reviews were returned in late October. The reviews were positive enough that, pending my response to the reviewer’s concerns, she was interested in taking it to a publisher’s meeting with the intention of offering me a contract. My response only took a day, but it was Friday, and the editor is in the UK, so she didn’t get to it until the beginning of the next week, and, as the weekly publication meeting is held on Tuesdays, she didn’t have sufficient time to prepare the book for that week’s meeting, which brings the process up to date at the moment I write, over nine months since I started.

Maybe I could have cut a few months out of that process by acting more swiftly and aggressively, but even if we disregard my proposals that were rejected, by the time the publication meeting has been held, it will have been nearly three months just with one publisher, and everything moving relatively quickly (my editor warned that reviews don’t always come in in a timely fashion, for example, but mine did).

Publication is a long process, even when everything moves quickly. Finding a publisher takes a significant chunk of time.  It is one reason for writing a proposal before you finish your book, which is the subject of my next post.

Keep things as simple as you can; Complexity will arise

A writer recently expressed to me the concern about her work being too simple, a concern triggered by, among other things, being told that her work was pedestrian (which I discussed n my previous post). But for the great majority of scholarly work, if done carefully, complexity is almost unavoidable. The real world is not simple, and a scholar trying to document the real world is not documenting something simple.  Analyzing data gathered in the process of documenting the real world is not simple, either.

My experience of writing blog posts often goes something like this: an idea formulates into a basic message and plan for what I will say; I start writing; I think of an example to use; I start to describe the example, and in so doing, I find complexity where I thought was simplicity. No matter the clarity of my plan, once I start writing, I discover complexity.

It’s easy to find complexity if you are being careful and trying to focus on details. All you need do is be curious and careful.

Suppose, for example, you try to describe a simple household process like getting a glass of water.  That’s simple, right? You get a glass; you hold the glass beneath the faucet; you turn on the water and the glass fills. But complexity lurks. Where do you get the glass, for example? In your own home, you know where the glasses are, but if you’re visiting somewhere, finding a glass may require extra steps, such as opening many cabinets or asking your host. Getting into details might lead to asking what criteria are used for choosing a glass: do you take the one closest to your hand? To which hand? Do you prefer a large glass or small? Do you look to make sure that there is no visible smudge or dirt on the glass? Do you prefer one material over another (glass vs. plastic, for example)? If a glass has a colored material or an image printed, does that matter?  Beyond these practical questions of how to get a glass (we haven’t even started talking about locating or operating a faucet yet), if our aim is to describe the process, we might choose to try to define what we mean by “glass”—does, for example, a mug get included? A mug is not a glass, but it will be effective for drinking a “glass of water” if we interpret the phrase loosely? In many contexts, such an interpretation suffices: imagine asking a friend for a glass of water and them giving you a mug filled with water. Would you complain that they had failed because your water was served in a mug not a glass? And beyond these questions relevant to getting a glass of water in practice, if we are describing the process of getting a glass of water, we might examine how or where the glasses (or mugs) were procured, and how they were made. Although they are not questions for the practical situation, for someone documenting or describing a process, those questions directly follow (even if we might decide that they are not sufficiently relevant to include in a description of getting a glass of water). So trying to describe something simple, quickly leads to complexity if you just ask questions.

Another way that complexity can arise for a writer is by trying to define terms. Suppose you want to write about [term/concept].  It’s good form as a scholar to define the crucial term to your audience, so you try to define [term/concept]. You may turn to a dictionary, where you find multiple different meanings of [term/concept]. You look at the literature in your field, and you find several different authors have all defined [term/concept] in their paper, and they have all done it differently. If the observed complexity of the use of the term hasn’t stymied you, you might sit down to try to write your own definition of the term. In that process you use [term2/concept2], and that leads to the question of whether you need to define [term2/concept2].  Defining terms is a rabbit hole of complexity, as every definition requires using terms that could themselves require definition.  In his beautiful essay “Avatars of the Tortoise,” Jorge Luis Borges describes this as an infinite regression first identified by a Greek Philosopher (whose name escapes me, and I don’t have the Borges text at hand). Defining terms/concepts is not simple, and scholarly writing requires definition.

