Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Authority and Uncertainty

Uncertainty is unnerving.
We often fear the feedback we're going to get.
If we write something about which we are uncertain, we can pretty much count on someone asking how we know it.

Authority, therefore, is nice. If we can cite a published author, we can push the questions off. We can say that we are taking that published work as our starting point. Even if the published authority is uncertain, even if the authority is one whose work is debated, we can use authority as a point of certainty.

For this reason, it's darn nice to have resources on which to draw and authority to cite. For this reason, it can often seem like more research is a good idea. For this reason, when writing, and faced with putting down an assertion in words, many will instead retreat into a search for another authority.

But we cannot wipe away the uncertainty from our work. Using an authority is no protection from making an error or from receiving criticism. For one, different people may interpret a given authority differently, creating differences in opinion that might affect how your work is received. Secondly, it is quite possible that the same authority you rely on is debated, which may force us to defend our choice of authority. Third, you may fail to integrate the authority into your work well.

I'm writing this in a follow up to yesterday's "Your Most Valuable Possession". The thought that ties them together is the crucial role played by your own reasoning. If you are working on the discovery of your own voice and your own system of beliefs, then you must face uncertainty and tolerate it. And you must try to continue to work in the face of the uncertainty.

It is not difficult to find that philosophical systems all incorporate some degree of uncertainty. We often take the physical sciences as the realm of our greatest scientific certainty, but even these realms are bound and limited by Heisenberg uncertainty and Goedel's theorem (at least in the case of any attempt to rely on axiomatic systems). Karl Popper's vision of science contains uncertainty: we can only disprove but never prove.

When we develop our own voices, we need to be able to dive into the places of uncertainty, and seek the solid ground that can be found, but we also must recognize the limitations of our knowledge and be able to work with those limitations, rather than letting those limitations completely dominate us.

We cannot research our way out of uncertainty. In order to develop our own voice, we have to proceed despite it. We have to work with what we do know.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Your Most Valuable Possession

In the Ben Folds Five song whose title I have taken as the title of this posting, is the line, "I was wondering if you were looking after your most valuable possession, your mind."

I got a comment requesting resources. At various times in this blog I have referenced books I have looked at, and I have considered maybe writing my own review of books related to dissertation writing or writing in general.

There are other resources out there. I have a few listed on my website. But, and I don't think I've ever framed my philosophy in this way, the resource I'm most interested is one that people don't rely on enough: their most valuable possession.

I suppose my suggestion that people don't rely on their own mind enough could be taken as insulting. It is not meant as one; it is not a comment on the intelligence of others so much as it is a comment on our habits and our insecurity. Many people don't trust their own reasoning and consequently are constantly looking for some sort of verification outside themselves.

A dissertation, and indeed any writing, should be about expressing your own voice and your own ideas. At its root, all writing is about what the author wants to say, which is driven by the author's ideas and beliefs.

All writing starts in our minds. Our mind is our most valuable resource in our writing project. But we don't trust ourselves. We're uncertain. Often I suggest writing as an exercise to help clarify a project and to help clarify aims. Often I am told "I can't start writing yet. I haven't done enough research." I think that's a mistake usually driven by a habit of not looking for answers from one's own mind, but rather seeking them outside.

But that's not how it works. No matter what we read, until we sit down to try to work out our own ideas, we are going to have some confusion. The growth of a focused and coherent voice is a project that can only be accomplished by examining your own beliefs and knowledge, by learning to reason concerning evidence, and by recognizing the elements that make up our own personal philosophy. Forming a coherent, comprehensible voice is a project for an individual working out his or her thoughts. That's a project that can be greatly facilitated by writing.

It is the central importance placed on working out ideas that motivates my choice of domain and blog name: thought clearing.

Resources are important, but unless you have your ideas clear, the resources are little help. My experience is that people I work with are, more often than not, good at finding resources. One doesn't come to be writing a dissertation, usually, unless one has a pretty good handle on research techniques. I rarely work with anyone having trouble finding resources; I often work with those who haven't worked out crucial aspects of their reasoning or their voice.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Bitterness: Past, Present and Future

A few days ago I wrote: "The question is whether you can approach the dissertation and all its problems in a way that will allow you to finish without becoming bitter."

Yesterday I wrote about this and a question I was asked with respect to whether a person who was already bitter could do this.

Let us take this question: Can a person who is bitter, or otherwise hurt, approach writing a dissertation in a way that will not exacerbate pre-existing bitterness and will also allow completion?

One piece of evidence I would consider is Julia Cameron, who repeatedly writes of the therapeutic power of writing in The Right to Write. Cameron isn't speaking of writing a dissertation, but rather of writing as an exercise in processing experience. The power she speaks of is a power to transform emotional responses. So, even if dissertation writing isn't the right tool to heal one's hurts, at least we see that for some people, some writing has transformative power of the sort we're interested in.

We can't be certain that there is a way to approach writing a dissertation in a way that prevents bitterness. But we have, at the least, the evidence of Cameron, to suggest that there are at least some kinds of writing and ways to approach writing that have a transformative power.
The question above, of whether such a positive writing process can be achieved, can be answered in one of two ways: yes or no.
If the answer is yes, then it makes sense to seek such a process.
If the answer is no, then it makes sense to seek a path that accepts and acknowledges the hurt.
If the answer, however, is uncertain, which strategy is the best? You can either play for the win--seek out the positive process--or you can minimize your losses--and act as if the answer is no.
To me it seems best to pursue the best possible outcome, rather than the safest possible outcome. I would rather take the optimist's perspective because the optimist's perspective is imbued with hope. However dim the hope may be, I would rather have hope and then have my hope shattered, than try to live without any hope at all.

And really, what is to be lost in such an effort? Some time? Some energy? To pursue such a relationship with your writing project costs little. Making a regular practice of writing is generally agreed upon as the way to finish a dissertation (or any written project); whether it has the same therapeutic powers suggested by Cameron for her own writing can be seen as a possible bonus.

