Thursday, January 31, 2008

Prickly People and your Project

Today I had a client all excited about her recent epiphany about the shape of her dissertation "Suddenly I know where everything is supposed to go," she told me.
"But," she worried, "what is my advisor going to say?"

We all have to worry about the responses we get from our readers. And, after all, we are writing to please our readers--whoever they may be.

It's worse, however, to worry about a professor who holds power over whether you get your degree. It's one thing if some random reader has an irrational response to your dissertation--if, for example, they blow it off because it doesn't completely agree with everything that you have said. But if your advisor rejects it for some irrational reason, that's quite another problem altogether.

We need to learn to divorce ourselves from the irrational criticism we get. If our professor reads our paper and tells us we're not good enough, we need to be able to separate ourselves from that critique--because accepting it doesn't get us anywhere, except maybe out of the program and out of academia.

If we want to persevere, we need to learn to play the personal and political angles of the people we're working with. What is it that the advisor wants? What is it that s/he is complaining about? Are they upset that you're not making enough progress? Are they upset because you don't agree with them, or are not adopting their new pet theory? Are they upset because their spouse left them or because their dog ate their computer (dogs no longer have such a good opportunity to eat homework, now that it's on the computer)?

What can you do to manage the people you're working with as people? Can you get farther by listening to and showing understanding of their critique without accepting it? Can you engage them in an academic discussion about the reason they want you to make certain changes?

Ultimately, you want to remove the personal element from the interaction as much as possible, at least when the personal interaction is strained. (For reasons that should be obvious, you don't necessarily want to remove the personal element, if the relationship is positive.) When faced with personal criticism, what can you do to help get the discussion back on to an academic plane?

I have no easy answer, sadly. Each person is different. But, for one, if you can control your emotions and think dispassionately about the situation, you can make a better plan.
It always helps, I think, to frame any response to difficult criticism in terms of the academic merits of the situation.
It also helps to try to open yourself to their reasoning: "I can't quite understand your objection here, could you clarify? " or "OK, so let's say I change that part, as you suggest, I'm not sure how that will work with this other part. Can you help me work this out?" People like to have their opinion solicited; and they like even better to have their ideas approved of. And if you can't accept, can you at least approve? "That's a great idea you have, and it might help with this concern that I had, but I also am concerned about meshing your idea with this part of my discussion here--what would you suggest?"

In worst-case scenarios, it might be best to try to find a different person to work with, but if you can work things out with the person who is causing problems that is often a simpler road than starting again with someone new.

Above all, when you get negative criticism about your work, don't take it as a personal attack (even if it is). Instead try to reframe your response (your emotional response) in terms of how the critique bears on your work, and on what might be causing that other person to be acting in a difficult way.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Responsibility and guilt

Sometimes things don't go as we planned. Sometimes we make mistakes.
But there are different ways of responding to these situations.

When I was a kid I remember being told "there's no use crying over spilled milk." This principle is at the heart of what I'm interested in here. What do we do to respond to these situations?

One thing we can do, of course, is beat ourselves up over the mistake. This is the crying over spilled milk. But if you have just spilled milk, crying doesn't clean up the spill; taking action does.

When we have erred in some way--for example we didn't get work done that we intended--or we are told we erred in some way--for example, a reader gives back our work with significant negative commentary--we have a situation that we want fixed. We want to clean up the mess; we want to get the work done; we want to get better feedback.

Guilt doesn't accomplish these things. Whether you are guilty, or whether you believe someone else is, looking for guilt and focusing on identifying the guilty party does not resolve the situation at hand. Often we want to find the guilty party and have that person remedy the situation--that makes sense--that's a course of action to fix things. But often we look for the guilty party for the sake of punishment--even when we are the guilty party. And what good does that do?

Therein, I think, lies a primary difference between being responsible and being guilty. When one is responsible, one takes action to remedy errors; when one is guilty, one may look for courses of punishment.

There are those who believe that guilt requires punishment--it's a principle built into most legal systems. Is that principle also applicable to our lives when we're working on a project?

When we have a project that isn't going as well as we hoped, we have a choice between being responsible and being guilty. Which choice is more likely to help you get the project finished?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Embracing criticism

Recently I was told "I'm just stuck and am so fearful of criticism that dragged this out much longer than it needed." This is, I think, one of the paradigmatic problems for dissertation writers, or writers of any sort, for that matter. As long as we remain stuck, we're safe from having our work criticized. Of course, we may open ourselves to the criticism that we're not productive, but that's another story.

Criticism can be a challenge to hear, and a challenge to accept. We put our hearts into our efforts and then to have those efforts criticized can be very painful. I know that I have struggled to accept criticism--often it makes me defensive or angry or both and more. It doesn't feel good.

But it can be useful to think, for a moment, about the motives of those who offer criticism.
Yes, of course, there are those whose motives are negative, who wish to drag you down, who gain pleasure and a sense of power from insulting another.
There are also those who really want to help you. An obvious, extreme example would be telling a friend that he/she is an alcoholic. It's certainly critical to tell a person that they have become pathological in some way. But what is the motivation behind it? A family member, it might be imagined, might tell another that they have a problem because the problem impacts their life in a regular and devastating way. But a friend who has the distance of living in another home with another family? What is the motivation? Quite simply, there are times when we all could profit from criticism, and the person who delivers that criticism, unwelcome though the experience might be, is ultimately looking out for our own good and is trying to help.

In the world of academia if someone gives you detailed criticism, it's usually because they are interested in your work and interested in making it stronger. When your faculty readers criticize your work, it is almost certainly because they want to help you finish your project. Sure, of course there are professors who are mean and petty and get a thrill from insulting others, but most professors are not that way. Most professors really want to help people learn.

There's a parallel in the world of publishing--if you submit a work and you get criticism that is more detailed than a flat rejection, it means that the person who made the criticism is actually interested in your work and believes that it has potential.

So the criticism you receive is often with the desire to help. This doesn't necessarily make it feel good to receive the criticism, but if you can keep thinking about the motivation of the critic, it can often help.

If we can embrace the criticism, if we can open our eyes to the issue being presented, we can learn about our written work and learn how others are responding to it. This helps us understand if we are going to get a reaction that we want from a wider audience, and it can help us see how to revise our work so that we do get the response that we want.

