Monday, December 08, 2014

Writing for Publication vs. Writing as Inquiry

A recent comment to an older post asks a question I get very often and I think the answer is worth a post of its own. In "What to Do", I suggest a series of activities to keep you busy for 27-minutes, working on a single paragraph that says one well-defined thing (offering support for it or an elaboration of it). In the comments, Fides writes:

There's a big assumption in this - that you already know *exactly* what you know and what you want to say. Maybe in scientific disciplines that is the case... but that's not generalisable to *all* academic disciplines, in my experience. See for example Daniel Doherty's "writing as inquiry" - writing can also be a process of clarification. Your guidelines seem to assume that that process has already taken place - correct me if I'm wrong.

What Fides says is both entirely correct and a misunderstanding (a very common one, like I say) of what I'm suggesting. There is, of course, a kind of writing that constitutes inquiry. Scholars often find out what they really think about a subject by sitting down to write about it. Sometimes scholars conduct such inquiry very intentionally; they sit down with only a vague idea of what they're going to say and start "free writing" whatever comes into their head.

In addition to that kind of writing, however, there is a kind of writing that consists simply in writing down what you know. To practice (in both senses)* this kind of writing, you don't need to know exactly what you know, nor even exactly what you want to say, you just have to decide what you want to try for twenty-seven minutes to say in a single paragraph. I'm not saying there aren't any other kinds of writing. I'm drawing attention to a kind of writing that is, all too often, neglected, and which many writers would do well to work at a bit more deliberately. It is true that this kind of writing depends on the truth of the (second) assumption Fides asks about: that a "process [of clarification] has already taken place". But please grant that most of the knowledge you have has already passed through this process. Please grant that you are in possession of a great many justified, true beliefs in your area of expertise that are clear enough to you to write a single deliberate paragraph about if given twenty-seven minutes. It's the the ability to write those paragraphs, not the inquiry that provides their content, that I'm talking about.

Now, sometimes the line between "writing for publication" and "writing as inquiry" is blurred. Notice, however, that it can be blurred either intentionally or in the act. Sometimes, we sit down to free write and are surprised by how easily we end up producing perfectly publishable prose. Here, I would argue that we merely become aware that the "process of clarification" has already happened, even if we somehow missed it. (It may have happened while we slept, or during a conversation the importance of which we hadn't noticed until now.) Sometimes, we sit down to work on an article and are frustrated by how difficult it is to say what we thought we had already understood. Here the process of clarification had been assumed, but mistakenly so, and we will have to go back and do some more thinking, reading, talking, etc. In both cases, however, we have a definite intention that defines what kind of writing we're trying to do. And we simply find ourselves doing a different kind of writing, by accident. The trick is to minimise the frequency of this sort of event. Don't valorise it as what all writing is all about.

Writing shouldn't always be an unpredictable adventure into the unknown. It will, unpredictably, be this some of the time; but [to the extent that this happens] your writing process and research process [become] just that: unpredictable. By conflating "writing as inquiry" with "writing for publication" you are likely to undermine both processes. You are trying to accomplish with a file what should be done with a saw, or vice versa. This is true in all areas of inquiry. There is no academic discipline in which all writing is always also inquiry, though there are many scholars who have been made unhappy by thinking so.

___________
*I.e., in the both in sense of doing it in a regular, orderly fashion, and in the sense of doing it for sake of improving your ability to do it.

4 comments:

randallwestgren.net said...

This is a useful distinction that will become part of my next graduate course syllabus, as I see fledgling scholars who need the practice of writing as inquiry well before they have codified knowledge for writing as publication. I also have a name for my current writing project, which attempts to knit together a research team with wildly disparate training in economics and management. What I thought was going to result in nothing more than a Rosetta stone is evolving in a process of inquiry. It is also clear that, within this group, writing gets us – jointly and severally - much further toward shared knowledge than our lengthy verbal exchanges.

Thomas said...

Glad to be of help. Just a quick point of clarification: even when the focus is on inquiry in a given project, writers will have a great deal of knowledge and it's worth the daily effort to write a paragraph about something you do know, if only to keep in shape. This will be what I consider "writing for publication" even if it's not seriously intended for submission any time soon. We're talking about two modes or attitudes or postures.

randallwestgren.net said...

Your comment introduces a different form of subtlety. I find the distinction between writing for inquiry and for publication to be clear. But I did not think about some portion of the writing necessarily being "for publication" as a form of training: "keeping in shape". So, at the risk of exposing myself as obtuse, I would like more clarification. Should the training paragraph(s) that I write during an inquiry project be (a) what I know interior to the inquiry subject or not, and (b) written in the midst of the other or separated in time? That is, given that these are two modes or postures, how much distinction should be "forced" into the process?

Thomas said...

My standard line on this is to say that only the paragraphs written in the "for publication" mode need to be deliberately set off in time. Some of the authors I work with do experiment with an application of the method to other activities, like reading, for example, or free writing, or even just sitting there thinking. ("Applying the method" just means deciding what you're going to do the day before and then doing exactly that the next day at an exact time.)

But for me, like I say, you only need to impose or "force" structure onto the process of writing down what you know one paragraph at a time. It's this process that, I find, people don't do deliberately enough, and they would be happier if they devoted between one half and three hours a day to it.

It's not important (at a basic level) whether you are writing inside or outside the inquiry subject of a current project. Just as long as you're writing something you know. You should experiment with this. For some people it's distracting to write for publication and as inquiry on the same subject on the same day. For others, the opposite is true: they find they can't just shift their focus like that.