I am uncertain whether we can finish a writing project without becoming bitter. I am uncertain whether we can become less bitter by working on a writing project. Personal experience suggests that finishing and filing a dissertation and receiving the degree of doctor can provide an emotional boost that contrasts nicely with prior experiences of invalidation. Personal experience also suggests that seeking the approval of others is an uncertain road to contentment.

Spiritual Mastery

On Friday, in a post titled Creating Emotions, I wrote: "The question is whether you can approach the dissertation and all its problems in a way that will allow you to finish without becoming bitter."

Via e-mail I received the following questions:
"You're asking us to think about approaching the dissertation in a way that will keep us from being bitter, but what if we're already bitter before we even arrive at the dissertation? I have heard the same thing from countless grad students. Many are already angry, bitter, frustrated, invalidated even before writing, so how can we not approach the dissertation with that bitterness when it's part of our context? How do we transform that relationship when we can't change the past relationship with our graduate experiences?"

The writer had a partial answer:
"I have this little affirmation by Louise Hay by my desk, 'I am willing to release old, negative beliefs. They are only thoughts that stand in my way. My new thoughts are positive and fulfilling.' I keep it there because I have to remind myself that the negative self-talk that arises when I write or think about my own abilities is just 'talk', thoughts, and beliefs that get in my way of writing. Sometimes when I'm stuck in my writing, I hear negative phrases that I heard or interpreted from the experiences in classes and with peers. Sometimes the thoughts are so strong I feel weighted down, helpless and hopeless. I have to be willing to approach the talk the way I approach thoughts in meditation -- just witness, don't judge, don't become attached. It's actually quite challenging to do once those messages have been buried deep inside."

Challenging, indeed. This is, perhaps, a form of a great challenge for the human psyche. This is one of the archetypal issues in pretty much every spiritual tradition that I have familiarity with. It is for this reason that I have titled this post "Spiritual Mastery." It is to this that the Book of Job in the old testament speaks. It is something most of us will struggle with, even if we work on it.

I wish I had an easy answer. I wish I had a certain answer. Not to be flippant, but if I had an easy or certain answer to how to get over emotional hurt, I would be a very rich and powerful man. I could divert billions that are now going to the makers of anti-depressants. I don't have a certain answer, but there is strong empirical evidence that Cognitive-Behavioral techniques (broadly speaking) are effective in improving mental health. For example, the work of Robert Emmons, which I wrote about in March, suggests that cognitive behavioral techniques centered on gratitude are effective in various ways.

Emmons talks about focusing on the things that we do have rather than those we don't--and being grateful for those we have. So, let's say you haven't gotten good support from your professors, and let's say that you have been poorly treated by vicious and competitive peers, even so, Emmons might say that a gratitude exercise would help you appreciate the fact that you're attending graduate school--an opportunity that many would love to have. There are good things out there, if we look for them.

Those are general responses coming from the angle of emotion and emotional growth. I also have a response coming from the perspective of planning and managing a project.

Let us taken as a given the strong negative emotional content. Let us not make any light of that--but let us assume that this emotional state has not totally incapacitated us. What can we do? We make a plan, and we do our best to carry it out; we try to learn as we go; we try to overcome the obstacles that present themselves. To say this seems to trivialize the emotional content, but what else can we do? We make a plan of action; we do our best to realize it; we chase our dreams as best we can.

We can't change the past. There is, as my mother used to tell me, no use crying over spilled milk. A more sophisticated view might say, we have to accept the loss and the grief. We can't change the past, but we can make choices about how we act now. In those choices we can recognize our emotional difficulties and plan accordingly. And we can recognize that pain fades with time-the sooner, I would imagine, the more we are able to create new and positive things in our lives.

There is no easy answer that I know of. And yet, it seems to me that despite the difficulty of the path to spiritual mastery, the basic steps are simple enough, and virtually obvious. It is easy to say we will let go of the pain. It is easy to see that this is an admirable goal. The role of, for example, a gratitude exercise in this letting go of pain, is not hard to see: we focus on the good things, not the bad.

For my part, I find that it is a constant practice: my negative voices challenge me constantly, and constantly I struggle to let go of them and put my energy elsewhere. Some days it works out better than others. But I see it as a practice: by working at it regularly, I hope to get better at it.

On a more pragmatic level: if you have bitterness from your past experiences, try to create new working environments that use the best of your past, and explore new options. Find the people who supported you and work with them. Don't work with people who cut you down (to the extent that this can be avoided--some difficult professors can't be avoided). Find new people who can help. and most of all try to keep your eye on the desired outcome; if you weren't hoping for something, you wouldn't be doing this. Remember what it is you're hoping for.

Phew. I hope that helps.

How wonderful it is to get feedback! (Part 2)

I got two thoughtful responses to my previous post, which will provide material for more than one post in the near future. Thank you to both who responded!

I was thinking about this after posting earlier: what about feedback that isn't wonderful?

What if, for example, one gets feedback from a professor that says something like "What a fool you are! I'm writing to the department to ask for your dismissal"? Or something less drastic like "This is great! You're making progress and at this rate you might finish in a few years after you do some more research"?

There's no easy answer for this one. The plain truth is that feedback can be difficult. But like any problem that arises, any difficulty, we will respond in some way. The question that remains is how we respond. One possible course of action is to consider what to next; to focus our energy on how to proceed from that moment on.

There's a lot more to this issue, but I don't want to get caught up in it right now.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

How wonderful it is to get feedback!

Hi Readers,

I'd love to hear from you if you're reading this blog. What do you like? What do you dislike? Do you have any questions? Any comments? Please let me know.

Leave a comment or send me an e-mail at Let me know what you think.

How did you find this website? What did you find interesting?


