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.”