Monday, December 25, 2017

For whom are you writing?

This blog is intended to be aimed at academic writers, especially those who are struggling.  A lot of the time, however, the subjects that I most want to write about are more political topics.  These considerations are in tension.  This post grew out of that tension. What’s on my mind is politics, and particularly a subject of constant concern to me — the frequent GOP-led attacks on institutions that do research, a group that include not only colleges and universities, but the journalistic media, and U.S. intelligence agencies, and non-partisan governmental offices. But as I was starting on possible essays, I was wondering whether that interest suits my intended audience. And I was thinking about negotiating the gap between what I want to talk about and what I want to say for my audience. 

This moves, I suppose, into the realm of rhetoric—a subject for which I have a great deal of respect, but on which I have never done much formal study. How does one motivate your audience to get the result that you desire?  One place to start, obviously, is with talking about something that your audience wants to hear.  In a way, that’s the only place you can start. If your audience doesn’t find your first sentence interesting, they may not go on to your second. And  if the second is not interesting, they may not go on to the third, etc.  Or if they do go on, moving from one sentence that doesn’t interest them to another, they hardly are likely to respond to the work in a positive fashion.

But trying to talk about what someone else wants is a cop-out, a rejection of the principle of telling the truth. Or is it? The answer is that it can be but isn’t necessarily. It depends on how you approach it. If you say to yourself: “I’ll say anything just to get the work approved; I’ll lie; I’ll ignore my own beliefs,” then, yes, that’s a cop-out. If you say to yourself: “I really want to talk about X, but my reader wants Y, so I’ll start with Y and see if I can bring the topic around to X,” that’s not a cop-out. That’s a rhetorical strategy.

Part of the job of the author is to convince the reader that the work is well reasoned, carefully thought out, carefully developed. If you think that X is important but other people think that Y is important, then your job as a writer is to show your readers why X deserves mention. And if you can only convince your readers by talking about Y, then that’s the place to start.

Many writers get stuck because they want to talk about X and they know their audience wants to talk about Y.  If you’re facing such a situation, you might ask yourself whether there is any way to start the discussion with Y and move to X.  This cannot always be done, of course, but if you can’t do find a connection between X and Y, you should ask yourself whether you have the right audience.  There are some barriers that cannot be overcome, but it can be easy to hold too tightly to your chosen point, and thereby miss good opportunities for sharing your ideas.

The gap between what you want and want the audience wants may shape the discourse, but it doesn’t necessitate a corruption of the crucial ideas.  The fact that discourses can be adjusted to suit audiences does not mean that all discourses are distorted by the desire to reach an audience. 

So for whom are you writing? What do they want to hear? And what do you want them to hear? How can you bridge that gap?

Friday, December 22, 2017

Video: what do you do if your dissertation starts to feel meaningless?

Here's my second video. I'm planning to do one each week for a little while to increase my presence on the web.

Here it is.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Shameless plug: Like Thoughtclearing on Facebook

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Monday, December 18, 2017

Ideas, words, and lexical flexibility

Recently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an arm of the federal government, was reportedly ordered by the presidential administration to stop using seven words. This report sparked this post on ideas about writing, communication and research. I am particularly interested in the relationship between words and ideas or between words and things in the world, and the gap between those two things, which is an issue of crucial importance for academic writers.

The alleged censoring at the CDC has been disputed by the head of the CDC, and the New York Times suggested that the purpose of the directive was not to ban words, but rather to have a better chance at getting the budget approved by Republicans.  This puts a different view on things, and suggests the possibility that the people who spoke to the Washington Post in the original report might have misunderstood the purpose of the instructions.

But the accuracy of the report and the political implications and interpretations are not my interest here.  My concern is for the gap between ideas and words, an issue of importance for academic writers, because it can cause problems.  In particular, many people get lost in semantic issues: what does a given term mean to different people?  Different word meanings might be a good focus for research if you’re a linguist. But if you’re not a linguist, you can spend a lot of time and effort discussing and debating the various definitions of a given word without making any real progress on your own work.  