Spirals, feedback loops and energy vampires

Every action we take has an effect. Sometimes the effects are major, sometimes minor, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle. But the effects are there. And the effects create an immediate feedback loop: The action is taken, and the effect feeds back.

Every action has an effect. When the effect is good, the feedback is good and we feel better. When the effect is bad, the feedback is bad and we feel worse.

This can create a spiraling situation if the effects are strong enough: we do something good, we feel better, and because of that energy of feeling good, we continue to do good things that give positive feedback. Or, we do something bad, feel worse as a result, and as a result of feeling bad, do something else bad.

On one hand, we might look at writing as something good. If we sit down to write, even if we don't make progress in our writing, we can feel good for having made the honest effort, and this positive feedback can help us accomplish goals (more writing, or other work), which help set up positive feedback loops and better habits.

We might take recreational/non-educational watching TV as something bad. If we watch TV, though we might enjoy it in the moment, it doesn't really help us move forward in our lives. For example, if I watch a basketball game, I may spend two or three hours in front of the TV without making any progress on any of the projects that I want to work on. At the end of that period I'm usually enervated--which makes it harder to engage in a productive activity and easier to engage in a non-productive one (for example, more TV watching). This negative feedback can become particularly acute if there is also emotional impact: if you feel bad for having spent three hours watching the Lakers play the Nuggets (or one hour watching American Idol, or whatever your poison is), then that negative affect can feed back into your planning and can lead into further negative behavior.

Obviously it makes the most sense to set up positive feedback loops, so as to climb on a rising spiral.

In order to do this, we need to watch out for excessive engagement with energy vampires--activities that suck away energy without giving back. This is especially true if we're feeling stuck or feeling low. At the moments of low energy, when it is hardest to engage with our work, energy vampires beckon. That Laker-Nugget game (or American Idol episode, or night out drinking, or computer game, or trashy novel, or...what are your energy vampires?) is going to be exciting, but it isn't going to help you feel better.

This is not even to say that one should be working all the time, but it has a lot to do with making better or worse choices. Lots of recreational activities will help one get on an upward spiral: going for a walk or run, playing a sport, relaxing in a hot tub, sleeping...even dealing with energy vampires in moderation can be good to keep us relaxed.

Writing, if we don't place expectations on the quality of what we write, or the product of what we write, can be a great tool to relax and engage in the positive feedback loop. Julia Cameron (about whom I will probably stop writing when I finish her book, but agree or disagree, thinking about what she wrote teaches me about writing) suggests writing as a therapeutic tool and a relaxation at the same time. My experience is certainly that when I write without worrying about how well I write, writing is useful in helping me improve my mood.

Writing can be an easy alternative to engaging with an energy vampire. At the least it might be worth a try.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

unstructured writing

Julia Cameron talks about writing and the therapeutic role it plays. I have definitely used writing to help me through hard times; it helps me gather my thoughts. But, on the other hand, it has sometimes helped me gather my thoughts towards things that didn't help me to think about.

Today I've been blue. Should I think about that or should I do something about it (like try to focus my thoughts on positive things)? Our paths are not always clear; theres a role for cathartic writing, but there's also a role for writing focused on the future.

I think I get most down when I focus on futures that I don't think I can bring into being. Then I just flog myself thinking about that which would be nice but is unrealistic. I feel most positive when I'm focused on futures that seems possible and even likely. And the more positive that I am, the more that seems possible.

Writing is very good for helping you think about the future and makes plans for the future. It's a good exercise, if you're stuck in your writing, to simply write about what you hope to accomplish--on any level--such writing provides a way of looking at what you have been doing and how it relates to the goals that you are setting for yourself.

The goals you set for yourself need not be perfect: you can always change your goals. You want to be able to learn. Some goals you may realize are not worth the effort; some may not be worth any effort; some may need to be refined or altered. There are good reasons to abandon old goals. But you want to be careful not to abandon old goals just because you can clearly see problems in achieving it. All goals of value will provide some challenge.

Unstructured writing--or, more importantly, the willingness to produce unstructured writing--can take an important place in a writer's repertoire of tools. Sometimes writing has to be able to explore and follow the stream of the consciousness as it flows without conscious guidance. Such writing can be crucial in finding a goal to focus on.

It would be inappropriate to the title if this little piece had too clear a focus. Focus is only appropriate in some types of writing.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Creating emotions

Do we have the power to create or generate our emotions?
I received a copy of a letter a dissertation writer wrote--a comic letter to his dissertation--about how he looked forward to burning a copy of his dissertation and being free from the project.
Now I wonder whether such a letter is cathartic and allows one to move through and past the emotional difficulty, or whether it reinforces the perspective that the dissertation was a bad thing--or both.
I thought after reading it that it was a sign and symptom of a dysfunctional dissertation program if multiple students in the program were having that kind of feeling.
I thought that it would be nice if that wasn't the feeling that we had when we finished our dissertation.

I don't know if it's possible to create emotions.
I do know that it's not likely that you'll finish your dissertation without any problems.
The question is whether you can approach the dissertation and all its problems in a way that will allow you to finish without becoming bitter.

I think that focusing on what you can do to finish and what you have to do to finish can help with this. If you focus on what is yet to be done, that takes away from the time that you can spend focusing on what has gone wrong, and the injustices you have suffered and any other problem that you had faced.

Julia Cameron talks about her wall of infamy and using material that makes one mad to write. I guess that's one way of doing it. I guess that you can take all the strong emotions and use them all to drive your work forward.

I don't like that approach for myself. Maybe it's just that I am too familiar with the darkness, with bitterness and anger and despair. But I feel like inviting those emotions in for the purposes of writing is still to invite those emotions in and to encourage all their effects on my body and psyche. I find that I write best--even when writing about things that do make me angry--if I can tap into my positive emotions and my hope for a positive future. Even hen dealing with something that makes me angry, the real motive force to continue working lies in the sense that there is a positive possibility for the future--that by working on something I can make things better. This could be called naivete, but ultimately it is the foundation of great works. I may not be great or achieve fame and influence, but if I am driven by my hope of something better--not just my anger, but my vision of a positive future--then I create with vigor.
It is writing as hope and dream for the future, rather than writing as catharsis and acceptance of the past (though I recognize a place for the second of these as well).

