Monday, August 18, 2008

Sense of Purpose: explicit statements

I had been pushing a writer to produce an explicit statement of purpose. Part of my motivation to do so was guided by my sense that if we have such an explicit statement to guide us, it will help us achieve our goal. (This is a principle frequently expressed in self-help books: a written goal is a goal that is supposedly more likely to be fulfilled.) I like the explicit statement because that statement can help shape all the rest of the work: we can then test every sentence in terms of that explicit statement.

But the writer asked whether such a statement was appropriate in the field of history. Not being a historian, I don't have a house filled with history books, but I did pull three "histories" off my shelves. The notes that follow are what I wrote to the writer.

I think that every author can benefit from clearly stating a purpose for their work--something that contextualizes the study, something that tells the reader what to expect, and how that piece fits within a larger world, and takes significance in that world.

I don't tend to read "history", per se, at least not what I would recognize as the product of a university history department, but I picked a few books off my shelves to see what perspective they give me on this.

Book 1: A Green History of the World by Clive Ponting
from the preface: "There are many books about...I feel strongly that there is a need for a book that looks at..." or to render the quote in full:
"There are many books about the current state of the environment and the prospects for the future but few probe very far into the past or explore the extent to which the environment has shaped human history and none covered the ground and asked the questions that seemed to me to be important. I feel strongly that there is a need for a book that looks at world history from a 'green' perspective."
I grant, of course, that it is a mass market book. But there's a clear explicit statement of purpose that contextualizes the work of the book in terms of our present situation and the purpose of the book in that situation.

Book 2: "A History of Western Philosophy" by Bertrand Russell, clearly we don't want to count Russell as a historian, but still...
The opening of the preface:
"Many histories of philosophy exist, and it has not been my purpose merely to add one to their number. My purpose is to exhibit philosophy as an integral part of social and political life..."
Again, a clear statement of purpose.
He closes the "Introductory" chapter with a statement that also expresses purpose and a sense that the purpose of the history is to serve a present goal--the final paragraph has these statements: "Social cohesion is a necessity...Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers...The doctrine of liberalism is an attempt to escape from this endless oscillation....Whether this attempt can succeed only the future can tell."

Book 3: "Mechanization Takes Command" by Siefried Giedion (an art/architectural historian of some reknown)
From the first sentences of the Preface:
"In 'Space, Time and Architecture' (1941) I attempted to show the split that exists in our period between thought and feeling. I am trying now to go a step further: to show how this break came about, by investigating one important aspect of our life -- mechanization."

When it comes right down to it, I think that an author is missing a very important opportunity if he/she does not tell the reader what his/her purpose is. Explicitly sharing your purpose with the reader--even through the use of a few short paragraphs in a preface--gives the reader reason to read on.

Readers of the blog have probably seen my past concern with sense of purpose and finding your own voice. Being able to state, in shorter and longer forms, a sense of purpose, a reason that the work is important, is what brings in the reader. I have here picked "history" because that was the field of the writer, but I think that this is a general thing: the academic writer should attempt to inform the reader of the reason for the book.

It is worth noting that in all three cases I looked at, the explicit statement of purpose was very close to the beginning--in the first paragraph, or even the opening sentence of the preface--which is the first text in the three books in question. Each of the three authors placed an explicit statement as very nearly the first thing the reader would read. If we assume that this is not a meaningless formalism, we might ask ourselves what would motivate the author to place such an explicit statement right at the beginning of the work. And we might ask: why not put such an explicit statement at the beginning of the work?

One can learn from books in different ways. I talk with a lot of writers who learn topical issues from the articles and books they read, but they don't learn about writing from those articles and books. By looking at a book to see what choices the author made--for example whether there is an explicit statement of purpose--we can start to think about the choices that an academic writer makes, and what choices seem to work when you read them.

A final note: if you look at a dissertation as a model, you will pretty much find an explicit statement right at the front of the dissertation: it's called the abstract, and, as far as I know, every dissertation is required to have an abstract.

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