Reflections On Writing Blog: Thoughts, Tips, and Suggestions

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).

Who gets to say what is offensive?

This particular post was sparked by the recent Megyn Kelly blackface controversy in which Kelly said (among other things) “I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being normal people,” while defending blackface costumes as “OK” because, basically, they used to be (among the people she knew or remembers as important). The controversy brought into the foreground a debate that every writer or scholar needs to consider: whether or not their words offend others.

Kelly’s defense of blackface was offensive to many people. Whether she revealed total ignorance that some people are offended by blackface or dismissal of those people’s concerns, I leave to the reader to decide.

Kelly’s position highlights something that should be in the foreground of discussions: “offensive” behavior is something that different people judge differently, and the fact that one person is not offended does not mean that another is not offended.  When we are concerned with offensive social behavior, the question is who, if anyone, is offended? No behavior is offensive if no one is offended. And if someone is offended, then the behavior is offensive. My general answer to the question asked in this post’s title–who gets to say what is offensive–is “anyone and everyone.”

When someone is offended, one way to respond is to argue that person should not be offended because people at some other specific time and/or place don’t find it offensive (e.g., “no one thought it was offensive when I was young, so it can’t be offensive now!”). And/or to question the right of the people to be offended (e.g., “they shouldn’t be so sensitive!”).  Those are essentially the elements of Kelly’s defense of blackface. 

Instead of questioning whether a person is right to be offended, or has a right to be offended, another way to address the question of what is offensive is to take a standard like that suggested by the American Psychological Association Publication Manual, which is basically that if someone is offended by what you have written, then it is offensive.  (There is, of course, the understanding that factual statements are not bound by this rule. Research has to be able to challenge accepted truths: plenty of people were offended by the idea of evolution.) 

Personally, I believe that the APA standard is much the better one.  If someone is offended by something I write, the fault lies heavily on me. I am willing to offend people in some circumstances (which circumstances are a matter for another discussion), but it certainly is to be avoided. This is a matter of courtesy, a matter of respect, and, certainly with respect to the expectations of the academic community, and in wider contexts, too, a matter of ethics. 

If you respect other people, you do not willingly offend them. The idea that you should respect other people is a very old one (I would say it was a “conservative” principle, except for the willingness, and even glee, with which people who currently call themselves conservative flout it).  The idea that we should respect other people is a principle we can find in religions through history. According to the Bible, 2,000+ years ago, Jesus stated the Golden Rule: “whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12). Basically, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or, in this specific context: “if you don’t like people saying things that offend you, then don’t say things that offend others.

When thinking about this version of the rule (“If you don’t like other people saying things that you find offensive; don’t say things they find offensive”), it must be framed in terms of the emotions of the person who is affected: it’s not honest to say “well, I don’t mind being called a ‘girl’, so it’s totally cool if I call other people ‘girls’.” (I chose ‘girl’ as term that is offensive to some people—e.g., many boys and men; many adult women—but not offensive to others—e.g., many little girls, some adult women.) Saying that things are only offensive if they offend you is true from a grossly egocentric point of view: if you’re only concerned with whether or not you’re offended, then you miss the fact that someone else might be offended.  You may not care if someone calls you a ‘girl’, but that doesn’t mean that the term isn’t offensive to others. Context and perspective matter.  

Applying the Golden Rule propounded by Jesus requires understanding what others want, not just applying your own standards to everyone.  You may love to eat pork, but the Golden Rule doesn’t therefore suggest that you force everybody else to eat pork. If you love to eat pork then the Golden Rule should lead you to try to provide others with things that they love to eat.  

The principle known as the Golden Rule is echoed across many religions. In Hinduism: “One should not behave towards others in a way that is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish nature” Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva 113.8). And in Judaism: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19.18). Buddhism, Islam, and others also have scripture that extols these same values (https://www.feedkindness.com/resources/mindful-religion-coexistence/; https://inspiremetoday.com/blog/kindness-the-core-of-12-religions/).