Thursday, April 24, 2008


We all have different talents.
We want to find a way to put these to use.

Part of the trick of putting talent to use is to find the right task. We can do this at the large scale or at the small scale. At the large scale we can pick a project that suits us.

As I write this I'm still thinking about the Julia Cameron book I was reading yesterday; at one point she was talking about what good writing was and bad writing. There was a strong suggestion that what was asked of writers in college was bad writing, or at least that writing in college was badly taught. The latter claim is not unlikely; the former, however, misses the point. Different genres have different desires; they play to different talents. Cameron was talking about a writer having trouble with academic forms because they reined in her creativity. But that was one writer with one set of talents.

As far as suiting writing to talents, genres all provide opportunities for both good and bad writing. My talents, I feel, lie more in my logical constructions and the ideas that I come up with--these ideas are best suited, in my opinion, to expository forms such as those taught in school. Other writers have talents that lie in other directions: poets have a very different sensibility and aim than I have.

So to use our talents best, one thing we can do is to find a project that suits us.
Sometimes we end up with a project that doesn't suit our talents. Dissertation writers are sometimes of this sort, especially those in clinical programs. Such people often have talents that help them relate to other individuals, and the dissertation is more a large hurdle to overcome in order to practice than it is a first step in a career of academic writing.

Even if the task doesn't suit your talents on the large-scale, you ought to look for ways that you can bring your talents into play. To follow up on my off the cuff example in the previous paragraph, you might want to look for means that allow you capitalize on your ability to relate to people. Maybe this can help you in managing your committee; maybe this can help in you thinking about your audience and using that knowledge to help you decide what to write. Maybe I'm reaching here. I don't always know the answer, and I often rely on the same basic principles, so variety is not really a large part of my own repertoire. Not every blog posting will come together as a nicely formed essay.

Time to Write

One thing that I like about Cameron's The Right to Write is the way it talks about grabbing time. You can't wait for a huge block of time to arrive in which to write, she says; you have to grab time away from whatever you're doing to write. She talks about the time lie: "I'd write a novel if I had a year."

I think her advice is even more relevant for those who are not making a career out of writing. A dedicated writer is going to find time, because the writer wants to write and is desirous of writing. A dissertation writer, however, might have many things he or she would rather do, and might have to do. For example, a research-oriented dissertation writer might be much more interested in doing more research (this, incidentally, is a bad reason not to want to write: if you want to be a researcher, you'd darn well better learn to write); a writer working towards a clinical degree might have the demands of a practicum or internship competing. And, of course, it goes without saying that there are always the rest of the demands of our lives separate from dissertation writing (or whatever other writing we might do).

If you are not a writer, and if you don't know how to make time, it's even more important that you try to use whatever time you can find--fifteen minutes here, twenty there. You have to be in the regular practice of writing in order to bring the project to completion.

It would be great to form a routine in which to write. I don't know many people whose schedules allow them to stake out a matter of hours at the same time every day. If you can't generate a routine, it's even more important to try to grab at the moments of time that present themselves. Every one of those stolen moments that you spend trying to write one paragraph about some subject, or one sentence for another--however you choose to spend the seized moment for writing--is a moment that you're getting yourself physiologically and psychologically accustomed to the task of writing.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Right Way to Write

I recently picked up Julia Cameron's The Right to Write. I like it, or at least parts of it. It's got some ideas that I really like that are new to me, some ideas that I already believed and some ideas that are just off-base--at least for me.

There's just a lot of complexity in the world. Cameron makes generalizations that just don't work for me. As a general rule, I find that generalizations must be used carefully.

One generalization that Cameron makes is that she suggests we're all writers in some way. "We should write because it is human nature to write," she says, in a statement taken from the book and used for the back-cover blurb. I only agree if we take writing in a metaphorical sense. I believe that the part of human nature that leads some of us to become writers can manifest in many ways. I have friends whose nature it is to draw, and others whose nature it is to play music. I can see how that part of me that is a writer is a writer, not an artist, not so much a musician.

But what if you're not a writer and you're writing a dissertation?

To me it seems important to understand our individual nature and our individual skills in relation to the projects we undertake. We may all be called upon to undertake projects that don't suit our nature.

I think that a lot of what Cameron has to say is useful for those who aren't called to write in the way that she is. That it takes a little teasing apart of the threads of her argument, a little sorting of the wheat from the chaff, does not diminish its worth.

Many dissertation writers will not make a career of writing in the way that Cameron describes--most will not, even those who become professional academics, who are necessarily writers in that publish-or-perish world.

I don't think there's only one way to do things, except maybe in the general sense that I think that there's no good way to write without working at it consistently.

I like the idea that there are different tools and different perspectives, and that if you learn to use a wider palette of these things, this can help you when you're stuck.

I also like the idea that the general tool of writing is one that is most easily wielded with practice. One does not become a virtuoso musician or Olympic athlete without practice; writing is no different. Your facility and ease in using the tool grows as you practice with it.

Cameron's book offers some perspectives that I like a lot; I may write about some of them in this blog in the near future.

Psychology and Physiology

While running yesterday, I was thinking about having an open mind.

I was thinking how, in order to be convinced--to really believe--of a novel idea, I needed both a persuasive argument and time.

I needed the persuasive argument to make me think the idea is worth thinking about.
But the time--why would I need that? I feel that ideas can take some getting used to; your experience may or may not be the same.

I started thinking about this from the physiological view. If we assume that mental processes are associated in some way, then physiological change should be related to psychological change.