Complexity arises in the process of argumentation/justification, and there is a similar regression of questions. Suppose, for example, I want to explain why I have chosen a specific research method—methodX.  Every statement I make in favor of methodX can be questioned. If I say I have chosen methodX because it’s appropriate to my research question, the natural question that follows is why (or whether) it is appropriate to the question. If I then offer two arguments—argument1 and argument2—for why the method is appropriate to the question, I have two new arguments that each require some defense. Logically speaking, any argument can be questioned, and each answer offers new arguments that can be questioned.  

It is exactly this kind of logical path from one question to the next that leads many writers down discursive rabbit holes that can inhibit the writing process. And it is one reason that citation is so valuable for the scholarly writer: you can end the string of questions by saying “because FamousAuthor said so.”  It’s not a logically perfect foundation, but what the heck…we all need to find a foundation, and even the greats rely on the foundation of the scholars who have come before—Newton said “If I have seen farther, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

If you want to describe something, and you are careful about it, complexity will arise.  If you are a scholar, you’re supposed to be careful, and, in my experience, that leads to what most might consider a surprising result: good scholars almost almost always have too much to say. I’ve known lots of writers who worried that they had nothing to say, and I’ve known lots of writers who wrote very little for fear that they have nothing to say. But I can’t remember any writer who, once writing, wasn’t able to say enough. The far more common (and more difficult) problem for writers is to have to cut material to get their article or book down to a word limit. (Because of the difficulty of cutting down a draft, I strongly recommend writing first drafts that are short!)

So, don’t worry that your ideas are too simple, embrace that simplicity. Try to capture that simplicity in writing. If you’re careful and attentive to detail, complexity will arise. Indeed, so much complexity arises that there is great danger in getting lost in it, and the writer needs to learn to say “here’s where I stop asking questions.”

On non-constructive feedback

Writers benefit from getting good feedback and can be severely hindered by bad feedback—issues that I have covered in previous blog posts, as well as in my book.

Recently I was speaking with a graduate student who once received feedback that the work was “pedestrian.”  Not surprisingly, the student did not find this feedback helpful—indeed the feedback has been a positive deterrent. 

My response to this feedback is to say, basically, “f—k that.” It’s lousy feedback, at least if your expectation is that a professor would give feedback from which the student can learn something.  A pet peeve of mine is when professors waste their time (and their students’) by fixing grammar when they should be focusing on more important issues, like the content,  But to call a work “pedestrian” is worse. It’s worse than useless—what possible guidance could a researcher gain from being told that their work is pedestrian? Complaining about grammar at least gives the writer something to work on (even if it’s wasted effort).

But saying that a work is “pedestrian”? What guidance can you get from that? Does it imply that they should just start over and find some different project because their current project is “pedestrian”? It almost doesn’t even matter if that professor gave other more constructive feedback because that overall assessment of being “pedestrian” discounts not only the value of the work already done, but strongly suggests that future work on the project is unlikely to lead to anything worthwhile. Seriously, I can hardly think of a response to that particular comment that doesn’t require profanity.

That comment is bad guidance for an alleged ‘teacher’ to give a graduate student writing a dissertation, especially if that student has been struggling. It’s a fail because it’s not realistic about what real scholars (including graduate students) do, and it’s a fail because it does not provide any guidance. 

Firstly, it’s not realistic about the bulk of published work in research—most published research is pedestrian in the sense that it does not shake the earth—it’s what Thomas Kuhn might call “normal science”—the research that is done within a paradigm. Look at the best journals, even in those, there is work that may be interesting but isn’t earth shaking. Looking at less prestigious but highly respectable journals shows work of even less general interest. Every published work is supposed to be original, but published originality often includes small developments of previous work. This lack of a realistic view of the great bulk of research done by scholars is exaggerated when turned on a dissertation writer, because, realistically, for most scholars, the dissertation will be the weakest work of their career: how many scholars do their best work as graduate students and how many do their best work after graduate school?  Part of the point of having students do dissertations is to help them learn to negotiate the research process, and setting the expectation that the only work worth publishing is rock-star quality is a lousy guide to how to proceed in a research practice.

