By Thomas Basbøll, Rachel Cayley and Oliver March –
*Reprinted with permission from the LSE Impact Blog.
The act of writing and how it contributes to and shapes the practice of communicating research is a rich topic for consideration for scholars at every stage of the research process. Here the Impact of Social Sciences team have pulled together three reflections on writing that explore many aspects often taken-for-granted. Should thinking and writing be intentionally disconnected from each other? Or can the two be explored simultaneously in order to reach the ultimate goal of a reader-friendly version? Finally, how can scholars get beyond the ‘needless opaqueness’ of much academic writing and what structural forces are shaping such convoluted terminology?
Thomas Basbøll argues thinking is a way of coming to know something independent of experience and that there is great value in writing without revising your beliefs.
I suggest we think of our scholarly writing as the act of writing down what we know in coherent prose paragraphs, 27 minutes at a time. The claim that each paragraph makes should always be decided upon the day before, leaving only the writing of the supporting sentences for the 27-minute writing session (which you can have up to six of each day). A common objection to this is some version of “I don’t know what I think ’til I see what I say”; it is absurd, on this view, to ask anyone to decide the day before what they are going to write. How could they know? As Dyi put it on Twitter, do I imagine that people actually have “access to what [they] think”, so that it can be simply “transferred onto the page”?
Well, actually, yes, that is a presumption I make. I believe that you know something in advance—say, twelve hours in advance—of the writing, and that you can make a conscious decision about which item of your knowledge you are going to commit to the page tomorrow.
Obviously, it is possible to think a thought without writing about it. To show this, all I need to do is ask you to imagine opening a window, and then to communicate this idea in mime to someone else. Surely, whatever you come up with, and however competent your miming is, the “thought”—the idea of opening a window—is available to you without the aid of, specifically, writing (even “in the head”). What this tells us is simply that there is a difference between having a thought and expressing it, whether in writing or otherwise. Obviously, I could also ask you to write a coherent prose paragraph of about 150 words describing, in detail, the act of opening a window. But that act (of writing) stands in no closer relationship to the thought (or act) of opening a window than the mime’s actions. Now, you may be a great mime or less great mime. You may be a great writer or a not so good one. But you will only become better at either by imagining the relevant thought and then practicing the art of its presentation.
My view is that the idea that writing is inextricable from thinking is an affectation that undermines the efforts of writing instructors like me to identify the specific problem of writing, the literary problem of representing thought in prose. People who claim that they are not thinking about their area of expertise unless they are writing are saying something rather disturbing about their expertise. What are they doing when they are teaching? Or just conversing with peers? Or reading for that matter? What mental operations correspond to these things qua being knowledgeable people about a particular subject matter. Most importantly, how do they decide whether or not they have written an idea down clearly, or otherwise effectively. If their only access to their thinking is the evidence provided by their writing, how can they decide whether a particular paragraph fails to capture their meaning?
I’m willing to commit to the strong version of this thesis, by the way. I’m not just saying it is possible to think without writing. I’m saying that, as a scholar, it is absolutely necessary to spend a good deal of time writing without thinking, i.e., writing down what are already “finished thoughts”, rather than drawing on your writing skills to think those thoughts through for you. True: it is sometimes helpful to your thinking self to enlist the assistance of your authorial persona. But I’m not sure that’s always the real motive behind the mixing of thinking and writing. The truth is often that you’re trying to use the part of you that thinks to do your writing for you, which is unwise. You may as well be trying to open crates with a precision screwdriver, as Wittgenstein’s sister once said.
During exchanges on Twitter, Patrick Dunleavy and I hit on what I think is a pretty good initial gesture at a definition: thinking makes our contradictions visible. And here writing is obviously an excellent tool. It’s not for nothing that I trace my own philosophical tradition through Wittgenstein, who said that the problem of philosophy is “the civil status of a contradiction”, and back to Frege, who proposed to use “the two-dimensional surface of the page” to render thought “perspicuous”. But thinking is also a “mental” operation, perhaps best described in terms of the effect it has on our beliefs.
Thinking is a way of coming to know something independent of experience, i.e., working only with the beliefs we already possess. Thinking is the act of bringing our beliefs together in close proximity so that their consequences, taken together, can be assessed. I may believe A, B, and C, but not yet D, even though D is a logical consequences of A, B, and C. By thinking about it, I can deduce D, and add this to my beliefs. Now, if A, B, C are also all true, which is to say, things I actually “know”, then I can add D to my knowledge. But I may think a little further on it, and discover that D actually implies not-E, though E, I realize, is something I also happen to believe. Here we have a contradiction, something I must think about, and until I realize that A, which was essential to my belief in D, is actually not as true as I thought, the contradiction is unresolved. I don’t know what to think.
