Monday, September 24, 2018

Writing as Refuge

Reposted from my home page.

For many, writing is difficult and painful. And, when that difficulty and pain are combined with the obligation to write, the very idea of writing becomes wrapped up in the sense that there could be few activities less pleasurable or rewarding.  Given where most of us get most of our first writing experience—in school—where the only reward for writing well is a good grade, it’s easy to understand how people don’t think of writing as rewarding in any meaningful way.

Obviously there are some people who like to write, even when they’re just school students. When I was in high school, I couldn’t understand those people at all. But now, it seems much more reasonable to me.

Writing can be a rewarding experience. There are still difficulties in writing, of course.  But the rewards of writing are significant. Writing—the act—can be valuable, even if we set aside the possibility of some reward from having written well. Regardless of what happens when to your writing after you send it off to others—whether accepted or rejected, celebrated or vilified—the process of writing can itself be rewarding.

One angle to take on the rewards of writing is to look at it as a “flow activity”—one of the activities that suits the characteristics necessary to create the experience of “flow”, as described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  Csikszentmihalyi describes the experience of flow as being one of the best experiences in life. Flow activities are challenging activities.  They are activities where your skills are stretched to their limits, where you have a chance to grow, and also where you have a chance to fail.  The best experiences, according to Csikszentmihalyi, are not many of the things that we might think of as fun—watching TV or a movie,  enjoying a gourmet meal, or other more passive activities—precisely for the reason that they don’t challenge us, because there is no growth, and no development.

(On a side note, I think even connoisseurs of something—wine, music, art—gain as much pleasure from the difficulties overcome to become a connoisseur as from the simple sensual experience of the good [wine/music/art]—the sense that one has refined taste, and the experiences of bad [wine/etc.] are part of the pleasure. Or at least I have heard many who liked to think of themselves as connoisseurs speak with enjoyment of the unpleasant things they have done that help them think of themselves as connoisseurs—bad wines tasted, unpleasant concerts attended, distasteful exhibits viewed. They may not have liked it at the time, but after the fact, they find value in it, and perhaps an anecdote they like to relate. Of course, as I describe it this way, connoisseurship starts to take on some of the characteristics of flow activities—the necessary effort, the occasional failures, the challenges and opportunities for growth—that the simple pleasurable experience—the wine, the movie, etc.—doesn’t, by itself, have. The act of tasting one wine—which might be pleasurable—gets placed in the matrix of developing connoisseurship, and is no longer judged just in terms of the pleasure of drinking, but as part of a fabric of knowledge.)

As a flow activity, writing does require effort and it does have the possibility of failure, and thus it’s not an activity that is guaranteed to deliver pleasure.  There are days when writing is more difficult and less pleasurable. There are days when it takes a lot of effort to get started writing.  But as a flow activity, writing can be absorbing and positive.  And when it is, then it can serve as a refuge of sorts from other problems—at least from emotional ones.

Writing requires skill, and it develops with practice. If you only know writing as an occasional task that you avoid, then, of course, it won’t become any sort of refuge—it will only remain distant and difficult.  But if you develop a practice of writing regularly—if you work on writing, and you regularly work through difficult patches in your writing practice—then the practice itself is more likely to have pleasurable moments—moments when you feel like writing is going well—and therefore it is more likely become a refuge.

There are plenty of activities that people use as a refuge. Hobbyists typically find refuge in their hobby. And realistically, many hobbies are flow activities—building models, artistic pursuits, athletic skills--all of these share the characteristic that they have difficulties, failures, and the possibility for growth.  Most people wouldn’t view writing as a hobby, but there are those for whom it is, of a sort.  Other activities that might not be considered “hobbies” might also be considered refuges, for example, mediation practices or yoga.

Writing, of course, can be part of a job or a set of responsibilities, not just a hobby. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be both hobby and work. Nor that it is impossible to mix a hobby with work—indeed, many people do mix a hobby with work by pursuing a passion that started as a hobby and turned into a career, for example, an artist who leaves a day job to make an art career, or an amateur cook who decides to open a restaurant.  And I think, on an emotional level, one can move in the opposite direction: if writing is a job, one can, with practice and the right attitude, turn it into something of a hobby.  It may be hard to imagine enjoying writing, especially if you’re required to write in your career, but it’s possible. 

Writing in any setting can be absorbing. It is challenging, and for all that reason, it can become some sort of refuge from other problems, if you focus your attention on overcoming the specific challenge of writing. If you get absorbed in the attempt to describe or discuss or reveal a certain issue, or the attempt to relate a certain narrative, it can take your attention away from other issues, at least temporarily.  And that is the refuge.  It is easier to find this refuge when you believe your ability is equal to the task—but that’s why practice is so important: practice improves your ability, and improves your understanding of how to apply your abilities successfully.