Saying a work is pedestrian is just gilding the lily on saying “it sucks.”  Using a four syllable word does not mean that it’s well thought-out feedback.  If a reviewer considering a work for publication, wants to reject a work because it’s “pedestrian,” that’s fine: the reviewer considering a work for publication is responsible to the publication/publisher and has to allocate his/her effort accordingly; the reviewer does not have a responsibility to help the authors, and writing good feedback that gives useful guidance is hard.  But a teacher? A professor working with a dissertation writer? A teacher does have a responsibility to the student—a responsibility to give the student guidance along the way (that’s what a teacher does!).

Can we turn “pedestrian” into something that can provide specific guidance? As far as I can see, not without additional detail. Suppose the professor means “not original enough”? Well, how do you assess originality. If the professor sees some similarity to a specific work or specific set of works, then it would be more useful feedback to explicitly mention the works that they see as similar.  Does it mean “not ambitious enough”? Well, that complaint could certainly be delivered in a more constructive sense by suggesting the value of expanding the project. Does it mean “not interesting enough”? That’s a wasted complaint, especially in academia, where so much of the product of academia is writing that is only interesting to a very limited audience. If you’re a teacher and your only critique to your student is that you don’t find their work interesting, you’re not helping.

If you’re a teacher, then your job is to give constructive feedback so that students can learn. Saying that work is “pedestrian” offers no guidance on moving forward, while also insulting the student and deterring them from continuing to develop their project.  If you’re a student, you have a reasonable expectation that your professors will give you usable guidance. If your professor tells you your work is pedestrian…well don’t say “f—k that” to their face, but…if your professor insults your work ask: “can you clarify ways that I could change my work so that it’s less pedestrian [or other insult]?”

(On a personal level, my response to that critique is not scholarly, but general: what the hell is wrong with being a pedestrian? I’m often a pedestrian, and I don’t think that makes me less—indeed the choice to walk rather than take some common alternative forms of conveyance is socially responsible. The idea that a “pedestrian” is lesser is classist, elitist bullshit based on conspicuous consumption. I choose to walk for several reasons, including the low carbon footprint (as opposed to driving, or even taking public transport). As far as I’m concerned, the world could use more pedestrians and fewer drivers right now. But that’s not really a response to the critique that a work of scholarship is “pedestrian.”)

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.

Persistence

In the last week or two, I’ve been hitting a rough spot in my writing practice. I don’t feel like I’m making progress on anything…more searching for something to work on, for all that I have several tasks that require my attention.  I’ve not been particularly disciplined in working, either: I do sit down to work and do some writing, but when I get stuck I have very little patience to push on in the attempt to make more progress.

This is less than ideal.  It would certainly be preferable to be consistently productive, consistently disciplined, and consistently focused.  But that’s not how it is, and there’s nothing I can do to go back and change what has already happened.  My best hope is to do better in the future.

Even looking back, I still keep attention on the little that I did do—I may not have done much, but I’m happy to say that I have done something. That’s a place to start—I didn’t completely get stopped.  It’s nice to be able to look back and count any positive progress or outcomes, even if that positive progress was small. And, from the perspective of practicing—the perspective concerned with writing as an activity carried out habitually and regularly for the purpose of improving skill—the fact that I engaged with the practice of writing at all is a bit of a win.  Being able to look back at a period of time and try to identify positive actions taken can be useful. Having practiced a little is better than not having practiced at all.

But even if I had gotten nothing done for weeks previously, I can still look to the future with some hope: perhaps I wasn’t regular in working in the past, but with persistence, I can develop such a practice. All it really takes is persistence, and some reasonable moderation.

If you want to develop a long-term practice, it’s important to recognize that there are ups and downs in any practice. There are days when things come more easily than others.  And on the days that things don’t come easily, it’s important to remember that those bad days help set the foundation for the good days.  Persisting through bad days helps keep projects moving, even if the progress is minimal in the immediate present. Persisting helps keep up the momentum on a project, which is valuable.