Words mean different things to different people and they take on different meanings over time—they refer to different things. And this is the key: there is a gap between the words used to describe a thing and the thing itself.  Changing the word doesn’t change the thing.   This is clear in differences between languages: English says “the sea” and French says “la mer,” but they’re both referring to the same thing.

For a writer, it is important to keep this gap in mind. Academics, particularly, want to keep their attention focused on the thing: what is the idea that interests you? What is the thing in the world that you are studying?  How can you describe that thing?  

There are different ways to communicate any given idea—not just by changing language, but by changing the mode of expression. And these different modes of expression have different impacts on different audiences.  At the obvious level, a presentation in languageX will only reach people who speak languageX. At a more subtle level, different ways of expressing an idea in a given language can impact audience acceptance.

The CDC instruction to avoid certain words can be seen as guidance for how to present ideas so that they will be accepted by the people who have to review the presentations.  If a reader is likely to respond badly to the word “evidence-based,” then there is a good reason to try a different word or phrase to present the same idea.

Writers (and orators) want to consider their audience when crafting a presentation: what kinds of expressions will the audience hear? What kinds of expressions will the audience reject?

When practicing writing, try to open up the gap between the ideas that interest you and the words and expressions you use to express those ideas. What are different words that you can use? What are different phrases or expressions?  By exploring different ways of expressing the same ideas, you increase your expressive palette, and increase your ability to reach different audiences.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

My first video

A friend suggested that I make some videos for promotional purposes.  This is my first. It's definitely rough, but it's a new medium to me.  If I make more, I hope that I'll smooth things out.

Here it is.

One of the first things I'd like to figure out is how Youtube picks the thumbnail image--what it shows me is not what I would want--it's not the opening title, or the closing--it's in the middle somewhere, where I'm speaking and my mouth is open and I think I look a bit frantic, even though I didn't get that impression watching the video.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Linguistic subtlety and grammar

In my previous post, I was talking about the importance of proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling—trying to recognize the great value of good command of these conventions that help facilitate communication, while also trying to keep focus on the ideas, not the formalities. Basically the argument was that errors in convention don’t matter if they don’t interfere with the communication of ideas (and that people who complain about errors in punctuation and grammar are often annoying when they over-emphasize attention on minor grammatical points at the expense of the ideas being communicated).  

Language is, or at least can be, extremely subtle in expressing significant difference, and the attention of the reader would be well spent exploring the subtleties, where the important difficulties lie, rather than attending to conventions.  

To reiterate the importance of punctuation, grammar, and spelling, it should be noted that the conventions themselves contribute to the subtlety—presence or absence of a comma can often have a significant influence on the meaning of a sentence, for example.  

But there are also times that the crucial questions are not problems with grammar, but rather small linguistic differences that are crucial to differences in ideas.  The Roman Catholic Church has recently moved to alter the Lord’s Prayer.  The change is linguistically minor, from one phrase that is grammatically sound to another phrase that is also grammatically sound.

The traditional English phrasing was “lead us not into temptation,” and the new recommended phrasing is “do not let us fall into temptation.” The conceptual difference of interest to the Catholic Church is the difference, roughly, between the Pied Piper and a lifeguard—the difference between actively luring people and aiding only when people go too deep (metaphorically). 

For me, such linguistic differences and their influence on the concepts being described are harder to notice when I’m focusing my attention on grammatical issues. And I definitely notice that people who are spending their time correcting grammar, and proving how well they know grammar, often miss the point of what is written. I remember once seeing a professional writer make a comment about the difference between US and UK conventions regarding use of the words “that” and “which,”  and someone responding “the rule is easy: here’s how you use ‘that’ and ‘which’…” Yup, you’re real proud that you know that grammatical "rule," but you totally missed the point about how that “rule” isn’t actually a rule, but rather is specific to the US context.  (Actually, even in the US context, that "rule" is often viewed as a suggestion--see what The Elements of Style has to say about "that" and "which.")