The place to start, according to this basic principle, is not with arguing whether someone has a right to be offended, but with whether they are offended. By this standard, Kelly’s argument that at a certain place in time people were not offended, therefore no one should be offended is clearly flawed because it is essentially egocentric: “The people from whom I take my standard are not offended, and therefore other people shouldn’t be offended.”  The idea that you treat others with respect means that you take them and their concerns as seriously as you take yourself and your interests; it doesn’t mean you dismiss their concerns because they don’t seem important to you.

Society depends on people treating each other with respect and care. Large social groups depend on the willingness of their members to make decisions for the good of the whole group, and to show a willingness to make sacrifices for the good of the whole group.  This need for a social awareness and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good does not preclude competition; it does not preclude seizing personal opportunities or having success beyond the common person; it does not preclude capitalism or personal liberty. It does, however, call on people to be willing to give up some things to help other members of their society, and thus their society as a whole. Sometimes these sacrifices are large: many have given their lives for their nation or their community. Sometimes the sacrifices are rather smaller: giving up that blackface costume is a pretty small sacrifice; giving up callous insults also seems like a pretty small sacrifice.

To Kelly and others who would argue, “I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being normal people,” let me suggest that if by being “normal” you offend people, you might try to be better than normal.  The principles espoused by religions—the Golden Rule and its relatives—are rules to which people should aspire, they are not descriptions of normal behavior. If being normal means callously offending people, I, personally, don’t want to be normal. I want to be better. That’s what it means to live up to ethical standards. The people who follow ethical standards consistently are rightly held up as exemplars; the fact that “normal” people don’t live up to that standard is a poor excuse for not trying to do better.

There are times when other concerns override the interest in being considerate to others, and there are times when people are offended without good reason, but those are outside the scope of this post, which is already overly long.

Advice for Dissertation Advisors 3: Focus on the Practical Dimensions of Research Projects

This is reposted from the TAAOnline Blog.

Generally speaking, this may be the least common of the “bad feedback” issues that I see, but it can be crushingly bad feedback. Many, many professors try to force their students to look at the practical dimensions of the project and try to get the students to do less. Almost every professor I ever worked with told me some variation of “do less,” and many students with whom I’ve worked have also been told to try to do less, so I know it’s no rare idea, but some students could really benefit from this advice.

I have two main suggestions here: 1. Get the students to reduce the scope of their project if possible and reasonable, and 2. Explicitly focus on the practical dimensions as a reason to make the project smaller in order to reduce the emotional impact of being told to do less. Some students take on too much work because their professors are not guiding them to a project of a reasonable scope; other students take on too much work because they are focused on creating the best intellectual work possible without sufficient attention to the practical concerns.

Set reasonable practical expectations for the study’s completion. Don’t encourage a project that will take many years! Don’t encourage something too far beyond the student’s abilities and experience. These seem like common sense, but I want to shake every dissertation advisor who ever encouraged a student to pursue a mixed-methods study regardless of that student’s inexperience in carrying out and completing a single-method study. There are students who are capable of doing a good mixed-methods study as a dissertation, and for whom it really makes sense. But, despite the value of mixed-methods research, it’s not good for dissertation writers who would struggle to carry out a single-method study. Almost everything that needs to be done for a single methods study needs to be done twice for a mixed-methods study.

In my previous post on advice for dissertation advisors, I said to focus on clearly defining the research purpose and research question because poorly defined questions were a major hurdle. For obvious reasons, research questions are a double hurdle for a mixed-methods study, where a research question needs to be defined for each method individually and also with respect to the purpose of the larger project. If a student can’t clearly define one research question, and doesn’t know how to align a research question with a research method, then trying to do a mixed-methods study will only muddy the waters, even granting that the two individual methods are being used together to illuminate a single larger question. If completing one study well is hard, completing two research studies simultaneously in a way that they do a good job of complementing and supporting each other is a lot harder.

Another problem that I see too often is students trying to do a quantitative study that requires the development of their own instrument. This can be fine, if expectations for checking the quality of the instrument are low, but that reduces the value of the research. But doing all the work to validate and check reliability of a quantitative instrument can be a full project in itself—indeed commonly used instruments typically go through many different tests, each of which is a project of sufficient scope to be a dissertation. Again, there are students who are able to do all this, but for students who are struggling, you can help them by getting them to either find an established instrument, or to focus on the design and testing of a new instrument.