Now, my point is that there is value in simply writing down why you believe D (i.e., because A, B, C), in a 27-minute paragraph-writing session during which you have resolved not to think so hard that you might compare D to E. I’m not saying you should never get to the point where you realize that D contradicts E, and that D therefore has to go, which in turn forces you to discover the empirical falsity of A. I’m just saying that those 27 minutes are well spent, learning how to say A, B, C and D, and explaining how they go together, even if you ultimately (i.e., long after the 27 minutes are over) reject the paragraph that says D, i.e., for which D is the key sentence and A, B, C constitute the support. Writing that paragraph didn’t just show you what you thought (though it did that too) it gave you an opportunity to be a better writer. More specifically, it made you a better academic writer, because academic writing is all about being able to represent things you believe to be true. And at the time of writing, before you began to think about how E figures into all of this, you did actually believe D.
What I’m saying, then, is that it is good for you as a writer to spend at least half an hour and at most three hours every day writing without revising your beliefs, i.e., without “thinking” in the sense I’ve just suggested. It’s no more radical a proposal than suggesting that you refrain from doing field work, or conducting interviews, or analyzing survey questionnaires, or, of course, reading, while writing. All of those activities are likely to revise your beliefs and the author you are should be given a few moments’ “peace of mind”, let’s say, just to try to craft an accurate representation of what you actually think. I say this knowing full well that there are people who will insist there is just as essential a connection between their reading and their writing, or their analysis and their writing. Don’t get me started!
Rachael Cayley finds that writing, thinking and revision are inextricably bound processes that facilitate the eventual internal coherence of a piece of writing.
Pretty much the first thing I ever wrote on my personal blog was that we should use writing to clarify our thinking. Since this precept is central to how I think about—and thus teach—writing, I try to remain open to opposing viewpoints. To best serve the graduate student audience that I’m aiming at, I believe that I have to create a space that is both opinionated (since nobody needs more anodyne advice about writing) and relativist (since nobody needs more advice that assumes everyone to be the same sort of writer). Creating that space requires taking stands while resisting dogmatism. So while I’m deeply committed to the benefits of exploratory writing, I’m also deeply interested in the claim that this approach is wrong and thus hazardous to good writing.
Thomas Basbøll’s focus on writing as representation of thought suggests three stages of composition: thinking; writing down those thoughts; and lastly evaluating the writing on the basis of its fidelity to the earlier thinking. My disagreement with this position is practical, philosophical, and pragmatic. At a practical level, I worry that novice academic writers will be hamstrung by the need to engage in sophisticated conceptual thought without the aid of concrete expression. It is certainly my experience that postponing writing until the underlying ideas become clear is a disastrous strategy for a lot of novice writers. At a philosophical level, I just don’t accept thought as capable of acting as the sort of referent for writing that Thomas suggests. Finally, at a pragmatic level, I’m not sure that anything is lost if we don’t evaluate our writing for its sound representation of earlier thought. For the reader, the beauty of a piece of academic writing comes from its internal coherence, not its ability to instantiate the writer’s intentions.
My stark disagreement with this approach to academic writing raises the obvious possibility that I’m doing it all wrong. Writing this, I was reminded of the very first line of Winnie-the-Pooh, where we’re introduced to him as he’s being dragged down the stairs on his head: “It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.” Maybe that’s me. Certainly my commitment to the coextensive nature of writing and thinking doesn’t mean that I sail through the writing process feeling as if I’m doing it all right. Instead, as I sort through the mess that I make with my exploratory writing, I often wish that writing was more like recording and less like thinking.
Given my own writing struggles, it seems wise to consider a view that is so contrary to my own that it would otherwise get little airtime in this space. Ultimately, I am convinced that I can’t engage in the sort of linear sophisticated thinking that I need to do except on paper. Indeed, I began writing this post precisely because I wanted to figure out what I thought about Thomas’s post. In this particular case, I delayed writing longer than usual as an experiment in trying to think without putting pen to paper. But I couldn’t manage it, so I resorted to writing a quick draft of this post. I generally find that initial writing exhilarating; my doubts come because there is so much revising to be done to corral these insights and make them reader friendly. But the frustrating nature of the revision process isn’t enough to convince me that I would be able to do things any other way. And I’m anecdotally convinced that many of the students I work with wouldn’t either.
Our goal as academic writers must be to write as easily as possible; there is no inherent virtue in suffering more than is necessary to create the best possible text. I focus so much on the difficulties because I genuinely believe them to be inevitable and because I believe that those difficulties may be eased if we acknowledge them. Acknowledgement helps, not because misery loves company but because struggles are easier when we know that they have an objective basis. There’s nothing worse than struggling and believing that we are doing so only because of our own deficiencies. But that doesn’t mean we should fetishize those struggles or turn our back on effective ways out. I’d love to hear what others think. Am I doing a disservice to thought by focusing so much on writing? Does writing actually suffer for not having a coherent referent? Or can we actually only find coherence within the text itself through our revision process?