For my own part, I have various issues that trigger me and create negative emotions when I focus on them—anything from the un-scooped dog poop in front of my house, to reckless drivers who endanger my life and those around, to political malfeasance, and other larger social or global ills. When I write, and I start to focus on putting a focused set of ideas on the page, on finding good ways to express those ideas in writing, and on trying to find a good way to reach an audience, all of those considerations may take my attention from the things that trigger me.  Sometimes I write about one of those things that trigger me, but even then writing can be a refuge if it directs my attention to actions that could be taken to resolve those difficulties.

I’m over 1,000 words, which has been my rough goal for these posts, and realistically, I’ve made my point and may be getting redundant.  Writing can take your mind from other problems—and that’s something that’s more likely to happen if you practice writing. Not everyone is going to become a writer, but if, for any reason, you have to write in your life, then turning it into a regular practice will help writing become less of an ordeal, and more of an opportunity to find refuge from problems.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Missing Targets

This is reposted from my blog.

For the last year or more, my plan for this blog has been to post something every Monday. For the most part, I’ve been good about that, but there have definitely been times when that Monday deadline has slipped.  Today is Thursday and I haven’t posted for this week, making me several days behind.  
The reasons for my delay are minor—nothing particularly bad prevented me from writing a blog post in the last several days.  On Sunday, I could have written a blog post, but I chose to spend my time writing fiction instead.  That was not necessarily the best choice–I’m not really a fiction writer, having chosen to (mostly) focus my efforts on non-fiction projects. (I generally try to focus my efforts so that I can finish projects, and I think my non-fiction projects are better in quality and more marketable than my fiction, so when it comes to trying to finish something, the non-ficiton gets priority.)
But the delay does give me a subject: what to do when you miss targets.  (I have plenty of other potential subjects, actually, but this one seems the most apt for a day when I’m behind schedule. It is necessary to choose a specific topic, and follow it, rather than vacillating between different possible topics.)
So, what do I do when I miss targets? Basically, I don’t do anything special.  And that’s really what I want to suggest as the main point of this post: don’t let missing a target throw you. Don’t let it stop you, and don’t let it slow you down.  If you miss a target, the thing to do is to focus your attention on the writing project and to get back to writing.  Realistically, if you miss a target, the only way to recover from that is to get back to work and to keep working to try to find a resolution for that miss. 
What you (and I) don’t want to do after missing a target, is to focus your (or my) attention on the fact that the target was missed.  Turning attention to the writing project, gets you back on course toward whatever larger target you had been aiming for. Turning attention to the missed target doesn’t focus on what you want to create, it focuses attention on other things. If your goal is to create a piece of writing, it is crucial to keep your attention focused on the ideas that you want to express. If you start thinking about missing a target, not only is your effort distracted from what you want to create, but there’s a good chance that you will also have negative thoughts about yourself and your own work patterns.
Writing, writing well, and finishing writing projects, all require a big investment of effort.  It’s much easier to apply that effort if you are in a more positive emotional state. And it’s much easier to apply that effort if your attention is focused on the thing you’re trying to create instead of some personal failing.
In a way, this recommendation (keep trying; keep focusing on your project, even if you miss a target) is little more than saying “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” But it’s worth saying, I think, partly because the familiar aphorism is so familiar that it loses impact. And worth saying partly because the aphorism doesn’t contain any reasoning as to why it’s a good idea.
You might argue that my missing a self-imposed deadline for my own blog is very different from missing a target for a grant, for example, where that failure has significant impact. If I miss a blog post, nothing really happens to me.  Regular readers of my blog might be disappointed by the delay; they might even stop following my blog, but there is no clear and direct negative impact similar to what might occur if, for example, you miss a deadline for a grant proposal, for coursework, or for filing a dissertation or thesis.  There is certainly truth in such arguments, but that’s at a small scale: yes, the immediate impact of failing to meet some targets is greater than for others.  But on the large scale, the basic principle remains sound.  If you fail to get your grant proposal submitted on time, does that really change who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish? Or is that just a setback that makes it harder for you to pursue that goal?
There are times, of course, when failing to meet a target is a sign that you might want to find something else to pursue. But that’s a larger question, I think. It’s true that you want to use feedback about your performance to decide whether to pursue some course of action. But is missing a writing deadline a relevant reflection of your ability? I would argue that it is not.  If you submit something, and it gets rejected, then it’s totally appropriate to look at that feedback for guidance on whether to continue to pursue your goal—this is especially true where there are hard and fast criteria for judgement—a runner trying to make a national Olympic team whose best times are minutes short of qualifying should think carefully about whether they will be able to shave those minutes off their time in the future. But that’s a judgement based on reaching a target, at least in a certain way: the runner who completes a race too slowly has finished the race—so it’s a situation more akin to a writer who submits a paper that gets rejected than to the situation of a writer who misses a deadline and submits nothing. (And, it should be noted that getting a piece of writing rejected is not something that depends on clear criteria—judging writing is much more personal than comparing a runner’s time to some objective standard.)
In this post, I’m most concerned with the emotional impact of being late, of missing a deadline, not of missing a performance criterion.  In my experience, it’s pretty common for people who miss some sort of deadline to spend time and effort berating themselves for the failure to meet the deadline, and it’s really that dynamic that this post hopes to prevent.  Missing a deadline is not the end of the world. Missing a deadline is just a delay. I failed to post on Monday, and I planned, but I can still post today. I can still post another post next Monday.  If, for example, you missed a deadline to file your dissertation this month, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t make the next deadline to file it.  (Yes, for some people, there is a final chance to submit—some deadline set by a school that cannot be appealed—and such a deadline obviously is consequential in a different way from missing your target of filing this semester but them having to file next semester instead.) A lot of missed targets are not terminal issues, and for such targets, it’s best to focus attention on next steps and on continuing your project, regardless of having missed the target.  I think this especially true for people with big projects: if you miss some target in the course of working—you don’t finish a chapter on time, for example—it’s crucial not to let that miss keep you from working.



Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Writing a Book Proposal

Reposted from my blog.

Recently, having worked on and sent off some proposals for a book, I’ve been thinking about these issues a good deal. So when faced with someone else’s book proposal to review, I definitely had suggestions.

No book, of course, is guaranteed acceptance, especially not at your first-choice publisher or agent. But a better proposal is going to get a better response.  So what makes a “better” proposal?
From a simplistic but pragmatic perspective, a “better” proposal is one that gets accepted, but, of course, you don't know what will get accepted when you're writing the proposal. But you can think about why proposals get accepted or rejected. There could be any number of characteristics that shape the decision on whether to accept or reject a proposal. Quality and content are obviously important. But, to be accepted, what matters is not just the proposal itself, but who is evaluating it. Beyond quality and content are specific factors that are important to the reviewer. In particular, people in the publishing industry want to know if a book will sell and to whom it will sell. It’s perfectly possible to have an editor think “This is good work, but I don’t want to try to sell it to my marketing department,” or “This is good work, but it’s not going to sell well.”

Understanding the audience for your proposal makes it easier to understand what they want, and understanding what they want improves your ability to give them what they want.  And that’s of crucial importance when proposing a book.

Writers—whether fiction or non-fiction—have stories that they want to tell and ideas that they want to share. An academic might have a theory to propound; a novelist might want to tell an exciting story, or explore the depths of the human psyche/spirit, but whatever they are trying to convey—whether entertainment or education—is central to what they’re doing, and they implicitly hope to reach readers who are interested in those same things. A scholar concerned with scholarly theory will hope to reach other scholars who are concerned with the same theoretical questions.  A writer who wants to write a vampire adventure will hope to find readers who care about vampire stories.  Reaching those readers and convincing them to read (and buy!) your book depends on describing the content in an enticing way. A scholar looking at a scholarly tome asks whether the content is good (i.e., whether the research and reasoning are sound). A vampire fan looking for entertainment asks whether the story is entertaining and exciting. Potential buyers of your book care about its contents and quality.

But people in the publishing industry will look at things rather differently.  When you send a book proposal to an acquisitions editor at an academic publisher (for academics) or to an agent (for fiction writers), you’re not necessarily sending the book to someone who cares about its content. The acquisitions editor may not be intimately interested in your theory. The agent may not necessarily care about, e.g., vampire stories. But that may not matter. The people in the publishing industry are crucially interested in whether they can sell a book at a profit. They look at a proposal wondering whether it’s worth their time and energy.  Could that book sell? Could it be produced at reasonable cost? Is it worth it to review that proposal and read the excerpts? Is it worth it (for the academic publisher, at least) to send those materials out to some expert reviewers (which costs the publisher money)?

Agents want to sell books, so they have to believe that they can sell the book to a publisher.  An agent may enjoy vampire stories, or whatever you’re writing, but you don’t your proposal to focus solely on how enjoyable it will be to read your vampire book. An agent wants to know why people might buy your book. So it's useful to compare your book to others, to explain why your might replace or complement others. An acquisitions editor may be interested in your theory and may have the education to evaluate its theoretical importance, but even so, they’re going to have to be able to convince a marketing department that people will buy it.