There are important pragmatic concerns that may be obvious, but may be worth making explicit. Pointing out that a ten-year longitudinal study wouldn’t be good for a dissertation might help a student decide to focus on shorter-term questions. This concern for practical dimension is also an issue of emotional guidance. A lot of students are ambitious and they want to answer large-scale, meaningful questions, and when professors suggest smaller projects, the students feel a sense of loss because of the desire to answer something larger. Choosing to work on a very limited project can feel like a betrayal of ambition.

The emotional impact of suggesting a reduction of scope can often be reduced by focusing on and asking about the project in practical terms—what steps/actions will they take? How long will that take? What will they do if that takes longer than planned? Highlighting the real practical costs of a project can both reduce the distress related to reducing scope and, when combined with specific pragmatic questions, can help them make incremental progress in defining their project. If you focus on the practical dimensions, you may not even need to say “make the project smaller,” because they’ll start to face their own limitations as they proceed. A student who starts thinking about waiting for the completion of a longitudinal study might think again, and a student thinking of recruiting thousands, might wonder if there’s a study that would work with only hundreds, or dozens. Of course, facing one’s own limitations can be frustrating and disappointing, so it’s not out of line to remind students that all research is limited by practical concerns.

Research requires real, practical resources—time, money, effort, equipment, and more—and graduate students rarely have those in great abundance. Economic resources should not become the barrier that prevents a qualified and capable student from completing a dissertation. Focusing on these practical dimensions can help students better define a project they can complete in a reasonable time and can reduce the emotional sting of reducing the scope of inquiry.

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).

Advice for Dissertation Advisors 2: Focus on Problem Definition

This is reposted from the TAAOnline blog.

Defining a good research question is crucial to developing a successful research project, and it is no easy task. For some, defining a good question comes easily, but for many, especially doctoral candidates who may have never developed their own research project before, it is a great hurdle. And, as I suggested in the previous post, if the research purpose and question aren’t defined, then there’s no point in your looking at other stuff: if your student hasn’t defined the research purpose clearly, they’ll have trouble making progress.

A good definition of research question or purpose is not only crucial, it’s usually really easy for a reader to find in skimming through a paper. Most drafts have several sentences that say things like “the purpose of this research is…” and “the research question is…”. These sentences need to be clear, and they need to agree with each other (multiple conflicting statements of purpose can often be found in early drafts of research). One of the first things I look for when I read a draft is a clear statement of purpose. If a draft looks problematic—poorly edited or shows other obvious signs of weakness—I’ll almost immediately limit my review to skimming in search of any statements of purpose.

Often, there will be several statements of purpose in any given draft of research writing: the abstract states the purpose of the work, as does the beginning of the introduction. Many introductions include a statement of the problem and a statement of the significance, which are a pair of related statements about purpose. And then there are research questions, which are defined by how they respond to the intended purpose. If these several statements aren’t coherent, or don’t suggest a coherent and practical research project, feedback needs to start there, with the foundational stuff. Spend your time explaining the problems and offering suggestions on refining and focusing the research project into one single task that is enough for a research project. If you’re doubting the quality of the work, skim for such statements, and if they don’t all line up, focus your effort on getting a clear statement of purpose.

Students who have not done their own research before often try to stick many related but distinct questions into one study. It’s pretty easy to slide between distinct but related facets of one project, especially if one has limited experience setting up a research project.When faced with some problem or phenomenon, they shift between asking about causes, asking about impacts, and asking about responses. All three of these things are reasonable areas for study, of course, but they are also disparate areas of research. To study causes of poor educational outcomes, for example, different data and different analyses are required than to study the effects of poor educational outcomes or ways to improve poor educational outcomes.