This is an extract of a piece which originally appeared on Explorations of Style and is reposted with permission.
Oliver Marsh draws inspiration from Michael Billig, author of Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences, on ditching the long words and concept jigsaws rife in the social sciences.
Richard P. Feynman had a habit of being right about science. Mostly physical science, but occasionally biological science, or computer science. And even, it transpires, social science:
There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read – something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damn thing, and my eyes were coming out: I couldn’t make head nor tail of it! I figured it was because I hadn’t read any of the books on that list. I have this uneasy feeling of “I’m not adequate,” until finally I said to myself, “I’m gonna stop, and read one sentence slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means.”
So I stopped – at random – and read the next sentence very carefully. I can’t remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: “The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.” I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? “People read”.
This has been a guide for me ever since I made the leap from physics to social sciences, in conjunction with his more famous first rule of science, “you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”. Together they provide two essential Thou Shalt Nots for the social scientist. But sometimes – indeed, a worrying proportion of the time – I wish more social scientists had read this short passage. But now it’s become a mere appetiser for a somewhat less pithy, but equally essential, reading – a wonderful book with the excellently severe title Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences by Michael Billig.
Billig’s book has other points to recommend besides an awesome title. In fact, it’s a great lesson in multitasking. Firstly, it provides an extensive study of the way social scientists, as a group, write. Billig notes an overwhelming tendency to turn verbs into long noun phrases (usually ending in –ism or –ization) and acronyms. So instead of saying ‘social scientists are using noun phrases’, many would instead write ‘nominalization has occurred’. The problems with this are fairly obvious. Problem one is that it looks ‘academic’ and ‘authoritative’ – or, as those of us keen on public engagement with academia would say, ‘offputting’ and ‘needlessly opaque’ and ‘stop it’. But beyond public engagement (which Billig expressly states isn’t His Thing) this needless opaqueness is still a problem, even for people who are professionally good at dealing with long words.
This is apparent in the second and third problems. The second problem is that replacing verbs with nouns has the effect of replacing descriptions of actual-people-doing-actual-things with theoretical concepts. The cumulative effect of this is to produce, in Billig’s wonderful words, “concept jigsaws” rather than well-evidenced accounts of people living in social worlds. Thirdly, if you trace these highfalutin noun phrases back through a lifetime of citations, you find they have a habit of mutating in meaning. Somewhat unsurprisingly this causes a wee bit of confusion, as different authors unwittingly use one specific word to mean a great variety of things. And no, it turns out that the old trope of ‘defining your terms’ doesn’t stop this – people just end up slowly but surely wandering away from them, whistling nonchalantly as they leave your wonderfully precise description discarded behind them.
Now, some might respond by claiming that these noun-phrases and acronyms are essential tools for efficiently conveying information. The point of these long words is to encode a sentence (or more) worth of information, which is why we write ‘Longwordism is [insert sentence here]’. And if you acronymise a collection of long words, you can have lots of these sentences in a few letters. BONUS. But hold fire for a second there. Even if these long words are conveying information efficiently, amidst all the theoretical jigsaws and mutating meanings they aren’t necessarily conveying it accurately, usefully, or even intelligibly. And even the prosaic ‘oh well at least they’re reducing my word count’ doesn’t hold up either. As Billig notes, if academics were really trying to save space they’d produce acronyms for commonly used phrases like MRIN (‘More Research Is Needed’) or IMCTWT (‘It’s More Complicated Than We Thought’) or SRMWSFLP (‘Someone Remind Me What Sunlight Feels Like Please’).
So why why why do social scientists do all this stuff? Billig to the rescue again. The third, and arguably most interesting, purpose of the book is as a sociology of social scientists. He argues that these writing tropes are symptomatic of other stuff going on in the lives of social scientists today. In particular, it’s down to the hefty competition, CV-building, and self-marketing required in modern academic life. Distinctive noun-phrases and acronyms give you a personal product to market, and a banner for your followers to explicitly align themselves to. There’s also an educational element to it. Undergraduate students can’t just show they’re generally clever, they have to show they were actually listening to the lectures by using the same clever terms. Postgraduate students who are moving into research have to find an ‘approach’ or ‘school’ to align themselves with – by, you guessed it, using the correct terms. And let’s not even think about peer review (that’s a phrase I wish I could say far more frequently). As sociologists like to say, there are ‘structural factors’ at work, not just disconnected examples of bad writing. Which is why Billig downplays the writing-manual side of his book. ‘Cos it ain’t all as simple as everyone learning to write a bit better.