I was speaking with a writer who had a death in the family.  This quite reasonably interrupted the writing practice, but what then is the next step? Well, persistence, of course. Getting back to the process is what’s important, not looking bad and regretting the lost time.  Given the significance of a death in the family, it’s totally reasonable to lose time to grieving and to family gatherings to celebrate the person and mourn their loss. If some extreme and unusual event prevents writing, well that’s ok, too. But all the while, one can maintain an underlying idea of persistence—the notion that in the long run, it’s necessary to persist through the interruptions and distractions., but also that, if one maintains the long-term practice, then those unusual interruptions won’t actually pose a danger to the larger practice.

Keeping any eye on the importance of persistence is crucial after an interruption because after an interruption, there are two common responses, one is to shrug off the interruption and get back to work.  The other focuses on the interruption and on the lost time, and often turns that focus into critical self-judgement that then inhibits future work.

The persistent attitude can be flexible—it can decide to return to an interrupted project because that’s the place of persistence. Rather than letting the bad result—slow days or days with no work—dictate future behavior, the attention focuses on what can be done to keep moving. One small step at a time, but persistently!

Feeling Overwhelmed? Focus on one thing.

Sometimes, I get stuck as a writer because I start feeling overwhelmed by myriad issues, none severe in itself, but in combination more than enough to distract from the focus required by writing.

There are any number of potential distractions that interfere with writing. Chores and regular life continually present many demands. Maybe no chore or errand is crucial or particularly difficult, but they gain weight in combination as other responsibilities multiply: taking out the trash is trivial if you have plenty of time, but when you’re running late, it can be significant. Everyday life is a constant background noise that can contribute to feeling overwhelmed.

For me, an additional drain on my focus comes as I consider the state of the world. In my opinion, it is a civic duty for the citizen of a democracy to remain aware of news, and reading the news is, on one level no more than a necessary chore like washing dishes. Except for the fact that the news is so vexing. I find myself sometimes overwhelmed by the enormity of the real problems that face humanity, starting with climate change, but including the vast range of issues.  Sometimes, the process of writing can provide some refuge, but these problems are present and demanding attention, and again contributing to a sense of being overwhelmed.

And then on another level—much more specific to the process of writing—I sometimes find myself overwhelmed with my own limitations as a writer. For all my practice, for all my effort and work, each new attempt to communicate my ideas involves significant effort and frustration, even when things generally go well!  Even if sentences are generally flowing, and I’m writing a fairly large amount, there is, at the second-to-second or minute-to-minute level, a series of pauses and struggles as each new sentence struggles to fit into both the structure that I imagined when I started and the vision that has developed in the process of writing. Add in to this mix all the doubts I have—have I spelled correctly? have I punctuated correctly? is my phrasing going to be clear? how will different people read that statement? Am I repeating something I wrote before?—and it’s pretty easy to get weighed down with the multiplicity of concerns.

And then on yet another level, I often find myself overwhelmed with ideas.  This is a common problem, I think: someone wrote to me recently to complain of a “traffic jam” of ideas.  Having too many ideas is consistently one of the problems I see in writers who generally do good research: their project bogs down as they try to address every different dimension of a general interest.  In writing this post about feeling overwhelmed, for example, I had manage all the different ways in which I can get overwhelmed—the complication and difficulty comes from the many different threads that can contribute to the larger fabric of feeling overwhelmed, and I can’t talk about all of them at once, and until I make a choice among them about which to discuss first, I can become stuck. 

The more choices a writer has, the easier it is to become overwhelmed, because each choice demands attention. In combination, writing presents difficulties that can be compounded by other difficulties, and these can lead to feeling overwhelmed.

When that happens, I find that my most effective response is to try to focus on something small—something that I need to do, perhaps, and that can be done pretty easily. But only one thing. So, for example, I take out the trash, without worrying about cleaning the whole house. It’s one step in the right direction.  When I would get stuck writing my dissertation, I would often pick one small thing—a citation or page number I needed, for example—without having to fix all the problems that I knew were waiting. When feeling swamped by ideas and other concerns, I can focus on one thing—one idea, one problem—and work on that without concern for other issues. Focus doesn’t solve all my problems, but at least it helps me solve some of them.