Half the battle with many things, including criticism, is to fight down the fear of what might be so that we can open ourselves to the real possibilities that might arise. By telling ourselves that we fear criticism, by telling ourselves that criticism is bad can set up an emotional state in which receiving criticism is even more difficult.
By contrast, if we can tell ourselves to embrace criticism, and if we can tell ourselves that criticism will provide an educational opportunity, we can set up an emotional state where the criticism is not nearly as painful, nor as difficult. As in so many other things, if we can embrace the difficulty, then we have a great opportunity to grow and learn and, ultimately, to be more successful and more happy with ourselves and our lives.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Adding up incremental change

Following up on my past few days of talking about how one must push forward--even a little bit--on days when things aren't going well, when there seems to be no progress and when there seems to be no inspiration, I want to talk a little about perceptions of incremental change.

The analogy that pops into mind is growing up. As a child, of course, we grow rapidly; my friend was saying that his son grows something like a quarter of an inch each month. But as a child, we don't feel the impact of that change because it is incremental: each day we're slightly bigger. Even to a close outside observer the change isn't immediately obvious: if we see the change every day, we don't notice how those changes add up. But what happens if we don't see a child for a year or two? Obviously that child is much larger than before: the change is obvious and striking.

The same is true in our lives for many other things. Especially our writing progress. Especially our writing process when we're struggling through a rough patch. If we can stick with it, day to day, committing ourselves to do at least a little work each day, that little bit of work can really add up. It can add up in obvious ways--for example if we write 400 words each day (which takes an hour or less, depending on your writing ability), we have a book in half a year (yes, half a year is a long time, but that's my point). It can also add up in less obvious ways: it can impact how we think about the project and how we think about writing: by getting used to working regularly, and by creating a situation where we don't demand of ourselves immediate and obvious production, we can completely change how we interact with our writing process. Or at least I know that I have seen this kind of progress in my own life: I don't have the book (at least partly because I haven't been trying to write a book), but I can look back and see that I feel differently about my writing than I did last year, or the year before. I don't just feel different, I feel better. But that's the thing about sticking with it day to day.

Other analogies that match well: playing a musical instrument, or athletic endeavors. We have to stick with these on a regular basis. We start slow, and day to day, practice to practice, workout to workout, we may not notice much difference, but in the long run....

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Inspiration; no inspiration

Following up on my theme of the past few days, sometimes we feel inspired. We have something that we want to say; we have a vision of how we're going to say it and why it is important. Sometimes we don't feel so inspired, and it's a struggle to move forward.

Some days I think that this blog might actually help someone. I know that many of the things that I have written here have helped my clients--often what I write is a revision of notes that I have made for one of them. But maybe not. Firstly, what I write to my clients is directly aimed at helping them in the specific situation they're in, so what helps them might not help someone else in a different position. Secondly, the traffic on this blog is tiny, and most people don't stay long or look at many pages, which really reduces the probability that something I have written will help anyone. In short, sometimes I feel so uninspired.

But sticking to a purpose has value, and if you can work through the moments when you're feeling uninspired, your chance of coming to a place of inspiration is much greater.

I know that standard blog practice is to copy in all sorts of stuff from other sources or to link to other sources. As I started writing this, I found myself thinking of a song by the band Traffic, and so I include the lyrics here.

(Sometimes I feel so) Uninspired

Sometimes I feel so uninspired
Sometimes I feel like giving up
Sometimes I feel so very tired
Sometimes I feel like I've had enough
Sometimes you feel like you've been hired
Sometimes you feel like you've been bought
Sometimes you feel like your room's been wired
Sometimes you feel like you've been caught
But don't let it get you down
There is no reason for not failing
You've got to smile and turn the other cheek
So today you might get up
But by tomorrow you'll be sailing
And you won't even hear these words I speak
Some people want to be so desired
Some people can't stand the light of day
Somebody's laughing while someone is crying
But for to want in the close of the day
But sometimes I feel like my head is spinning
I'm gonna cave with all I see
I don't know who's losing and I don't care who's winning
Hardship and trouble following me.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Persistence is perhaps the most important psychological characteristic that can help one keep moving forward on a project. Brilliance is important, but persistence is key.

One must keep grinding forward, even at times things don't seem to be working well.

Persistence, however, does not mean beating your head against a wall. Persistence can recognize times that force and effort are less useful than others. In particular, if things aren't going well, and you don't easily see where to go, persistence does not mean pushing forward blindly, it just means to keep the effort going in the attempt, while you seek out the best possible path.

Minor synchronicity

Last night, about an hour after I wrote a blog entry with a title taken from the Mounds/Almond Joy ad campaign, I was out with a friend who bought an Almond Joy. I can't remember the last time I was with someone who bought an Almond Joy or Mounds--I would have found it easy to believe that they were no longer being made. Brands stop getting made, right?

Anyway, it seemed like an amusing coincidence worth mentioning here because I've not got anything particular to say about writing a dissertation or other project.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don't

It's a little distressing how an ad campaign that I heard as a child still sticks in my head. But that's beside the point.

Sometimes we feel like dealing with things, others we don't--maybe we're busy, maybe we're uninspired, maybe we're just lazy.

The ups and downs of our moods and our situations can interfere with our work process.
In the down phases it's important not to lose touch with your project. But at the same time, it's important not to let the down phases become a cause for punishing yourself, because punishing yourself can bring on down phases. That's why, if you're in a down phase, it's always a god plan to try to do a little work. What's important is to accomplish something that keeps the project moving and keeps you in touch with it, even if you can't give it maximum effort.

Today I'm busy--a down phase as far as blogging--but I want to stay in this is my effort to do so before I dash off to other things.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Keeping that good feeling

Writing is work. It's frustrating. When it's not going well it's downright painful. But sometimes it does go well. And at those times it is exhilarating.

One trick to developing a good relationship with your writing is to focus on your memories of those moments of exhilaration. Don't let those memories slip away and start thinking that the writing process is nothing but anguish.

It's so easy for us to do--to gloss over the full complexity of our experience to focus on one particular aspect. Of course, if we always gloss over the problems to focus on the good things, that's one situation that presents some problems--but it's not a point of view that tends to negative emotion, and to that extent, at least, it helps generate a positive attitude.
The problem--certainly a problem faced by many writers--is a focus on the weaknesses, such that both the good aspects get lost, and negative attitude and emotion inhibit further work on the project.

Ideally we can see the problems that exist, and the opportunities. We can see how each problem presents opportunity, and how each opportunity presents problems. While seeing the situation clearly, we also keep our focus on the positive outcome we're trying to create, and on the positive experiences we have had through similar efforts. Keeping focus on the positive, helps keep energy up; who doesn't get more tired when discouraged and energized when encouraged?

Keep your mind on the good feeling--on those moments when writing was going well--and you'll be able to change your relationship with your work.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Going commercial and formulas

What's the formula for being a working writer? Things are changing in the world of publishing. Lately, putting effort into writing a blog has made me wonder what writing is. Dreams of publishing a book seem less and less apropos in a world where books are no longer as dominant a medium.