For students who are aiming at professional careers—educators, clinicians, etc.,—such ideas naturally work together to address the practical concern for responding to some real-world phenomenon. An educator quite naturally might think about the causes, effects, and possible responses to poor educational outcomes as part of the same problem because from the perspective of a professional practice, they are part of the same problem. But from a researcher’s perspective, they are quite distinct, and many students benefit from having those distinctions made clear. Viewing the different dimensions as part of an integral whole is a great view for a professional practice, which can create a strong emotional attachment to addressing all the issues. But it’s a lousy practical approach to research, especially when the researcher running the project is a student who has never before completed an independent research project, so it’s good to force focus. To get over that kind of resistance, it might be effective to tell them to try to focus on one aspect as a first step to defining the larger array of issues. Once students start to see the complexity involved in researching the single dimension, they start to appreciate the need to leave out the other issues.

Checking for consistent and useful statements of purpose can be an effective tool to review documents quickly. Those that have conflicting statements of purpose can get feedback on narrowing their focus without having to wade through details of a project. Keep in mind that if they redefine the purpose, a good deal of the rest of the material will also need to be rewritten, which means that effort spent giving feedback on the body of a work with poorly defined purpose may be wasted.

Often, I see feedback that is grossly inefficient, both in terms of helping the student learn and in terms of saving the professor time. Most often this is feedback that focuses on grammar instead of examining and critiquing the focus and purpose of the work. An example of this that I recently saw was a student’s methods chapter draft for which the professor’s feedback had been that it needed better sentence structure and paragraph structure before higher-level feedback could be given. The professor had read the whole draft and commented in many places on a 25-page draft. It must have taken at least an hour, if not twice that, to do all that reading and to make all those comments. But in the first two pages there were obvious problems with the hypotheses. As soon as I saw that, it gave me a clue of what else to look for and I quickly found large chunks of the chapter really belonged in the literature review. Bad definition of the hypotheses (i.e., the research questions) led to bad choice of content. These problems were much more pressing than the grammatical problems, which were no more than one would expect in any early draft (it was far from perfect, but it was not hard to read). In this case, by focusing on the problems with the hypotheses (which are an expression of the researcher’s purpose), big problems with the study’s foundations were identified.”

Until a sense of purpose is clear and research questions well defined, there is little need to attend to other aspects of a project, so if you’re looking to save time, you benefit from starting with the statement(s) of purpose. Skipping the details of a project with a poorly defined purpose isn’t a failure to give students the attention they deserve, it’s giving attention to the top priorities. And, from the perspective of the student, although it might be difficult to hear that the project is not well defined, focusing attention on defining the research purpose and questions can help avoid many pitfalls that graduate students fall into (especially the trap of trying to read everything ever published). Save time by focusing on getting the purpose and question right before looking at other stuff.

Standards of Judgement

How do we make a decision? What kinds of evidence and certainty do we use to make a judgement?  And do those standards vary from one context to another?

This discussion came out of a conversation on current events I had with my uncle. I am interested in the underlying principles involved, not in the specific issue, and so I am going to focus on abstractions rather than on specifics.

As an aside: I believe that political discourse should focus on principles, not on partisanship, because partisanship influences decision making, and specifically pulls attention away from crucial factors. It would be best, I believe, if we judged plans on their merits, rather than on who proposed them.

The abstract principles that I want to discuss are related to the different contexts in which different standards of judgement apply.  I don’t have a full general theory, but obviously one wants to apply more stringent standards of judgement for more consequential decisions.

One would reasonably want, for example, more evidence and greater confidence when buying a $500 object than when buying a $5.00 object because the cost of error is 100 times greater (obviously financial impacts are partly measured in relative terms: a billionaire might not give more thought to the $500 than to the $5.00, but the general principle holds even if we have to adjust the numbers).

One would reasonably want, for example, more confidence in the reason behind an active plan (e.g., a healthcare intervention) than in presenting a research conclusion about that active plan because healthcare interventions ought to be supported by the conclusions of several studies. Each individual piece of research has to live up to one standard; implementation of a policy or intervention requires that several pieces of research all live up to that same standard.

One would reasonably want, for example, a higher standard of confidence before convicting an individual to loss of freedom or loss of life than convicting them to a financial penalty. This distinction is held in U.S. courts, where criminal cases are held to a standard of being beyond a reasonable doubt, but civil cases can be decided by the preponderance of evidence.  This legal distinction is the one that is of direct concern to the current event that interested me and my uncle.