 

Giving Thanks

This coming Thursday, the United States celebrates Thanksgiving.  Despite the fraught history of the holiday, I like it because I believe in the importance of giving thanks.

Gratitude is good. It is all too easy to take for granted the good things that we do have and to focus our attention on things that worry us. It is, indeed, quite natural because focusing attention on potential danger is a survival skill: if you’re starving, your attention focuses on finding food, and if you’ve had enough to eat, your attention focuses on other potential threats. Being aware of danger is important, but it also takes a toll on the body in the form of stress. Gratitude, by contrast, focuses the attention on those things that are going well and on things supporting us—on things that are good in our lives, but that can be taken for granted because they are familiar.

The good aspects of the familiar can fade into the background while the rough spots in the familiar move forward in prominence: if one eats the same nutritious food every day, for example, at some point the repetition and monotony get more attention than the good fortune of having nutritious food. Or, for example, good health can become familiar and taken for granted, and is then only appreciated once it has been lost.  A practice of giving thanks can help focus attention on those things that fall into the background of the familiar. I believe that gratitude can help reduce stress, boost emotions, and help us remember our positive opportunities, and I believe that there is empirical evidence for this, though I don’t have any citations to hand.  

For the US, the story traditionally told about Thanksgiving is the story of the Native Americans helping the Pilgrims, and this story opens the difficult and problematic history of how European colonists and their descendants treated the native populations—a relationship that is still fraught today.  Thanksgiving’s association with this difficult history, and the Thanksgiving story which presents the relationship between native and pilgrim as so innocent and pure, are all problematic.  But that history is problematic every day. I don’t believe that appreciating Thanksgiving—a holiday for giving thanks and showing gratitude–a harvest festival—should be prevented by the difficult history of race relations in America. (And I certainly don’t want Thanksgiving to become an excuse to forget that history the rest of the year.) Basically, no history should stop me from giving thanks for what I do have. Indeed, in giving thanks for whatever good I have, I become more sensitive to the plight of those who do not have the same good.

When I am thankful that I have clean air to breathe, then I have greater sympathy for those who do not. When I am thankful I have clean water to drink, I better appreciate the plight of those who don’t.  When I have food to eat, a home in which to live, good health, hope for the future, I have things to be thankful for, and in giving thanks, I have more feeling for those who don’t. I’m thankful for all these things and more—friends, family, teachers, colleagues. I’m thankful for music. I’m thankful for the beauty of trees, leaves, flowers, clouds, the moon, sunrises, sunsets, etc., etc.  There may be a lot of things that I could complain about, but none of those are so dire that they should stop me from appreciating what good I do have—perhaps if my life hangs in the balance, then it might make sense to focus my attention on things other than giving thanks, but as long as my troubles are a little more distance, giving thanks only helps me find a foundation from which I can try to deal with the problems.

Giving thanks is central to most religions that I know of. And harvest festivals or other festivals that celebrate the good things that we have are common.  Religions often have stories like that of Job, where even the person beset by ills, is called upon to show gratitude and appreciation. The religious focus on giving thanks could be seen solely through the perspective of the spiritual relationship with the deity. But if we think about the role religions play in society, we might wonder whether those religious calls to show gratitude are some form of public mental health: worshippers are kept healthier by focusing their attention on the things for which they are grateful. But that is speculation.

In any event, despite the difficult history of race relations in the US, I appreciate Thanksgiving because I like giving thanks.

Thank you to my readers for reading.

I hope that you can find something to be thankful for.

I have categorized this under “practice” because giving thanks is something that can be practiced with benefit.

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.

Courtesy, Truth, and Political Correctness

My previous post, “Who Gets to Say What Is Offensive?”, basically argued that it’s always appropriate to respect the opinions of those who say they are offended.  If you say something and someone is offended by it, you are generally violating a basic and important principle of human interaction—to respect other people. The argument that someone should not be offended because other people reveals a basic disrespect for the person who has expressed offense.  In most cases.