One key, as a writer, is to be able to reach people with ideas. I really do write all this stuff hoping that someone will find something of use in it.

But another key, of course, is to find a way to support the practice of writing. Writing has, at least in the last century, typically been supported by receiving a contract from a publisher, but the internet changes that, doesn't it? I was writing this blog with a focus on the first key, but the second--well, maybe this can help with the second. And to that end, I will soon put advertising on my blog. I am shifting into a new formula.

Reimagining work (2)

Last night I picked up a collection of writing by Ralph Waldo Emerson and opened it at random. I wanted something to read for ten or twenty minutes and I'm not currently in the middle of anything.

I opened the book to a page that had journal entries dated January-February 1861, and read the following:
"Gurowski asked 'where is this bog? I wish to earn some money: I wish to dig peat.'--"O no, indeed, sir, you cannot do this kind of degrading work.'--'I cannot be degraded. I am Gurowski.'"

Yesterday, earlier in the day, I wrote my first "Reimagining work" entry, and this little piece of Emerson's represents a similar mindset about work. The work is not degrading if you will not be degraded. I have no idea who Gurowski is, but that is irrelevant. It's immaterial who you are; every thinking person adopts attitudes about their work. But, as Emerson's vignette shows, there are two sides to every story: differing attitudes are possible.

To what extent are you committed to the attitude(s) you hold? Can you change the way you think about things and react to things? Of course you can. You do all the time. You may not feel like you can control how you react, but there are those who strongly believe that we all have power over how we, as thinking people, can make choices about how to respond to the situations we face. For example, this idea is the fundamental basis of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's logotherapy--described in his book Man's Search for Meaning.

My belief is that yes, of course, we can control our responses and attitudes to a great extent if we practice and work on changing the patterns that we don't like. But, like many practices, like playing a musical instrument or perfecting an athletic skill, it requires diligent effort and attention to productive means of accomplishing our goals.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Reimagining work

What is work? What makes work "work"? What defines it?
One large aspect of what defines "work" in the culture of the US is that it is unpleasant; Work is opposed to play. That's a simplification, of course.

But what if work could be approached with excitement and enthusiasm instead of as drudgery? Maybe we don't all have the opportunity to find excitement and enthusiasm in our work, but surely, as an academic, or as one who might otherwise view writing as work, you must in some way be following something about which you had enthusiasm and excitement.

If you got into an academic program because of your interest in some idea, or because of your intention to accomplish some goal, that possibility still stands before you if you're struggling to write your dissertation. Being able to look again at that goal and examine whether it is still what you want to accomplish can help look at the work of writing in a different way.

If you have to work on something everyday--day in, day out--that can really detract from the pleasure of something. The sense "oh, I have to do it" can be so unpleasant that it overrides any pleasure in the act. The sense of repetition--that one has done the same before, and mindlessly will continue to do so--that also makes for an unpleasant experience. But writing is not digging ditches. Writing should be a process of learning. And learning can be gratifying in itself.

It's easy to look at work as a burden, and nothing more. That view can really weigh one down and sap the energy to proceed. If you can find a more positive framework in which to view work, then there is a greater will to succeed, and greater energy for the project.

The question, then, is whether there is anything more to work than the simple bearing of a burden from now into the future. I believe there is, but the argument is not one that can proven logically.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Maintain continuity

Sometimes we don't really have time to attend to a project on a given day.
But, in order to maintain momentum, it's also important to maintain continuity. Putting your head into your project for even a short time can really help keep continuity.

You don't necessarily need to do much--you just want to touch base with the project.
Once you've done so, you can move on to the other things, knowing that you have kept the project moving and kept it developing. That brief contact is enough to know that you have done something productive--even if it was small.

The role of that contact in maintaining morale can be worthwhile in and of itself. It can help keep the self-castigation at bay.

When we're focused on improving the process by which we work, and our relationship with our work, then we can see that the brief effort, if maintained consistently, can support growth of a positive relationship with our work.

And that's all I have time for at the moment, because, of course, I write this on a day where I'm more interested in maintaining the continuity of my blog than writing my most insightful piece yet.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Faux Pas

We all set our feet wrong at one time or another. The ability to recover from such mistakes is crucial. If we learn how to accept our mistakes and work past them, we're in a much better state at all times in our life.

Mistakes come so easily--a slip of the tongue and you've offended someone, or something similarly small that has results of too great magnitude. And then what do you do?

Suppose, for example, you snapped at someone important--a professor, a friend--what can you do about it? You have to find a way to recover.

Part of recovery is being able to apologize for mistakes. If we can admit that we have been wrong, it makes it much easier to move forward when working with others.

And being able to admit that we're wrong helps us too: instead of seeking to find some justification for what happened in the past, we can put the past behind us and begin to work on making the future better. As long as we're unable to admit our error, we continue to build that future on an unsound foundation.

Obviously not all mistakes are life shaking, but even the little things, our attitudes control what we make of those things.

One the one hand we can say to ourselves "well, I made a mistake, but it's not a big deal, and I'll continue to move on in good spirits." It may not be fun to admit an error, but what a superior way to proceed than to ignore the causes of our problems, ad to then proceed with no chance of reducing those problems.

And, of course, admitting an error does not mean focusing on it. One possible painful response to making a mistake is to tell yourself--over and over--how you have done wrong. Focusing on the fact that you made an error takes away from the energy that you have to fix the problem.

Let's put this in the context of writing: if you submit a draft that is rejected, what are your choices of response? Well, here are a couple:
1. Try to use the critique that you have received to write a new draft
2. Sit around telling yourself that you're a failure because you're draft was rejected and that you need to work much harder
3. Decide to give up the project because of your own sense of inadequacy.
Actually, numbers 2 and 3 can be combined. There are, of course, variations on these basic themes. But basically only one path is the path that gets us the most progress--and that's the path that focuses on how we can use the past mistake to make future success.

We've all heard the expressions "no use crying over spilled milk" and "it's water under the bridge". But how difficult is it to manifest these attitudes in our day to day existence! Yet this is our battle as writers and as people: we need to look at our errors and understand them without blame, but with the intention of learning from them.

Intelligence is something that has been defined and measured in many ways, but isn't the ability to learn central to intelligence? Isn't the ability to adapt to new information central to what we view as intelligence? And the ability to make a plan for the future--for how to make the future better? Our ability to recognize, admit and learn from our mistakes is one of the primary assets that has allowed humanity to grow from small groups scrabbling for sustenance to a huge, planet-spanning culture.

No one wants to make a faux pas, but we all do. Using those mistakes to improve our future is a possibility for all of us.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Blank Page

A blank page can be a fearsome thing. When there is a sense of something waiting to be written, and needing to be written, but it is not yet there--the ideas have not coalesced yet.