In many dimensions of life, I have experienced obvious growth in physical abilities through practice, for example in playing musical instruments. Why wouldn't such growth also accompany practice in psychological endeavors?

In the physical endeavors, growth is not instantaneous: our bodies adapt over time.
Would it not make sense that psychological processes, inasmuch as they are connected to physiological processes, might also take time to take root?

We all can experience growth in psychological abilities through practice. The practice of memorizing is a prime example of this--if we want to memorize something, we practice, and the more we practice the easier it is to remember, and then if we stop practicing, we start to forget? Why is this? It's easily explained if we assume that there's some physiological component that can be developed and that can deteriorate--just like our athletic abilities increase through practice and decrease through disuse?

While in graduate school I remember having a conversation with a fellow student who had been a carpenter and cabinet maker. He said that when he was practicing he had been able to distinguish 16ths of inches (or maybe 32nds, some small increment) accurately when he had been practicing, but that, with his attention elsewhere as a graduate student he had lost that ability.

What does this mean for the writer? It means that the answer is found in regular practice that creates shifts in our physiology. Such shifts might include increases in skills--like improved memory--and it might include changes in ideas and ways of looking at the world.

This suggests that changing your way of interacting with your work is possible through practice; it also suggests that such change may be slow and incremental: we don't go from being a couch potato to a marathon runner in one workout, or one week of hard work.

It suggests a regular practice--one that gets touched on regularly. Taking a few days off is one thing, taking most days off is another. While there may be good reason to use bursts of dedicated energy, such bursts will be far more effective if embedded in a matrix of regular practice.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The tragedy of the commons

Our selfish interests are often at odds with the interests of society as a whole. This can often lead to social losses. I won't describe the tragedy of the commmons, but webspace is one of those common spaces that can be destroyed by selfish interests.

Someone left a comment on this blog recently that I removed because of high spam content. I'm glad the comment said they liked my blog, but my blog is not a blog even remotely related to cellular telephones in Brazil, which the commenter was selling (in Portuguese, no less).

I chose to make this blog commentable by anyone (or at least anyone on blogger), even at risk of being spammed, in hopes that someone who had something relevant to say could say it.

I'd like to be able to share this space without having it destroyed by selfish interests (of course that's just my selfish interest).

The sad irony of the tragedy of the commons is that, by acting in our selfish interest in the short run, we act against our selfish interest in the long run. It has been said that in the long run, we're all dead, but sometimes the long run is in our own lifetime.

The common space of this blog, obviously, has not been compromised yet. I'd love to be able to hear from readers with questions.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Feedback and Safety

The people I work with are usually having trouble writing (which goes without saying, I guess).

One way to get writing moving is to get feedback. But feedback can be tricky; in particular giving work to professors can often result in very painful feedback. And, in general, getting feedback is to open oneself to rejection.

This can create negative emotional states in a writer, and can lead to writer's block.

Part of my strategy to assist people is to create a solid, positive feedback loop which is still able to effectively critique work and guide efforts in the improvement of that work. This can include discussion of how to respond to my feedback, and what is intended by my feedback, and general purposes of feedback, as well as ways of responding to criticism.

One reason for this is to help the reader find a space in the project where negative emotional energy does not gather, and therefore the writer feels safe submitting work to me, which allows me to work as an editor.

Another reason for this is to provide the writer with a model for responding to criticism that can be applied when criticism is less carefully planned. Or even if it gets nasty.

This is not just a process of saying only nice things about a work; if I don't challenge the weaknesses of a work, I lose the opportunity to guide the writer's effort to the areas where that effort will be most efficient, and it's generally harder to improve on what is already strong than it is to improve on what is weak--you can always (or at least) delete a weak section, thereby improving a work as a whole.

This is a crucial skill for a writer: to be able to use editorial critique in an effective manner, to be able to distinguish the important critiques from the mean spirited attacks, and to be able to distinguish which critiques are on the mark, which just slightly off the mark, and which are off target.

One way to think about feedback is as the response of a reader--if you don't like the response you got, then you know that you want to modify what you've written to change the response.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Marketing Strategy (continued)

What we intend does not always happen. We say one thing, but something else is heard. Partly this is a matter of context: we all contextualize things differently, and interpretation depends on context.

Anyway, yesterday I was writing about conflict of interest and marketing strategy because I had been asked a question that verged on asking about something about which I had a conflict of interest (though the actual question was carefully worded so as to avoid involving my conflicted interests). And that question prompted some ideas that led to my writing yesterday's post on Marketing Strategy and Conflict of Interest.

Which prompted a response I had not expected, intended or hoped for. For which reason, today I'm going to write a little about my basic principle for marketing.

I think I have good ideas.
I think that some of the good ideas that I have can be productively shared in a general way so that someone I never met can benefit from them.
I think that some aspects of a writing project are so specific that no general advice can cover them, but they are things where a keen, critical eye and an insightful reader and listener can provide profound assistance.

My strategy is as follows: by sharing what I can (e.g. through this blog, or the few tips on my were the germ of this blog) I hope to demonstrate value. And thus convince people to pay me (this, I said yesterday).

My strategy, however, is not to try to force people into working with me through teasers or other hard-sell tactics. I'd rather have a bunch of people benefit from my blog and some of them choose to work with me than have only a few people read my blog, but all of them feel obligated to work with me.

This blog is free. I'd like it to help as many people as possible.
Good results of my marketing efforts (in increasing order of goodness):
Someone reads this and finds it interesting.
Someone reads it and finds it useful.
Someone reads it and finds enough that they're motivated to write to me to thank me for my efforts.
Someone reads it and finds it interesting enough to share with their friends.
Someone reads it and shares it with friends and writes to me, too.
Someone reads it and finds it interesting enough to decide to work with me.