In short, the important stuff in writing isn’t the grammar. The ideas are what matter; grammar is only important as a tool to help communicate. And people who focus on grammar and miss the actual ideas are annoying.

Monday, December 4, 2017

On the importance of proper grammar

I was reading a book recently that quoted the 18th century scientist, Sir Joseph Banks, and commenting on the spelling used says in a footnote: “Despite his expensive education, [he] had managed somehow to avoid the basics. His disdain for grammar, spelling, and punctuation give his writings a magnificent immediacy.” The footnote, to me, characterizes an attitude that I find quite annoying. (I’m not going to give a source because I have no interest in criticizing the author, only the way that grammar is approached.)

As an editor, I value proper grammar and style highly. Despite the high value I place on grammar, I am tempted to correct it as little as possible. To me, grammar serves a larger purpose: a writer wants/needs to communicate clearly; proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar aid in clear communication. When I read as an editor, my major concern—often my only—is with the  ideas that the author is trying to communicate: what are they? Are they clear? Can I understand what the author is trying to accomplish? Can I paraphrase the author’s purpose in a way that would satisfy the author and also encompass all the issues that I see in the work?

The attitude that annoys me is when people just cannot stop from correcting other people’s grammar.  As a matter of my job as an editor, of course, I am often called to fix people’s grammar.  But some people just want to fix other people’s grammar for no particular purpose, except, possibly, to boost their own ego by proving that they know the rules of writing better than others. This is especially annoying in which an individual complains about a supposed grammatical error that isn’t really an error.

This is very much the case for the footnote I quote above: the author hides his disdain for Banks behind the backhanded compliment of a “magnificent immediacy,” and his claim that Banks “avoid[ed] the basics,” and had a “disdain” for grammar, spelling, etc.  Banks’ writings were bestsellers; they were works of great influence, largely responsible for Banks’s elevation to the prestigious position of president of The Royal Society (The President, Council and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge), the English scientific organization, a position he held for over 40 years. To criticize their grammar seems profoundly irrelevant, even if we don’t take into account the historical linguistic context.  In criticizing Banks, the author does not take into account the history of the English language. Written English is guided by convention, and in some cases by specific style guidelines. But in the middle of the 18th century, those conventions were not set in stone.  There was, in fact, great variation in spelling used by different authors.  In 1754, the Earl of Stanhope complained that it was “a sort of disgrace to our nation, that hitherto we have had no… standard of our language; our dictionaries at present being more properly what our neighbors the Dutch and the Germans call theirs, word-books, than dictionaries in the superior sense of that title." Samuel Johnson’s dictionary was first published the next year, but it was hardly a uniform convention when Banks was writing during his 1768-1771 voyage with Captain James Cook.  The fluidity of English at the point in time is evident in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which was published between 1759 and 1767, and uses quite unconventional English. Sterne, too, was a bestseller, and is still regarded as a significant figure in the history of English literature.  The less conventions are settled, the less appropriate it is to complain about someone diverging from convention.  Knowing a little of the history of English usage, the footnote disparaging Banks’s writing shows the misplaced interest in grammar that I find annoying.

Today, the English language has far more settled conventions than it did in the middle of the 18th century, but even today, there are people who want to correct when they just shouldn’t.  The obvious example of this is people who correct other people’s grammar on webpage comments: really, who cares that the commenter made a grammatical error or not? If the grammar is so bad that the thought is incoherent, sure. And if you want to insult someone, sure, pick on their grammar (it’s not egregious to complain about the grammar of the common “your an idiot/moron” or “your stupid”). 

As a consulting editor who works with graduate students, I get particularly annoyed with professors who spend their time focusing on grammar when, in my opinion, they should be focused on the ideas. Yes, it is within the purview of a professor to correct grammar, but the primary job of a professor is to teach higher-level subject matter.

Proper grammar and punctuation and spelling help a writer communicate to an audience. They are crucial tools in communicating. But the idea is the important part. If the idea comes through clearly, then any individual grammatical error is essentially irrelevant with respect to the larger purpose of the written work—or at least, it seems that way to me.