It's worst, of course, when you know you have to have something to turn in. If there's no pressure, then the page is not as fearsome. It's a little like insomnia, I think: if you have to get up by a certain time, then in order to get sleep, you need to fall asleep quickly, and that pressure to sleep makes sleep hard to find. The same is true with the blank page: the pressure to write makes the writing harder.

To whatever extent necessary, then, we should come to terms with the blank page, and accept the possibility of it remaining blank, even as we seek the words to fill it. We want to be able to look at the blank page as an opportunity, not a burden.

I really like blank pages for people who have to rewrite. I find that in my writing, the blank page can help me find new ways of expressing ideas, and new ideas, in a way that is quite inhibited by trying to revise an old draft.

The old draft carries with it old ways of thinking about the project. An old draft was structured with the wisdom that was available at the beginning of your previous writing cycle. The old draft does not carry with it the things that you learned in the process of writing. The blank page allows us to stop and look inside to try to see that inner vision as it stands in the present moment--that sense of intention and direction that stands behind the work we are doing. The blank page allows us to start again with what we have learned, but without trappings of the old ideas that we may have abandoned.

But it's only an opportunity if we see it as such.

Many writers have invested so much in previous drafts that the thought of returning to the blank page is terrifying--as if it nullifies all the work that was previously done. But it does not. First of all, all the previous writing efforts teach the writer something about the project. And what is most important in a writing project is not the words, but the ideas that drive the words. Secondly, starting with a fresh blank page does not preclude rehabilitating parts of the old manuscript, it just puts off such rehabilitation until the vision of the new draft has been laid out in some detail.

So, while it can be intimidating, the blank page represents a beautiful opportunity--provided we can see it as such.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Exercise and gradual change

I was just out for a run. I have some great ideas when I'm running; something about the oxygen deprivation, perhaps. I have trouble remembering them when I get home. Perhaps "great" is a little extravagant, but good anyway. But plenty of ideas--they just seem to well up.
Maybe it's that the blood is flowing.

Exercise is a good metaphor for the writing process. I've always had a good relationship with exercise--I like it, it's easy for me to work at it. I've had a less positive relationship with writing and academics; it's hard for me to work at it. But with writing, as with exercise, we can develop a good relationship with it by re-approaching it.

With exercise, if you go for your first workout and you push yourself to your uttermost limits, you can end up sore for days, and you probably don't enjoy the workout. What kind of incentive is that? And you're not really ready for it anyway--your muscles need to adapt.

With writing, you may not get sore, but if you expect to suddenly develop a good relationship with writing by insisting that you'll write for some very long period each day--a period many times what you ever worked before--you're setting yourself up for some problems. Some people, I'm sure, could pull this off--suddenly become a writer--but others would work hard, get little done, and get frustrated and perhaps despairing for the project. I've seen it with clients: people swear to me that they're going to start writing for hours every day, and then the next week they're angry for not fulfilling their goal.

I had a client once who had been focusing on a quote about writing that said something like "writing is staring at a blank piece of paper until your forehead starts to bleed." Not surprisingly, she didn't feel particularly good about writing. IF you enter into the project of writing expecting it to be painful, you carry an emotional burden that hinders your progress.

Yes, writing does take effort--like exercise. And, like exercise, writing can be pleasurable; the effort, indeed, adds somewhat to the pleasure. But this only happens if we approach the project from the perspective that we have to recognize that the process of writing is one that we can better grow into than be thrown into.


Which is not to be confused with redundancy, though they may come together often.

Things repeat. We must go back to the same tasks again and again--we have to wash the dishes every time we use them; and of course we keep using them because we have to eat. We wake up in the morning; we go to sleep at night. These repetitions are part of the natural patterns to which we belong; they are part and parcel of who we are.

But the repetition can become difficult--whether simply boring, dull and tedious, or downright onerous. We may be trying to remake our lives, but how much really changes from day to day? Not too much, at least not on most days in most of our lives. Usually we wake up in the same bed we did the day before, and the weather is usually much like it was the day before, and our home is furnished in the same way it was before.

More personally, we feel the same way we did the day before--our prospects for the future, our health, our outlook, our projects for the day--our most basic experience of the world is basically repetitive.

It's easy to get locked into looking at this repetition as a bad thing. We want to grow, to change, and always to improve our situation. We dream of becoming rich or famous or respected or powerful or loved or whatever or all of these. And the repetition belies this.

Yet, where would we be without this repetition: stability is necessary in our lives. What would we do if each day we woke up and the people around us were speaking a different language than the day before? What if what we could eat changed everyday? What if the people around us were always new? If we always had to do a new job? Novelty has its pleasures, but such novelty, I think, would be unbearable to all.

At the same time, we need to remember that there are many subtle changes that follow us through our lives, for example the smaller shifts in our health or in other aspects of our lives. People tend to generalize--it's natural to do so--but our generalizations tend to focus on certain aspects to the exclusion of others. Some changes occur slowly, and so they're only visible to careful observation. That slowness can often be frustrating itself.

We work on our writing project, and it progresses so slowly. And each day, the problems are very much the same as the problems were the day before. It can be easy to become frustrated at the repetition, but we need to look for the growth and the small changes within the large picture to keep us moving.

I suppose I write this because I'm frustrated myself. My writing continues to be plagued by the same problems; my writing process continues to be plagued by the same problems; other aspects of my life, too, seem to be mired. The repetition is wearing me down. And yet I know that within that apparent repetition there are many significant changes, small changes, it is true, but changes that are observable, especially when I look back to the person I was last year or three years ago or more.

So much of our human potential is locked up in our ability to focus beyond the immediate repetition to the larger change that we can create in incremental ways.

If you need your writing project to change radically in a single day, you're setting yourself up for some days of disappointment. But if you can set yourself to work and persevere even in the face of apparent repetition and stagnation, then the progress comes.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The vagaries of search engines

On looking at the report of traffic coming to my site, I realize that the ways of the search engine are such that people find my blog for the wrong reasons. I'm writing about writing, and academic writing in particular. And sometimes the ideas about writing rely on metaphors.
So I wrote about habits and addiction--though certainly we don't get addicted to writing in the same way that we get addicted to an opiate. And sometimes I just talk about aspects of the approach to writing which are relevant outside the realm of writing--such as the most often found page on my site--the little piece on acting confident which keeps getting found by people who do a search for "how to act confident" isn't really about how to act confident, so much as an exhortation to act confident.