All of those are good results. (There are other good outcomes, but they're basically obvious modifications of the results above.) I like helping people; it's nice on its own. Helping people for free doesn't pay the bills, otherwise I wouldn't bother to charge for my services at all. For better or worse, however, the US is a capitalist, market economy and if I don't get some money, I can't participate in neat activities like eating food or having a home.

But money is not the only value.
If you read this blog and it helps you, you are welcome to the assistance for free. You are welcome to all of the ideas; please, of course, respect the copyright, but read at your pleasure. Enjoy! (And I do mean you!)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Marketing Strategy and Conflict of Interest

Being as that I support myself by providing services, I want people to engage my services.

In an effort to get people to engage my services, I engage in marketing practices. I try to put my name out there in a way that will interest people and will convince them that my services would be a good investment.

There are, of course, different ways to do this.
For my part, among other things, I have chosen to write a blog that addresses issues that my clients work with, and that I work with in my life as a writer. My thought is to give people real ideas and real assistance so that they believe that my services will be of worth. If you've found material in this blog useful, then you have reason to believe that I can help.

But this strategy has a potential negative impact: people might find my free assistance to render paying for services unnecessary. Or it may lead one to think that my suggestions are a useful supplement to working with a different person.

I couldn't do it any other way, though. Every road has a risk. I look at websites of other writing coaches sometimes. I found one that had "tips"--it had four different "tips", each of which reduced to "If you have a problem in realm X, you should hire us." I couldn't do that; it doesn't seem convincing to me.

It's an interesting conundrum. I believe in my own abilities. But conflicts of interest are insidious: they may work at levels we can't easily analyze. This is why judges are supposed to recuse themselves in the case of conflicts of interest. It's well and good to say "Sure, I have a conflict of interest, but I'll still judge the case on its merits." But practicing that is hard. And it can be hard for others to trust that decision.

I'm writing this partly because a client of mine asked my opinion on hiring the services of someone who is essentially my competitor, and giving a good answer requires my recognition that I have an interest in the matter as my client's budget is limited. I intend to do my best to give an honest answer, but the conflicting interest is present.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Iteration (2)

Iteration doesn't only occur in the writing. There are many aspects of a large project that you can return to as you work through it.

Any project that involves significant learning will lead to new perspectives that force revisiting old ideas and old decisions. It is not unlikely that you will have refine/redefine your terms, redefine your method, redefine your conclusions, and so on. Because you are learning, you are subject to the ideas that you come to value. We would need much less iteration if we never learned anything at all--we could simply do things exactly the way we did them previously. But that probably won't work for writing a dissertation.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


The writing process is a learning process. As such it involves some degree of repetition.

In other words writing and rewriting. It probably won't work out right on the first draft--at least not if it's long. It's hard enough to get something to work out as a first draft when it's only a few hundred words. If it's thousands of words, or tens of thousands, or even a hundred thousand, getting it right on the first try is going to be a lot more difficult.

I think I write most efficiently when I just dive in and don't fear having to rewrite. It helps that I no longer worry about rewriting. The more practiced I become as a writer, the easier it is for me to formulate a good plan for works large or small, and the easier it is to write a decent first draft. But it's also easier to simply scrap a draft and start again from the blank page.

Another iteration. The next iteration does not need to scrap the ideas of the previous iteration, but it can build on them and refine them. It need not scrap all the words of the previous draft, but ought only take those that suit the new vision--but honor the new vision, not the old words.

I think there might be some kind of freedom in planning on having to rewrite. It means that you can get the ideas down in a rush without worrying about getting them down perfectly. Your intention is to refine a work. Therefore, this is a sort of permission to make mistakes, which often frees up the perfectionist. There's also a certain inevitability: if you know you have to rewrite, you have to start by writing and so you can resign yourself to a lengthy task rather than resisting with the hope that somehow it will become easy. It won't.

The irony is that by embracing the work, the project becomes easiest. If you're writing quickly and freely, often you can produce better work than when you're trying to get a perfect draft. I can't prove it, but I think that by embracing the idea that a lot of work must be done, you reduce the amount of work that you actually have to do because you work better when you're not resisting the work.

In short, get ready to do it again.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Blank Page (2)

I repeat myself when under stress.

I was trying to think of something worth writing this evening, and I was faced with the blank page, and for a moment was intimidated by it. Then I thought "ah, but I can write about the virtues of the blank page." Then I check and found that I had already previously written most of what I was thinking of writing: that the blank page is an opportunity and that it problems are mostly in how we see it.

The blank page is an opportunity--it does not restrict at all what we might do. And this freedom can be difficult: too many options makes choosing difficult.

One thing in particular that I like about the blank page is that it can play a wonderful role in helping one organize your thoughts. The blank page doesn't impose any previous way of thinking on you: you can start afresh, using all you learned as you worked to lay out the basics of whatever you're thinking about. And that may bear similarities to what you've said in the past but still it may have subtle (or not so subtle) differences of significance.

Putting an idea down on a blank page can be a great way to test an idea. So what if you decide that you're going to scrap what you wrote on that blank page? You can't live in fear of writing the wrong thing: then you'll write nothing. So take that blank page and fill it with a new idea--see if the idea makes sense--use the page to express yourself on some subject or another.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A Good Argument (2): generalization

One thing that endlessly frustrates me in arguments is the use of quantifiers and appropriate generalization.

Generalization is necessary. We can't think or operate without it.
If we couldn't generalize, we couldn't function. We couldn't recognize food or people or friends. We generalize from specifics to future situations--this is something like the sense in which the pragmatists say that knowledge is what works--we eat one tomato, and we generalize that experience to other tomatoes, allowing us to eat them.

But generalizations can become problematic when used carelessly. Obviously this is true with the type of generalization known as a stereotype. But similar generalizations pervade scientific thought and are both necessary and perilous.
We want to be able to make generalizations that can predict (and thus guide) behavior; but situations are not always similar--and who is to say how a minor factor affects predictability?