There are times when it is important to say things that offend people.  The search for knowledge and understanding can reveal things that offend people, but that search should not be limited by the attempt to avoid offending people. (Ironically, my attempt to write about this is hampered by my desire to avoid offending anyone.)

Many opponents of the theory of evolution were offended by the suggestion that humans were related to other primates. Nonetheless, we don’t want to stop researchers from discussing evolution, do we? The Copernican revolution—the notion that humans and the earth were not at the center of the universe—was offensive to many. All the same, we want to continue to pursue research based on the idea that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa. On a more personal level, many people with addictions will be offended if their illness is pointed out.

Some truths need to be stated, even if people get offended.  

Stating the “truth” can get treacherous because there are more than a few disagreements on what constitutes truth.

One principle to keep in mind as a writer is the intention: if your intention is to offend, truth is little excuse.  If you are trying to offend someone, that’s behavior outside the bounds of academic ethics. Writers in other fields may have more ethical leeway on whether they try to offend people, but trying to offend people certainly violates the moral precept captured in Christianity’s Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12).

A scholar or researcher ought not try to offend, but at the same time, the scholar cannot allow him or herself to be stopped by the possibility of offending others. Given the diversity of voices in any debate, and the fact that people often get offended when others disagree, any one message is likely to offend someone. If you say that TheoryX is bad, then some of the people who think that TheoryX is good will be offended. Research will not move forward productively if researchers are unable to challenge accepted ideas for fear of offending people.  This, in fact, is what tenure status in universities is about: providing scholars freedom from political pressures related to unpopular theories.

Speaking abstractly, a scholar/researcher (or other writer) is caught between two conflicting forces: on the one hand there is the abstract search for understanding, or “Truth,” and on the other there is the principle of courtesy.  There is, I think, a balance that can be found between these two forces.

There is an additional motivation relevant for writers/speakers, but it is a motivation that is typically backgrounded in academia, and that is the motivation of wanting speech/writing to change how people act. 

The question of motivation is, I think, part of what makes the idea of “political correctness” unpalatable to many.  The care for being “politically correct” can be interpreted not as courtesy or an attempt to care for others (or, from another perspective, an attempt to be treated with respect), but rather as a hypocritical attempt to gain some political advantage. If we think about the attempt to avoid offending from that perspective, it’s far less palatable. If my interest in avoiding offensive terms is that I am motivated to treat all people with respect, that is a very different thing than if I am merely trying to avoid offense to gain a political advantage.  And it is certainly the case that some people are concerned with gaining political advantage.

But are we all so jaded to assume that gaining political advantage is the only motivation that people have?  If someone shows concern to avoid offending others, it could be that they’re just trying to get the support of people they secretly hate (e.g., an anti-semite who courts Jews to get their votes), but couldn’t it also be true that the person actually respects others and tries to avoid offending out of respect? Or, from the other side, it is certainly true that someone might pretend to be offended in order to gain political advantage, but isn’t possible that the person is actually offended?

I have no simple summary here.  We all have to do the best we can, and life is complex. Despite our best intentions, we can err. Different principles may compete in the paths of action they suggest: the desire to respect others and avoid offending may be at odds with the desire to be truthful. The desire to persuade may be at odds with the desire to respect and the desire to be truthful.  And a variety of motivations that might lie hidden behind any action make it hard to interpret right and wrong. Maybe that concern for careful language is a reflection of a honest caring desire, or maybe it’s a reflection of insincere rhetorical manipulation.

It would be nice to have universal principles, but in the end, I suppose that even though principles like respect, caring, and honesty may be universal in the abstract, in reality they sometimes conflict leading to difficult choices.  It’s not good to offend, and it should be avoided, but sometimes it’s unavoidable, especially with emotionally charged issues, where people have strong opinions. Courtesy is sometimes at odds with truth, and sometimes its necessary to choose truth over courtesy (with the caveat that identifying “truth” is problematic, and it’s important not to jump to conclusions, and to be open to learning that what one has previously accepted as truth might be wrong).