Surprises also turn up; I mentioned a book by Betsey Lerner, and find that my blog with that mention comes up on the first page of responses to a google search for "betsey lerner". Which surprises me, because I thought google's search algorithm relied heavily on how many links pointed to a site, and I can't imagine that there are many (or any!) links pointing to this blog.

I guess we all know this: we try to search with a search engine, but we always end up wading through a fair amount of immaterial material. It's just odd to see it from the other end: "oh, they were looking for X; they sure didn't find it here!"

Models (2)

The great thing about models is that you can make them into whatever you want. They're a source of information, a stepping-off point, and no more. But we always want to be remaking those models to suit our own ends and our own vision.

On the one hand, we face the danger of cheap imitation; our work is too obviously no more than
an attempt to copy someone else's work. Such works are too often seen as no more than the product of someone crass and pragmatic trying to capture the magic that served another person. I say "too often" because often, I think, the failure is one of talent or effort or both, not simply an attempt to cash in on the efforts of another.

On the other hand, we face the problem of attempting to use a model that isn't suited to our project. Whatever we choose as a model, it was written for different ends and different motivations than our own. If we're not careful, we end up writing a project that does not satisfy our vision because we have focused on the model too closely, and not enough on our own inner vision of the project.

So models are great, but should be used with care.

Using models

Finding your own voice is important. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, using models can be a good way to do this. I don't mean models in the sense of three-dimensional representations of physical objects, of course, but rather "models" in the sense that we try to copy or imitate some other work.

We need to keep in mind, of course, the intention to create something that represents what we believe not what our model believes.

In writing a dissertation, models are tremendously useful; they provide clear insight into what gets accepted by your professor. It's also something that many don't think of doing in academia (many do, but many don't). You can model an academic work without plagiarizing or imitating--all you have to do is change some of the basic presumptions or questions and then try to copy the structure of the model without copying its reasoning. If you need a theoretical framework, again, another dissertation (or other academic work) can provide a good source.

When you're honestly trying to adapt someone else's model to fit your own interests and intentions, the project will naturally develop in a manner distinct from your model--plagiarizing is not a danger (especially if you're giving credit where credit is due).

When writing fiction models may be trickier--but then again maybe not. The key is to make sure that you're adapting your model, not just adopting it and putting on new makeup. Some of the greatest works of art are copies and rewrites--Shakespeare continually re-used old themes and old sources.

I'm thinking about models because I've been writing in this blog more recently, and I wonder about the blog form. So far what I've written has largely been a string of short essays, each pretty much coherent in its whole. But blogs--the blog form--is somewhat more fluid. Indeed, one aspect of blogs that is very appealing to many is the inclusion of information that is not the author's own, but rather shows the author's connectedness to other good information sources. I don't link much primarily because I don't surf much. I don't really know what resources are out there on the Internet; I know in an abstract sense that there must be loads of information dedicated to writing technique and writing practice, but that's not an area I'm extremely familiar with--I tend more to think things through on my own than to do research to see what others are doing. But the blog model is a good one to use to prompt me to expand my habits and practices. Not to mention, including other sources would give me more to talk about.

One good thing about making a choice to use models is that it helps to remove the stigma of being imitative. There is, at least in the US, stigma attached to the idea of imitation. But, as Shakespeare helps us remember, imitation does not imply lack of creativity. If we are using and changing the models, we are engaged in the creative process.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Think of what you write as a draft. One day, you'll write that final draft--maybe about the time that you're accepting the proofs of a work set for publication--but for the most part, what you're doing is writing drafts.

Each time you set the pen to the page, what you write is a test run until the next time that you attempt to face the same question. You're writing it to see how it works out. You have an idea that you want to express, and you also have some idea of a means of presentation, and you try to combine those two into a working piece of writing. And sometimes it works.

When it doesn't work, though, what does that mean? Well, it might mean that you got negative feedback from someone who panned our work. Or it might mean that you yourself don't like it. But what do those mean for the future? Do they mean that you should give up, and that's the end of your writing career? Of course not. All it means is that you go back and write another draft.

Maybe the feedback you got was a rejection without any discussion of reasons for rejection. That's probably the toughest. Then you have to decide whether you believe in the project and whether you think that what you have done is the best you can do.

Alternatively, you can look for ways to do it better. If the draft doesn't accomplish what you hoped, you can go back knowing, at least, that the old draft itself was not enough.

Ideally, of course, you work is not simply rejected out of hand, but rather any rejection is accompanied by cogent feedback on what needs to be changed. Dissertation writers reasonably can expect to get some cogent feedback from their readers.

Feedback is invaluable. When you have written a draft, feedback can guide you to the next draft.

Don't be afraid to write, or to rewrite. If you write a new draft, don't hold too hard to the pieces of the old draft: they carry with them the traces of old ways of thinking about the project, and can distract from creating a coherent vision that matches your most recent experiences and studies.

You always want your drafts to be complete; you want them to be careful and as coherent as possible. You want your drafts to express the whole scope of your ideas. You do not want your draft to be perfect, free from all errors or spotless; that should be saved for the version that is already been accepted. The effort that goes into making a draft completely free from punctuation and grammatical errors is too great to be expended on a draft that may be significantly rewritten. Though obviously any draft should be clean enough to be readable.

You may be in a situation where your drafts are required to be grammar-perfect; that's unfortunate, thought there's not much that can be done about that, except put in the resources to see that it is grammar-perfect. It's unfortunate from the perspective of thinking about your draft as a draft. The more effort you put into any single draft, the more committed you are to it, and that is counter to the principle I'm espousing here: don't be too attached to a draft! Every draft is an attempt; it's a venture into the unknown waters of feedback; it's an exploration, but the most likely dangers are emotional. For dissertation writers, if you make a complete draft that covers the necessary issues and has addressed previous feedback, then what real danger do you face beyond needing to keep working on improving the draft? Are you really in danger of being kicked out of your program? (Yes, I do know that some people do get kicked out of their programs for not completing enough work or not doing good enough work, but programs want to graduate people; they don't want to flunk them out.)

The point of calling them drafts, perhaps, is to find a balance--a place where you both strive to make the draft good and where you're remain indifferent to whether it is seen as good when it is done. The process of completing the project is what is important, and as long as the draft helps you move towards that completion it has accomplished its goal.

Write down the page number for that quote!

This is a note to myself as much as anything else.

Some minor points are major points.
We research, we read, and sometimes we find a quotation that we want to use. And so we copy that quote and go on about our business.

And at some point later down the line, we realize we need the page number for the quotation.

What boundless frustration! To have to find that book again; to have to wade through it all in search of that one, pesky quote.

When you copy down a quote, be sure also to copy the bibliographical information, especially the page number. Know what your sources are--not because it's an academic convention, but because that academic convention was developed because sometimes it's nice to be able to go back and look again at that source for a deeper understanding. And because your readers might also like to explore the ideas more fully.