We, therefore, ought to be careful with our generalizations and our use of quantifiers: there is a huge difference between claiming "All members of a class have property X" and claiming that "Members of the class are commonly observed to have property X."

Or, to use a well-used example: we may observe many white swans without observing any of other colors, but this does not mean that we know that all swans are white. Saying "All swans are white" is but waiting for one example to be shown wrong. Saying "many swans are white" cannot be disputed if you have observed these swans.

A good argument understands and utilizes the proper level of generalization.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Good Argument

Some arguments just aren't well-developed.
Some arguments are cluttered with unnecessary additions.

A good argument is a thing of beauty, with elegance, subtlety, and often great complexity and detail.

And for an academic work or essay, nothing is more important. Without an argument, there's no paper. Without a good argument, there's a piece begging to be ignored. With a good argument, people learn. Or at least I learn.

I see an incoherent mess, and I'm pretty much ready to dismiss it.
I see a brief, well-thought out piece and my interest is held, and I wonder about how the ideas develop.

If you have a good argument, it's not a bad plan to try to present it in as brief a form as possible. Such an attempt aids one in any ways: it's usually quicker; it's easier to avoid entanglements; and it's the best form to get feedback.

It's much easier to think of ways to fill out a sparse argument than it is to disentangle competing threads of a confusing argument. On a practical level, it's easier to give feedback on a shorter piece than a longer piece, if for no reason other than that the longer piece takes longer to read.

A good argument requires focus and consistency. It has to build on itself; it has to minimize internal contradictions; it has to recognize and acknowledge those that exist. It had best acknowledge, in particular, points that would be widely debated.
You can make an argument that the sky was yellow and the sun was blue if you want, but you need to acknowledge that there is general consensus to the contrary. An argument need not accept common knowledge. It must, however, develop the argument strongly; it must avoid mistakes. If you want to show that the sky is yellow and the sun is blue, it doesn't help your case if you insist that the whole world is in black and white.

What is really a shame, I think, is when a writer a sound argument and then ruins its strength and beauty by adding unnecessary details and arguments, especially if those unnecessary arguments tend to contradict other assertions, or are somehow grossly in error.

Of course the good argument is only one aspect of a written work. In addition to working out the logical aspects and logical relationships, it is also necessary to work out a plan of presenting that information. Logical structure is not necessarily linear. The written form is. (Even hypertexts that can have largely non-linear structure have some degree of linearity--every sentence is linear; so is our experience of time.) But that's another essay.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Managing People (2)

This may just be repetition of what I said the last time I wrote about this.

What we want is to set up situations in which we get what we want, or at least what we absolutely need, from people--I include in this our professors, but really this is all true for anyone.

I was talking with a client who was telling me about accommodations that she was getting for her disabilities. Now, I'm totally down with accommodations. But that doesn't mean that making accommodations may not require someone to do extra work. It may be right that they do the extra work, but that doesn't mean that they don't still view it as extra work. One thing we can try to do with people is make a point of recognizing their effort, and make a point of letting them know that we're trying to ask as little as possible. Beyond that, we can also seek solutions that minimize the need for accommodations that create extra work for others. It is reasonable to expect a certain amount of feedback and assistance from our professors, but it is also reasonable to recognize that our needs require effort on their part, and even if they're happy to give it, it's still effort, and if your relationship isn't particularly good, your deserving assistance does not mean that assistance will be offered with pleasure. Note that this is not about being nice to people for the sake of being nice, or about being shy about expressing your needs, or afraid to ask for help. This is about figuring out plans that will maximize that assistance that you do get.

Along those lines, I was talking with a different client about her situation. She mentioned to me that she had come to a realization about the importance of keeping her word when dealing with the people she was studying (she's an anthropologist), and later she mentioned that she was getting better responses from her chair/advisor. The link she didn't make was that she had been treating him differently--especially with respect to keeping her word as far as delivering drafts. Again, this is about making plans that lead to getting the best response that you can out of people. From one perspective, you might say that it's a purely selfish motivation (for all you cynics out there); the fact that it relies on treating others well is merely expedience. As the saying goes: you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Clear Vision

A dissertation can be viewed from many different angles.

My experience is that most people are thinking only of the argument.
Most writers are focused on the need to get the argument and the ideas right.
Obviously I believe that this is important (see yesterday's post), but the argument is only one way to look at the dissertation.

In order to generate a clear vision of what you're trying to create, it can be helpful to think about more than only the argument itself. What sort of rhetorical and argumentative structure are you going to use? How long do you want your work to be? To whom are you addressing the work? To whom is the outcome important? These are all questions that generate different perspectives on the work, and in combination they can help you focus your efforts as a writer.

Thinking about argumentative structure and rhetorical structure is probably the aspect that we most often think of when we're not thinking about the argument itself. This is the outline that we work on; it's also related to other stylistic choices.

Thinking about the length can be frightening. If you think "I have to write a 50 page chapter" that might well be intimidating. If you think to yourself "I have to write a dissertation and it's going to be 200 pages or more," that's definitely intimidating. the numbers break down quickly as you start to outline and develop your plan for your structure. If you have to write a 50-page chapter and you recognize that the chapter has three main parts, then each main part will be 20 pages or less. And a 20-page isn't nearly as intimidating. If you think that each of those 20-page sections can also be broken down into pieces, too, then you start to have lots of pieces that are each relatively small and contained. And, of course, if you have a good overall vision of your project, and you keep in mind how those little pieces relate to the larger structure, then the individual pieces don't get written as independent little essays, but rather include the ideas that tie them into the larger fabric of the dissertation.

Thinking about the audience and who might read the work also helps make choices. It helps with making choices about tone and style. It also helps make choices with material--knowing your audience, or imagining an audience, can help in thinking about what information would interest that audience, it also helps think about how much background information you need to give to the audience.