Let’s talk generally about the situation: a man is accused of a crime. What standards of evidence do we want to apply to this man? Obviously, I’m going to argue that this is contextually sensitive.  If we are talking about getting a conviction in a criminal court, then the standard of judgement is clear: the guilt of the accused must be determined beyond a reasonable doubt.  On the principle that “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” (Blackstone’s formulation), we want to be absolutely certain that the accused is actually guilty.  It’s not enough to have a credible accuser and circumstantial evidence. The burden of proof is very high when we are speaking of meting out punishment.

If we were speaking of rendering a conviction of this man in a civil case, where the penalties are generally financial, a lower standard of proof would be required in U.S. courts—a  preponderance of evidence, which is could be interpreted as saying that guilt is more likely than innocence, even if there is significant doubt.

What about some other situations in which someone might render judgement on this man? What if the accused asks a person out on a date? What standard of confidence does that person need to apply? I would argue that she/he doesn’t need anything close to a preponderance of evidence. All a person needs to reject a potential suitor is the slightest reservation.

What about a business considering hiring the accused? What standard of judgement should that company apply?  There may be legal statutes that restrict businesses’ choices, but on the whole, businesses hiring individuals should should have some discretion to reject a candidate about whom they have doubts, even if there is less than a preponderance of evidence.  The situation is inverted because now the question is about presenting an award, not about meting out punishment. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it might be reasonable for a company to assume something like the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, but in reverse: the company might reasonably say “We will not hire the accused unless his innocence can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”  That’s pretty stringent, but a company is looking for the best performer, and if there is any reasonable doubt about a person’s guilt—even if there is a preponderance of evidence suggesting innocence—that might be a good reason to choose an alternate applicant.  

In that last phrase, I added a consideration that has not been previously mentioned, but that is certainly relevant in many situations.  Sometimes, the standard of judgement is not absolute, but is relative, and the focus is no longer on the individual accused but the organization that is looking for someone to fill a position. For a desirable job, there might be several applicants. In such a situation, the standard of judgement with respect to a person accused of a crime is reduced due to the presence of other job applicants: if the accused individual is no more qualified than some other person who is not accused of any crimes, a company might well decide to choose the person who has never been accused over the person who has been accused with no evidence beyond the accusation. The company might be very concerned to maintain the image of probity that is supported by choosing an applicant who has not been accused of any crime.

And if the job in question is a seat on the Supreme Court of the U.S., what standards should we apply? If there are a list of several candidates, amongst whom you are otherwise indifferent (Leonard Leo of the Federalist society said that the Federalist Society had a list of many potential candidates to fill the seat vacated by Justice Kennedy, and the “The list is really good…You can throw a dart at that list and in my view you would be fine.”), what standard needs to be applied to a candidate accused of a crime?  Can a candidate be rejected because of an unproven accusation? 

On the principles that I have discussed, the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard is not the appropriate standard. A candidate accused of a crime need not be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, as would be required for a criminal conviction. A candidate accused of a crime might reasonably be passed over even if the accusation is unfounded because, as noted before, the question is not of punishment but of reward, and because there are several equally qualified candidates who do not stand accused of a crime.

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. 

Writing a Book Proposal for a Publisher

Recently, having worked on and sent off some proposals for a book, I’ve been thinking about these issues a good deal. So when faced with someone else’s book proposal to review, I definitely had suggestions.

No book, of course, is guaranteed acceptance, especially not at your first-choice publisher or agent. But a better proposal is going to get a better response.  So what makes a “better” proposal?

From a simplistic but pragmatic perspective, a “better” proposal is one that gets accepted, but, of course, you don’t know what will get accepted when you’re writing the proposal. But you can think about why proposals get accepted or rejected. There could be any number of characteristics that shape the decision on whether to accept or reject a proposal. Quality and content are obviously important. But, to be accepted, what matters is not just the proposal itself, but who is evaluating it. Beyond quality and content are specific factors that are important to the reviewer. In particular, people in the publishing industry want to know if a book will sell and to whom it will sell. It’s perfectly possible to have an editor think “This is good work, but I don’t want to try to sell it to my marketing department,” or “This is good work, but it’s not going to sell well.”