Maybe the principle here is just to make sure that you record the sources you use so that you can more effectively draw from them in the future. Also it's good for your karma to give credit where it is due. Well, it is if there is such thing as karma.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Habits and addiction

The great thing about writing every day is that, if you persevere with it, and if you have a good attitude and relationship with the writing process, it can become a habit that borders on addiction. It's a constant challenge, but it's also consuming, distracting and pleasurable.

We all have something to say. When we get in the habit of putting it on paper, it begins to feel as if we are being heard--or at least that we might be heard. Putting it on paper can have all the gratification of imagining that snappy response an hour after the conversation took place. "Ah, but I should have said that! That would have shown how brilliant I am!"

Sure, tomorrow we may hate what we wrote, but in the moment, in that brief moment when you feel that your words are perfect and precise, is that not a moment of intense emotional gratification? And the more we practice our writing, the more common do we experience at least the sense that we are on the verge.

Once you begin, and one you give yourself to the project, it can become addictive, so that you end up returning to it, despite the pain and frustration you might have felt. Sometimes, anyway.

Ok, sure, it's easy to lose the habit of writing. Writing is difficult. But it's compelling, too. The sense of loss when you give it up can be significant.

Feeling ignorant

It's so easy, when doing the least bit of research, to start to feel ignorant and naive. So many people have written so many interesting and informative things. I know that when I go out on the web looking for random tidbits, I often find things that make me feel as if I were an unread, ignorant bumpkin. This is, of course, not exactly true.

Now I may never have been the scholar that some of my friends and acquaintances were, but I have done a little reading in my time. And at the same time, I know that what I don't know is endless.
In the end, the battle is to use what I know to move forward, and to strive to know more, so that I can do better in the future. I am, I suppose, rewinding to the topics of writing rather than researching, of avoiding perfectionism, and of focusing on strengths, all of which I have touched on in previous posts.

From one perspective, we will always be ignorant. We need to be able to work with incomplete, and even inconsistent sets of ideas. Perfect resolution is outside our grasp; complete knowledge is outside our grasp. This is not a paean to ignorance, or an argument that lets us slip back into the sofa a little more deeply to watch this week's American Idol and all the rest of the regularly scheduled programming. Of course we want to continually strive to learn more, to read new books, to hear new ideas.

Balance is important in all things. There are those among us who need to be encouraged to research more and talk less--any perusal of the myriad postings by the mass of internet users shows that there are plenty with little education and less restraint. I suppose if such folks are reading this blog, then I ought to be writing something else.

But there's another whole population out there--those who won't write, those who are afraid that their voice will be rejected. And for such people, the endless research must be balanced with a willingness to to be uncertain and yet to try to express their voice.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Feedback is a wonderful thing.

My blog got its first comment yesterday. Thanks, Mike!
And it wasn't even some random obscenity or blog spam, it was actually about my blog.

As writers, we may write because of our ideas, and because of our drive to get our ideas heard and understood. We may write with the intention to match our own vision and our own desires for the written work. We may have myriad personal and self-centered notions about how our creation of our work is primarily about our creative process. But nonetheless when we write, our medium is one designed for sharing.

Most writers want their work to be read. Most writers want to be heard, acknowledged and respected.

Feedback is great. It lets us know that we have been heard. It tells us that someone has not only paid attention to what we said, but taken time to respond.

It's best, of course, when the feedback is positive. We always want to be stroked.
But the feedback isn't always positive, and that, when taken from the right point of view, is just fine, too.
First of all, even negative feedback that attacks our work shows us that it has some affective power. We wouldn't have gotten any feedback if we hadn't generated an emotional response. And then, negative feedback can also give us clues as to how we could revise.
Some feedback is incomprehensible, but that can hardly drag us down, and can, possibly, show us something about how others are reading our work.

Of course negative feedback can be difficult to take. If we focus on the rejection, the emotional drain is considerable. But if we can only keep our focus on what the feedback teaches us, we can see it as a gift from the universe that helps us find a way to improve our writing and ourselves.

And talking with my clients, I'm of the opinion that getting negative feedback from one's academic advisor is still better than getting no feedback at all.

Trade-offs and Opportunity Cost

You can't always get what you want.
The Rolling Stones, obviously, were philosophers.

When you're faced with the real world, there simply are going to be times when you can't always get what you want. We want so many things, and often those things that we want conflict. This is a basic truism. Some desires will come in conflict with others.

In decision-making contexts like design, it's common to talk about trade-offs, two (or more) values that conflict. Howling Wolf has a song in which he says "I'm built for comfort; I'm not built for speed," using an automotive metaphor apt for this discussion: many features that increase automotive comfort increase the car's weight, thus reducing the car's speed (all other things being equal; obviously one could use a more powerful motor to offset the increased weight while maintaining the same speed).

In economics a related concept is the concept of opportunity cost. The cost of choosing one course of action is the opportunity to pursue a different course of action. If we invest some money in stocks, we can't invest the same money in gold, too. As the saying goes, "you can't have your cake and eat it, too." (Which, incidentally, I've always understood to mean, approximately, that there are trade-offs or opportunity costs, that there are some decisions that exclude others. But, while I've understood it that way, I've also always wondered about it, because, you know, if you have a cake, what else are you supposed to do with it but eat it? And if you don't eat it, it goes bad, right? I mean unless it was made by some bakery like Hostess, that carefully prepares their cakes for long shelf-life. I suppose even Twinkies go bad eventually; or at least go worse, because I wouldn't eat a Twinkie fresh from the factory.)

In any event, the writer would do well to embrace the concepts of trade-offs and opportunity cost. While it is a sad thing to give up a childish fantasy that you can have everything you want, you're more likely to find real happiness, as a writer, and in your life, if you can recognize that you can't always have what you want.

If you can approach your work from a place where you're seeking not perfection, but a successful relationship with your reader, or a successful resolution of a specific method of presentation, or some other limited goal, then you can finish and submit the work to someone else. And that is the main goal--that is what separates the writers from the people who sit in their rooms, with their pads or notebooks or computers, writing but never sharing.

The relationship between perfectionism and procrastination can be resolved from this place. It is not that one is sacrificing one's moral strength or sacrificing one's integrity to produce a work that fails to resolve all questions and all problems, rather it is a sign of moral strength and integrity to accept both the limitations and possibilities of life and still to attempt to produce work to share with others. I'm not suggesting that one should not strive for the best, but rather that one recognize how trade-offs and opportunity costs affect our lives and circumscribe our efforts.