Thinking about who is affected by the results of your study is also important--this is similar to, but not identical with, thinking about the audience. It may be that the audience serves the interests of those who are affected and impacted. It may be that those who are affected or impacted are not directly related to the audience at all, but that doesn't mean that the information revealed will not eventually come into the hands of those who could use it in favor of those impacted.

By taking different perspectives on the work, and by looking at it from different angles, a better-defined idea of your goal can arise, thus aiding you, the writer, in trying to plan your writing and focus your energies as you write.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A Clear Vision and Clean Logic

The hallmarks of a quality work of scholarship are clear thinking and solid logic.
Or, at least that is one way to think of quality scholarship; I know there are those for whom complexity of thought is taken as the sine qua non of good academic work.

Anyway, I espouse the first position. If you want to write an incredibly dense and complex work, I may not offer the best advice.

But one reason I espouse clear logic is that it helps one develop an image of the work as a whole. I don't think that clear logic excludes complex thought; complex thought can be handled clearly.

I think a good argument starts with setting out the premises from which we work. This can be tricky, especially as we often take for granted many premises we use in our day to day reasoning, and when it comes time to write down our work, we see that we have been taking something for granted.

But that's how we have to start; if we don't recognize our own premises we're doomed to logic that can slide around with no certain premise. For example, if one is writing a work dealing with cultural differences, and making any recommendations for future practice, one has to recognize the logical/intellectual basis on which the recommendations are being made: are those recommendations, too, not derived from some sort of cultural image? This logical conundrum cannot be eliminated: if we want to argue that different cultures' patterns are all equally worthy of respect and preservation, we must make that argument from a place that does not agree with the opinion of many cultures (as many cultures hold their own values to be pre-eminent--e.g., Christianity, as a cultural force, necessarily holds that there is one proper way of behaving).

So there is a logical slippage zone in which a specific premise--in this case equal acceptance of all cultures--itself is derived from a set of premises. If you, as author, can lay out the specific premises on which you rely, and the intellectual foundations that form the groundwork of your study, then you can properly acknowledge the weak points in your argument, which is about the best we can ever do, anyway.

We can't prove everything, there is a logical infinite regression: to prove a point, we must assert some premises. But these premises, too, require proving. And cannot be proved, except with premises that then call for proving, and so on into the depths of infinity. Bertrand Russell, in "The Philosophy of Logical Atomism" says that we must stop this regression by relying on that which is "undeniable". In this day and age it is difficult to find anything undeniable--but if one sets out the premises from which one starts, one can simply assert that examination and testing of the foundational premises be kept outside the scope of the work at hand. This is not a cop out--it's a necessary principle that all philosophers must deal with; problems with infinite regression invade logic in many different ways (see also Borges's "Avatars of the Tortoise").

So, start by understanding the logic and reasoning of your work. Then you can build from there.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Conserving Energy

I wonder how many hits I'll get here from people looking for information on reducing carbon emissions.

I'm thinking of personal energy, of course, given my usual focus on writing.
And mostly what I was thinking about was much along the lines of what I wrote just a couple of days ago about focusing energy.

Conservation of energy is closely related to the appropriate use of energy: the better we focus our efforts, the less energy is wasted on fruitless tasks.

The great thing about the energy we have for our personal endeavors is that there is no strict law of conservation: by investing energy in our lives, we increase the amount of energy we can get back. In a practical sense, a regular exercise program, which obviously requires a significant expense of energy, still usually leaves us with more energy than we would have if we didn't exercise--at least over the long run. But the investment of energy can take other forms as well: working on productive endeavors, whatever they are, will leave us feeling the emotional lift of time well-spent. If we spend our time and value it, whether working or playing, we can get this lift. But if we perceive ourselves as wasting our time, then we pay an emotional cost instead.

Thus we want to conserve our energy by expending it in the most productive, useful and challenging fashions that we can devise--but always the idea that we are investing our energy in that which will make us more complete.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Finding Energy

One of the apparent paradoxes of life is that we often have more energy when we're busy than when we're not. Maybe it's just that we don't have time to realize that we're tired.

But maybe it's great upward spiral of mood that we mount when we begin to engage in productive behaviors.

If we work on something productive, even though it takes energy, we also gain the emotional energy that comes from a sense of accomplishment.

Humans are not machines and the emotional aspect of our makeup contributes to behaviors that do suit purely mechanistic models. It seems logical that if we feel tired, then expending energy would make us more tired, but this is not the case.

Obviously there's a point at which we need to rest, but if we're fighting lethargy, it's often the case that taking action, energetic action, will get you moving.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Unfocused energy

My energy has been unfocused the last few days. A slight touch of illness, a little gap between projects, a few days away.

It's so easy to let the momentum of a project slip away. It's easy to get bored with something that you've been working on consistently.

Taking a break to rest and to get away from your project is a good thing, as long as you remember to let go of anxiety about your project. It's a choice you can make, one which ought to be made consciously. Obviously you need to diligently work on your project to complete it, and you will complete it all the sooner for doing the diligent work sooner, but there is a place in the long process of writing a dissertation for taking a break.

The dissertation process typically takes months or years, during which the author is required to think clearly, work hard and write productively. Health, therefore, must be a primary concern. Both physical and mental health can benefit from rests and changes in patterns.

Given the value of maintaining a sense of enthusiasm and interest in the project, occasional time thinking about other things and getting away from the project (even if you do love it) may help give a little sparkle back to a project.

A little time away from a project also may help generate new ideas and new perspectives that are not so bound up in older thought patterns.

You have to be able to allow yourself that time, however, or there is little value in it. If you take some time away from the project and then spend that time anxiously worrying about the project and about your not working on it, then you're not going to get a lot of value from the time away--it will not be relaxing or restful; it will not be conducive to new imaginative perspectives.

Make it a choice: if you decide to take time, then let go for that time; if you decide to work, then work.