Understanding the audience for your proposal makes it easier to understand what they want, and understanding what they want improves your ability to give them what they want.  And that’s of crucial importance when proposing a book.

Writers—whether fiction or non-fiction—have stories that they want to tell and ideas that they want to share. An academic might have a theory to propound; a novelist might want to tell an exciting story, or explore the depths of the human psyche/spirit, but whatever they are trying to convey—whether entertainment or education—is central to what they’re doing, and they implicitly hope to reach readers who are interested in those same things. A scholar concerned with scholarly theory will hope to reach other scholars who are concerned with the same theoretical questions.  A writer who wants to write a vampire adventure will hope to find readers who care about vampire stories.  Reaching those readers and convincing them to read (and buy!) your book depends on describing the content in an enticing way. A scholar looking at a scholarly tome asks whether the content is good (i.e., whether the research and reasoning are sound). A vampire fan looking for entertainment asks whether the story is entertaining and exciting. Potential buyers of your book care about its contents and quality.

But people in the publishing industry will look at things rather differently.  When you send a book proposal to an acquisitions editor at an academic publisher (for academics) or to an agent (for fiction writers), you’re not necessarily sending the book to someone who cares about its content. The acquisitions editor may not be intimately interested in your theory. The agent may not necessarily care about, e.g., vampire stories. But that may not matter. The people in the publishing industry are crucially interested in whether they can sell a book at a profit. They look at a proposal wondering whether it’s worth their time and energy.  Could that book sell? Could it be produced at reasonable cost? Is it worth it to review that proposal and read the excerpts? Is it worth it (for the academic publisher, at least) to send those materials out to some expert reviewers (which costs the publisher money)?

Agents want to sell books, so they have to believe that they can sell the book to a publisher.  An agent may enjoy vampire stories, or whatever you’re writing, but you don’t your proposal to focus solely on how enjoyable it will be to read your vampire book. An agent wants to know why people might buy your book. So it’s useful to compare your book to others, to explain why your might replace or complement others. An acquisitions editor may be interested in your theory and may have the education to evaluate its theoretical importance, but even so, they’re going to have to be able to convince a marketing department that people will buy it. 

What really matters in a book proposal, I think, is talking about who would buy it, and why they would buy it.  If your story is the best story about vampires ever written for five reasons that you can enumerate, still, what really matters to a publisher is the question of whether or not lots of people want to buy vampire books.  If your theory completely revises an area of study and is incredibly powerful and groundbreaking, that’s awesome. But you’ll have to convince the publisher that many people are interested in that area of study.  The quality of your theory may be less important than whether or not a lot of books on the subject are sold and used. Is it better to have the reviewer to say: “Great content! Two people a year will absolutely need this excellent book,” or “I’ve read better, but lots of people will buy it”?  

It’s worth noting that expectations vary widely: publishers of academic monographs will look on sales of a few thousand as a success, while publishers of textbooks will be looking to sell ten times that. Fiction publishers are hoping for million-sellers, though obviously they don’t expect that of every book. (I don’t have a great idea of the volume that small-scale fiction and non-fiction publishers sell or hope to sell.) 

Every publisher is taking a gamble on each book: they hope for a big seller, and endure the duds.  At some level, a book proposal’s purpose is nothing more than to convince the publisher’s representative that there is a decent chance of having a big seller and small chance of having a dud.  Those two conditions are dependent on the size of audience: who is going to buy the book? How likely are they to buy it? If there is a huge potential audience (e.g., fans of vampire fiction), then only a small portion of that audience need buy to justify a book’s costs of production. If there is a small potential audience (e.g., scholars interested in some esoteric theory), then a lot of those people need to buy to justify costs.  These concerns should be central to your book proposal.

I imagine that most writers find it easier to describe the content of their books than to describe the audience who will buy it or the market to which it will be sold. But if you’re writing a proposal for an editor or agent, sales potential for a given audience is what they really want to know.  If your proposal doesn’t tell them that, the chance that they will accept your proposal decreases.