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I probably should not write this post

January 17, 2014

Although Alan Jacobs has much useful advice on how to develop as a thinker (see here, here, here, here and here), he goes a bit too far in criticizing writers who don’t spend enough time fleshing out their ideas. Consider these sections from the first and fourth links:

What good does it do — for you or the world — if you are clever and efficient in communicating thoughts that are carelessly arrived at, or ill-formed and incompletely worked through, or utterly unimaginative repetitions of what people in your would-be peer group have already said?

I also noted that the same article on codex-reading vs. e-reading gets written over and over and over again, with the authors rarely showing any awareness that others have quite thoroughly covered their chosen theme…one of the most reliable ways to sharpen your own thinking is to find out what other smart people have thought and said about the things you’re interested in — that is, to take the time to read.

Three thoughts came to mind as I read these posts. First, Alan neglects the feedback from writing to thinking, and how putting your thoughts down on paper helps you think. Sure reading deeply helps me develop ideas. But just as often, I clarify and refine my thoughts as I write them down. The links between reading, writing and idea generation aren’t as straightforward as Alan implies. It’s not that reading and thinking leads to a great idea that I then write about. They are all happening at the same time, and they’re all important.

Second, a lot of his advice is geared to people who write for a living. I, on the other hand, struggle to find time to write. Alan undervalues how much I gain and learn even when I produce “utterly unimaginative repetitions.” I like to think I get a little better each time I write. But since reading and thinking is so much easier, I do those tasks much, much more. So in my case at least, a blanket injunction to write–even if it’s unoriginal and not that interesting–would help me more than he realizes. At this stage of my writing non-career, I suspect there is a large marginal benefit to writing as much as I can. Especially since I often don’t have much free time, I grasp what I can and accept my writing may simply not be that good.

Let’s look at this week. At our annual company meeting, we were booked in meetings and team events all day and every night. I can zone out and read or think during the meetings (and I did much of that). But I definitely cannot write. Right here at the airport is the first time I had all week to sit down and get something written. (As an aside, my schedule is one reason I actually love learning about the “writerly-tips-and-tricks genre” that Alan is so dismissive of. Sure what works for Alan may not work for me. But then again, it just might! We won’t know unless Alan tells me his secrets.)

Finally, I think originality is a tad bit overrated. As long as you’re not directly copying, there’s virtue in hearing the same idea from a slightly different angle that maybe uses a slightly different analogy and emphasizes slightly different aspects of the topic. I don’t know if anyone really understands how cognitive change and learning occurs. But I suspect repetition is part of it. Even if it doesn’t help the individual writer, I wonder if on a meta-level everyone benefits if some ideas are just beaten to death. At the very least, these ideas will become more prominent.

And besides, there’s a good chance that what you’re writing is original for your readers. The codex vs e-reading example is actually quite perfect. As mundane and unoriginal the idea may be, I actually hadn’t heard of it before. Other than Alan, I don’t follow anyone who discusses these topics and so I’m very happy he raised the issue.

Personally, I would be ecstatic if more talented and competent writers than me started repeating some of my ideas. I would love if more people realized there’s more to evolution, creationism, and creationists than the typical narrative. So if there are any writers reading this, please feel free to unimaginatively repeat anything I’ve written. For your sake, however, you probably want to rewrite it first.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Victor permalink
    January 18, 2014 3:05 am

    Lots to munch on here. Jacobs has some good stuff. I appreciate your post, your countering or, I might say complementary, points, and the sharing of your personal writing experience. It is a well-written post.

  2. lehasb permalink
    January 24, 2014 7:49 pm

    “Second, a lot of his advice is geared to people who write for a living. … At this stage of my writing non-career, I suspect there is a large marginal benefit to writing as much as I can.”

    Two thoughts:
    1. I think you are right that he is talking primarily about people who write for a living, which makes his point not that all repetitive writing is bad, but that published writers who make a living off of it need to have good ideas as well as good writing technique. My guess is that Jacobs would agree that writing large amounts helps with the technical skills of writing and can help organize ideas. He just doesn’t think that all such writing is worthy of being published, and especially that professional writers should assume that everything they write is good.
    2. One of his main arguments is that the ideas behind the writing are just as or more important than the stylistic ability. That is one area where you are clearly not in the camp of writers he is talking about. If anyone else is making the same arguments about scientific knowledge and intelligence that you are, I certainly have not found them yet.

    • January 24, 2014 10:48 pm

      Thanks a lot for your comment. I really appreciate it. I agree I may have missed Jacob’s point a bit. I probably should have read and thought about it more before writing! I wonder if the dynamic Jacobs observes is similar to the ‘publish or perish’ we see in academia. I wonder how many writers would like to read and think more, but have no choice if they are to survive. In grad school, my labmates and I discussed a similar phenomena…where scientists often feel the need to churn out papers even if they weren’t always significant or worthwhile.

      Also thanks for your comment about my ideas. I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time. Look forward to engaging again in the future.

      • lehasb permalink
        January 26, 2014 8:35 am

        “I wonder if the dynamic Jacobs observes is similar to the ‘publish or perish’ we see in academia. I wonder how many writers would like to read and think more, but have no choice if they are to survive. In grad school, my labmates and I discussed a similar phenomena…where scientists often feel the need to churn out papers even if they weren’t always significant or worthwhile.”

        I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a link to articles on that subject in his Twitter or Pinboard sometime in the past few months. I am not in academia, but from what I’ve heard the issue also crops up in the humanities with young professors being pressured to publish books or papers in order to get tenure, so while Jacobs was referring to a specific subject in those posts, I think he’s seeing it as part of an overall trend.

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