Thursday, December 03, 2015

Against "Preparation"

"The readiness is all."

I was recently asked by a reader of this blog whether I had any suggestions about how to "prepare" for writing. He said he had found the 27-minute key-sentence approach useful, but wanted some advice about how to set up the writing task. I'm happy to oblige.

I've written a little about preparation before, sometimes in the context of "where" you think your knowledge resides before being written down. But these days, I should say, I usually say there is no such thing as "preparation" for writing. There is research and there is planning, but there's no need to prepare your writing session beyond deciding when to write and where to write. These decisions have to be made wisely, but can be made quite swiftly. Choose something you know well to write about. Choose a place where you will not be disturbed.

Can it really be so easy? Before I answer that, please notice that I'm not here denying the difficulty but locating it. Research is hard. And writing is also hard. Your efforts should be concentrated directly on those difficulties most of the time. The (relatively) easy part is deciding whether you are going to be doing research or writing. By creating a third problem, namely, "preparation", you are actually opening the whole space in which things like "writer's block" can thrive. Just don't do that and you'll be fine.

So, my advice is to reduce the problem of preparation to the problem of making a decision, and then to sort the remainder under "research". If you need preparation to write, you really just need to do more research, to gain more knowledge. And it is knowledge proper when you are able to quickly and easily identify it by way of a key sentence, which can then serve as the focus of a paragraph that you can write in 27-minutes.

That does, of course, make certain demands of your research (i.e., your "knowledge formation") process. Your research has to result in, roughly speaking, paragraph-sized claims about the world. You have to make up your mind about things that can be expressed in at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. If you're writing such paragraphs in a regular disciplined way, and always deciding on what to write the day before, you will develop habits of mind that make such well-formed beliefs more likely. Your knowledge will be "ready" for writing, if you will, even as you are acquiring it. You'll be preparing your beliefs for their expression in prose. Indeed, it is my view that academic beliefs should, by definition, be prepared to be expressed in prose. If they don't play well in prose they aren't very good academic beliefs.

The trick, I've found, when deciding what to write tomorrow, is not to choose something you only recently discovered. Certainly not something you discovered today. Let the discovery settle into the apparatus of your prose a little before demanding it express itself in writing. To ensure this, try only writing tomorrow about something you knew before the weekend at the earliest. At the end of the day, then, spend five or ten minutes choosing between one and six things to write individual paragraphs about tomorrow. And make sure that each choice is marked by a clear, simple, declarative sentence. Then sit down tomorrow and write a paragraph to support each sentence. It's your whole mind that is prepared for this task now.


Presskorn said...

HighedEd provides news of interest at RSL: "New study suggests that when it comes to writing assignments and instruction, quality -- not quantity -- matters most." ...

Wow, quantitative data shows that quality is indeed important!... As Richter rightly comments: "...the report provides weak evidence that the bleeding obvious is indeed true."

PS: I've alerted Richter to your writings on the topic of "evidence based writing instruction"...

Thomas said...

Thanks for this. I like Duncan Richter! "I need to go outside and see more birds." Me too.

There's a good explanation for the caricature of the Arum and Roksa result that "more writing" correlates with improved thinking. (The article notes, rightly, that they "never asserted that more writing alone is most effective.") If we want to know why, statistically, teaching programs that assign a lot of group work generally make students dumber and those that assign a lot of writing make them smarter, we have to recognize that that it's generally easier to "craft" a smart writing task than to craft a smart group task. At the extremes: if you tell the students in one cohort just "write about this week's reading" and the students in another cohort just "talk in groups about this week's reading", then the students who've been given the most thoughtless writing task imaginable will get more out of it than those who've been given the most thoughtless imaginable group task. If you add to this "just grading" the result, i.e., giving them a grade for their performance (of "just writing" or "just talking") it seems obvious that the grade for writing will be more informative and foster better learning.

In any case, I'm adamant that my approach is not "just" that you should write "every day". You should write at least one thing you know in a coherent prose paragraph during a predetermined amount of minutes. This task is "smart" and will make you smarter.

Thanks again for bringing Richter to my attention. I'll turn this comment into a post about his.