Of course, one should always strive for the best. And why not always looks for win-win solutions? The fact that there are trade-offs does not logically imply the need to hurt another for one's own gain. But perfectionism can be paralyzing if it cannot let us get beyond the fact that there will be trade-offs.

Perhaps the most crucial resource for writers who are stuck is to focus on the time we have. We can always trade more time for more quality: if we spend more time writing, we can (almost always) improve on our effort. But what do we give up for that trade? We give up everything else that we could have accomplished with that time. Do not try to create perfection; it's an endless treadmill. Instead try to create something that satisfies both you and the readers that you hope to reach. Ultimately, we write to be read, don't we?

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Anticipation can be deliciously sweet. A child waiting for Christmas; a lover awaiting the arrival of their loved one. these forms of anticipation are wonderful.

But anticipation can be painful as well. When we start to anticipate work, that is not such sweet anticipation. We start to think about what the work entails; we look to the future, to all the tasks that needs to be accomplished ad we multiply those tasks by all the problems that we can imagine arising. And suddenly anticipation is working against you.

When anticipation is creating a negative response, the best thing to do is to dive in and face the project and face the problem. Instead of letting the anticipation grow--and with it the emotional drag--break out of anticipation by taking action. Unlike the child waiting for Christmas or the lover waiting for the loved one, when it comes to work, we are not forced to wait, but instead we can take action.

I was thinking about this partly because the thought of trying to write a blog entry every day creates its own anticipation, and on busy days, or on lazy ones, that anticipation makes the task seem bigger than it needs to be.

Taking action defuses the negativity that anticipation can create. Instead of wondering about what might happen, you have to focus your energy on the present moment and on making something happen.

With my clients with large projects, it's a common complaint that there is so much to do, or that they are uncertain of where to go. But that is negative anticipation speaking: by taking action, by engaging the project, you can enter into a place where the things that you are worried about take on new forms as you engage with them and realize that many of them were built into intimidating forms by our fears.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


How much redundancy is the right amount?

There is a place for redundancy in writing. But it is to be used sparingly.

In long works, however, it can be useful to repeat or reintroduce an idea that has come before. This helps the reader keep sight of the larger project.

Redundancy is the political practice of staying on message.

In songs and poetry, of course, plain repetition give music to the voice.

In a blog about problems writing and finding ways to work around and work through problems writing, I find it hard to imagine avoiding some level of redundancy, especially if I write often and consistently. Basic ideas remain the same, and though I may clothe the ideas in new outfits and new metaphors, still it will be the same ideas being worked and reworked. Oh, sure, I have new ideas from time to time, too, but who is constantly original?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Write Every Day

I often suggest writing every day. I'm not, however, unfamiliar with the difficulty of living up to that dictum. It takes discipline and effort. It takes writing at inconvenient times, often when you're tired. It's still a good practice. And if you want to write, whether as an academic or simply because you think you want to be writer, you have to write every day; you have to have a disciplined practice. I don't know of any writers for whom the writing came easily. I know plenty of stories of writers working hard and regularly.

The blog is an interesting form in that a large part of what makes a blog work is that it has constantly new information, that it is constantly updated, like a news outlet of sorts. It's a form that calls for writing every day, and therefore it's good practice for me--as a writer who gets out of the habit.

I suppose it might be considered a form of procrastination, in that I have other writing projects that have, perhaps, more pressing agendas. But, on the positive side, inasmuch as it helps me get in the habit of writing, and gives me practice in the difficult task of putting my ideas into words, as well as the opportunity to dabble with the nuances of language, the little alterations of voice and style, it is procrastination that helps me in the long run. I think.

And sometimes I think that older modes of publication are of less importance now, anyway. Do I need a publisher and publishing house if I can write something that reaches people over the internet? Of course the publisher gives a certain credibility to the work, but is that credibility any less than the credibility of having an internet readership? To the best of my knowledge, I have no real internet readership at present, neither do I have any publishing contracts. So maybe writing a blog is just as credible a way to write as seeking a publisher. Both courses of action have potential upside; both courses of action require effort. I write partly because I find that it helps me clear my thoughts. But mostly I write because I think I have ideas that would help other people--I want to reach people with my words, just like any other writer.

Ultimately, I can't prove it, but writing everyday--in whatever form you choose--seems to be the way to improve as a writer. Of course choice of form affects what you're familiar with writing--but the skill in writing is one that translates from task to task--the task may be unfamiliar, the forms unusual, but nonetheless the basic task will be to capture your ideas in words. And so, if you want to strengthen your writing skills, write every day.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Up and Down

We all have good days and bad days. Sometimes projects may seem meaningless or impossible or for some other reason one might just hit a wall. The existential malaise hits all of us sometimes, I think: we seek meaning and don't find it. But there are some who construct meaning rather than simply seeking it, and in this conscious act of creation, we can find the space to move forward on the bad days.

In the end, our persistence is the most certain guarantee that things will become better. As long as we can strive for our own improvement, then we can grow.

These ideas are taken--somewhat loosely, perhaps--from Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning."

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Love and change

Mostly this is about self-love, but to a lesser extent it is about love in relationships with people. Philia, I think, if I were to identify the Greek--brotherly love, as in the Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love--but where does self-love come in?

The whole perfectionism/procrastination thing I was writing about on Monday is all about self-love, in a way--it's about having enough love for yourself that you can accept your own imperfections. Wabi-Sabi, the philosophy of imperfection and impermanence, also is based on loving and accepting, of cherishing, that which is imperfect.

But we don't want to go down a slippery slope here--just because we can recognize, accept and cherish imperfection, that doesn't mean that we want to simply accept all our own limitations and surrender to complacency, does it? Of course not. Well, actually, there's no logical certainty there, but in my opinion, accepting imperfection does not mean accepting the lowest common denominator; Wabi-Sabi is not about giving up and saying "nothing makes any difference, so why even waste any effort on it?"

Part of love--love of oneself, love of another--is the vision for a better future, is the aspiration to live a better life than the one that one has--the vision of growth that pulls one on--the carrot on the imaginative stick.

Part of love is the honesty to see what isn't working as well as what is.

Sadly, things aren't simple, and there are, so often in our lives, trade-offs where we must choose one of two mutually exclusive choices--the horns of the dilemma--in loving relationships on one horn hangs the benefit of giving positive support and the danger of glossing over an important problem, and on the other horn hangs the benefit of exposing a problem that can be fixed and the danger of dragging a person down with negativity.

Sometimes love means demanding change.

I suppose I write all this because "philia" describes my feeling towards most of the people I work with.

I'm not the only editor who feels this--at least this is how I read Betsey Lerner's sense of her role as an editor (in The Forest for the Trees).