So that, in a rather rapid and reduced nutshell, is Billig’s book. Actually there’s a fourth aspect, but that comes more from my reading than Billig’s writing. It’s also a great lesson in practising what you preach. Because I do have one issue with the book: by suggesting social scientists should use verby language to focus very heavily on actual-people-doing-actual-things, I worry he cuts too deep and makes social science into very detailed description of very particular situations with little cross-comparing, broader theorization, or the like. But then again Billig manages to simultaneously follow his own writing advice – and the book is a superbly good read as a result – but also produce a compelling and broad picture of modern academic life. I’m still not quite sure how he does it. But I’m well jealous. Though still a little unsure.
Anyway. To end, I’d like to extend Billig’s argument into slightly different territories. And, following my own ‘structural factor’ of having just got back from the pub, this is going to take the form of slight rant. I agree that clarity of writing does matter, and I get fed up with canonical authors who ‘you just have to re-read a couple of times’ (yes pre-1980s Michel Foucault I am looking at you). But terminology is not just a matter of making sure people get your ideas. As Feynman said, it’s also a matter of sticking your neck out and holding the possibility that you’ve ‘fooled yourself’ up for examination. And in the social sciences we do sometimes fool ourselves. Playing with concept jigsaws is worryingly fun, and when all the pieces fit neatly together the thrill of clever phrasing is easy to mistake for the thrill of discovery. And social science shouldn’t just be about the enjoyment of showing off. That’s one reason blogging and other public engagement stuff is extremely useful – it forces you to strip away terminology and, sometimes, realize you’re actually just stating the bleedin’ obvious. As Feynman noted, ‘people read’ is not actually a scientific discovery.
But the effect of terminology goes beyond lack of comprehension. Terminology conveys an impression. For those already disengaged from the social sciences, bad and unexplained terminology just confirms that we’re nothing but pretentious ivory-tower wordsmiths. And for those engaged with the social sciences, it suggests that long and authoritative words are a Good Thing. I’m particularly thinking of ‘the left-wing’, a faction that sociology has a long history of (often very productive) links with. Emotionally and spiritually and other abstract-things-ily I am very much in that camp. But I find it sadly hard to intellectually associate myself with a rhetoric that frequently bandies around terms like ‘marketisation’. Yeah sure, we know what markets are and we can get vague idea what that means. But who is doing what to who and where and what can we do to stop it? And I don’t think trying to define the term ‘marketisation’ will work either. Neither will creating completely new radical terms that get away from everyday meaning (yet another topic discussed by Billig, the utter machine that he is), as that would just create a very strong in-the-know / not-in-the-know language barrier. But most importantly, think of the impression it conveys. Recall Billig’s argument that noun phrases make it look like theoretical concepts, rather than people, do things; it’s kinda similar to the idea that overarching forces of evil and capitalism (perhaps embodied in a shadowy worldwide cabal) do the bad things in the world. It’s the sort of rhetoric that, accidentally or not, sounds a bit crazy-conspiracy-theory; the sort of rhetoric that, in a previous life, put me right off left-wing politics until I fortunately ended up working with a group of friendly socialists who convinced me otherwise. It was a lucky and very effective lesson. I can’t remember exactly how they did it, but I bet they used some verbs.
Basically, what is needed is the diffusion of Billigization across a spatially-extreme but temporally-contracted landscape in a multi- inter- intra- and trans-disciplinary actualization, with concomitant socio-political decontextualisation and recontextualisation. Is that really too much to ask?
This is an extract of a piece which originally appeared on Oliver Marsh’s blog and is reposted with permission.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
Thomas Basbøll is an independent writing coach working in Copenhagen, Denmark. He maintains the blog Research as a Second Language (secondlanguage.blogspot.com), and is the owner of the consulting firm Thomas Basbøll, Philosophical Investigations (basboell.com)
Rachael Cayley is a Senior Lecturer in the Office of English Language and Writing Support in the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto. She teaches academic writing and speaking to graduate students. Before joining the University of Toronto, she worked as an editor at Oxford University Press in Toronto. She has a PhD in philosophy from the New School for Social Research and a BA in political science from the University of British Columbia. Rachael has a blog on academic writing for graduate students, Explorations of Style (www.explorationsofstyle.com).
Oliver Marsh is a PhD Researcher at the Science and Technology Studies Department, University College London, studying science engagement in online social media. Previously he studied an MSc in history of science at Cambridge, where he began an ongoing project on the role of personal mythology in the work of Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman. He recently appeared on BBC1’s ‘The Big Questions‘ debating the role of faith in science, performs stand-up comedy with ScienceShowoff and Bright Club, and administers the London ESRC student blog. Tweets as @SidewaysScience and blogs at SidewaysLookAtScience.