Monday, January 7, 2008


Style exists on so many levels.
Recently I was looking at a book on academic writing that seemed to be forwarding the argument that style is central to academic writing; that it is what defines academic writing. (I don't have the book handy, here at the cafe, so I can't cite it in proper academic form.)

On the one hand, I can see the point; without the proper style, a work won't be accepted as academic, and, indeed, many aspects of academic style serve a significant purpose in helping one express important ideas.

But on a deeper level, I feel like this is missing the main point: academic writing is academic because it has a certain intention--an intention to educate, to share knowledge, and to demonstrate as clearly as possible the foundations for the argument and conclusions. Style does not define academic work, but it is a necessary accoutrement. Ultimately, no matter the form, if the idea behind the writing is not well founded or clearly developed, then the work is not really academic.

We get into habits of thinking. And the way we write reflects those habits. If we let those habits define us, then we become hide-bound. And if we experiment with new forms, we may think differently. Style reflects intention.

I know that I am stylistically terribly academic--everything is a process of carefully setting up arguments. And usually, it is also a matter of avoiding the first person, except in the most careful ways. But blogging, this new world into which I keep dipping my toes (but gaining little momentum), has different styles and different forms. The informality and spontaneity of the form are things that I would bring to my writing. I may be hide-bound, but change is good.

Perfectionism and Procrastination

A client recently wrote me an e-mail with this same subject line.
She was remarking on how that combination comes into effect in her life, in particular how that is related to an expectation or fear of disapproval. Of course, we can tease out two threads here, that seem to me distinct: one is the fear of rejection, the other a sense that there is an ideal--there is something that is perfect--or perhaps it's just a deeply seated rejection of self.

The first thread--the fear of rejection--of course, is familiar to all of us, from the elementary school classroom, to our search for jobs, or love, to, perhaps in the most fundamental form, our fear of rejection by our parents. I have known that fear of rejection, have felt it churn my guts, shorten my breath and set my heart racing; I have known it, as I think we all do. But what are we to make of it? Do we let it rule us? At the end of her chapter "Rejection", in her book "The Forest for the Trees", Betsey Lerner, writes "One thing, however, is certain: the only person whose rejection really counts is your own. No matter how may people return your work, the only one who can send you packing is yourself." Now, in an academic program, this last sentence is not quite true--Lerner is talking about writers seeking a publisher, not students depending on the approval of professors--but the principle still applies, at least with respect to procrastination. As an academic you can't let your fear of rejection stop you from producing work, because rejection is certain in academia if you produce no work (at least before you get tenure).

The second thread--the search for and belief in perfection--is another question altogether. There are several levels on which one can think about the question of perfection. For the moment, I just want to mention the idea of Wabi-Sabi, which I find to be a useful philosophical framework through which to dispose of perfectionist principles. The idea of perfection is central to most Western philosophy, but what is perfection? Wabi-Sabi, a theory of impermanence and imperfection, is an interesting place from which to approach a written project--especially if one has been struggling with perfectionism-related procrastination.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Yes and No

The best answer isn't always yes.
Sometimes it is good to be challenged.
A challenge isn't always an attack--even an aggressive challenge need not be an attack. Sometimes the challenger is trying to support you.

"Yes" is a supportive answer. It builds confidence; it feels good.
But, obviously, it's not always an answer that is appropriate.

Sometimes a writer has to hear "no". No, this isn't working; no, your ideas are not getting across; no, this is not a masterpiece, it is still a mess. It doesn't feel good to hear no.

But if you're working with an editor, you should be open to hearing what lies behind their "no". If you're working with an editor, chances are that editor wants to get your work accepted almost as much as you do. After all, an editor's reason for being is to make something read well and be accepted by the chosen audience. If an editor is working on your piece, then behind every "no" is a "yes"--yes, I want you to succeed; yes, I want your ideas to be presented in the best way; yes, I want this piece of writing to be accepted.

One problem I face working as an editor is that often my "yes" is taken for a "no." I suggest changes in order to strengthen the work, because I see how the work could be improved. I say "yes, this good idea can be presented even more effectively." But that yes is too often taken for a "no, your work is no good."

Just remember: any editor is interested in putting out work that will be accepted--from the editor-in-chief of a newspaper and the top editorial staff at publishing houses, to all the other editors, copy-editors and proofreaders out there. The point of editing is to produce work that is well received. What you hear as a "no" may well be a "yes, I want to get this work accepted by its intended audience."

As a freelance editor, there is no other measure of success of my work: did my client's work get accepted by their professor or the journal or publisher to whom they were submitting? All my efforts are aimed at working on how to improve the work at hand.

I suppose I write this out of a sense that I would like to be able to tell clients that there are problems with their work--not because I'm trying to find fault, but because I'm trying to find a way to succeed--without having them act as if the world ended.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Forests and Trees (revisited)

Back in March, I posted a little piece on the metaphor of seeing the forest, not only the trees.
Recently, I saw on the shelves of a bookstore, a book titled "The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers", by Betsy Lerner (Riverhead Books, 2000). In it, she uses the following epigraph:

"I really think the great difficulty in bringing 'The Valley of Decision' into final shape is the old one of not being able to see the forest for the trees. There are such a great number of trees. We must somehow bring the underlying scheme or pattern of the book into emphasis, so that the reader will be able to see the forest in spite of the many trees." -- Maxwell Perkins, in a letter to Marcia Davenport.

Maxwell Perkins was the editor who first published, among others, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The metaphor, obviously, has struck others as apt as it has struck me. The common saying, "can't see the forest for the trees", isn't limited to discussions of writing, and the general phenomenon of getting lost in individual details, and of losing sight of the larger structure and larger meaning is one that we can experience in many different domains of experience--the obvious example being out walking in the woods--the original source domain of this metaphor.
It is a metaphor particularly apt to writers, and to academic writers, as the details, all the different pieces of evidence and argument and reasoning, all demand individual attention. and in giving that attention to the details, we cannot focus our attention on the larger.

In a real forest, one must have some idea of how to negotiate the problem of not seeing the forest for the trees, otherwise one ends up getting lost. Hansel and Gretel tried to use a trail of breadcrumbs. But some method of managing to keep tabs on where one is within the larger structure is necessary.

It is no less true of writing: we must, for our own sake as writers, understand the structure of the forest. We must understand the scope of the project; we must see how the parts relate; we must be able to find our way among the trees. If we do not understand this, we risk getting lost. And in the case of writing, getting lost means not finishing the work.

Depending on our desires as authors--depending on what we hope for our readers, we may wish our writing to reveal more or less of the forest at any time, but in the end, we want our reader to see the entire forest as well. In the case of academic writing, we want our readers to have some idea of the entire forest right from the start.