What really matters in a book proposal, I think, is talking about who would buy it, and why they would buy it.  If your story is the best story about vampires ever written for five reasons that you can enumerate, still, what really matters to a publisher is the question of whether or not lots of people want to buy vampire books.  If your theory completely revises an area of study and is incredibly powerful and groundbreaking, that’s awesome. But you’ll have to convince the publisher that many people are interested in that area of study.  The quality of your theory may be less important than whether or not a lot of books on the subject are sold and used. Is it better to have the reviewer to say: “Great content! Two people a year will absolutely need this excellent book,” or “I've read better, but lots of people will buy it”? 

It’s worth noting that expectations vary widely: publishers of academic monographs will look on sales of a few thousand as a success, while publishers of textbooks will be looking to sell ten times that. Fiction publishers are hoping for million-sellers, though obviously they don’t expect that of every book. (I don’t have a great idea of the volume that small-scale fiction and non-fiction publishers sell or hope to sell.) 

Every publisher is taking a gamble on each book: they hope for a big seller, and endure the duds.  At some level, a book proposal's purpose is nothing more than to convince the publisher’s representative that there is a decent chance of having a big seller and small chance of having a dud.  Those two conditions are dependent on the size of audience: who is going to buy the book? How likely are they to buy it? If there is a huge potential audience (e.g., fans of vampire fiction), then only a small portion of that audience need buy to justify a book's costs of production. If there is a small potential audience (e.g., scholars interested in some esoteric theory), then a lot of those people need to buy to justify costs.  These concerns should be central to your book proposal.

I imagine that most writers find it easier to describe the content of their books than to describe the audience who will buy it or the market to which it will be sold. But if you’re writing a proposal for an editor or agent, sales potential for a given audience is what they really want to know.  If your proposal doesn't tell them that, the chance that they will accept your proposal decreases.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Grammar, Content, and What Really Matters

Reposted from my new blog home at www.thoughtclearing.com.

Grammar is not one of my great interests. As both writer and editor, it is important that I have command of grammar, but, as far as I’m concerned, grammar is a secondary matter. It’s like enunciation in speech: it’s important because it facilitates that which really matters: the ideas being communicated. Yes, of course, it’s important to enunciate in speech: if you mumble, your listener has to ask “what did you say?” If your grammar is so poor that your reader cannot understand you, that's a big problem. But if your grammar is imperfect while your ideas are perfectly comprehensible? Whatever. Grammar is secondary. The ideas are what matter.

When you write or speak, what really matters is the message that you want to convey.  If you’re appreciative of someone and you write to them to express that appreciation, what really matters is that they recognize that you’re showing your appreciation.  If you make a grammatical error in conveying that message—for example, you write “Thanks. Your great!”—it may or may not prevent the recipient from understanding your purpose in writing. If the recipient does understand that you meant “you’re great,” what is lost due to your grammatical error? The recipient of the  poorly written thank you note might be disappointed by your poor grammar while also understanding your gratitude. But how much is really lost? (I ask that rhetorically, believing that not much is lost, while certain that some people will think that the decline of grammar is a terrible thing. But still, the grammar is secondary to the content.)  I’m pretty sure that a lot of people agree with me logically but not on an emotional level: If you ask people explicitly whether content or grammar is more important, people will usually answer “content,” but if you ask them to evaluate a piece of writing, their complaints about grammar are quite likely to come first.

Saying that the message is what matters does oversimplify a little bit, because communicating ideas does not solely depend on the ideas themselves: communication of ideas is influenced by the audience’s view of the speaker/writer, and the manner in which ideas are expressed influences the audience’s views. The first of these concerns—how preconceptions of the speaker/writer influence evaluation of what is expressed—is outside of my discussion of the importance of grammar. (If an audience is predisposed toward the speaker/writer, they are more likely to accept the ideas being expressed, and if they are predisposed against that person, they are more likely to reject, a phenomenon that has been termed “reactive devaluation.” While this is interesting, it moves away from this essay’s specific focus on grammar.) The second concern—how the presentation of ideas influences the audience’s view of the speaker/writer—is a matter of concern for grammar, but I will still argue that it is secondary. It’s not trivial that poor grammar might lead to someone forming a poor opinion of you and your work.  If the material you send to an editor at a journal or publisher is rife with grammatical errors, that will certainly influence their decision. But what if that material has only a few errors?

Here’s a question: would you rather be a person with good grammar and no ideas, or a person with good ideas and poor grammar?  Which person would you rather have as a student? Which person would you rather hire as an employee?  Which person do you think more capable of picking up the skill that they lack? Is it easier to get the good grammarian to have interesting ideas or to get the interesting thinker to develop good grammar? I’m simplifying to make a point about relative value: it goes without saying that it would be better to have both perfect grammar and great ideas, but on a more day-to-day, practical level, if you’re sitting down to write, and you have to ask yourself whether to focus your efforts on getting your grammar right or getting your ideas in order, which effort should you prioritize? My suggestion (obviously) is work on the ideas and to worry about grammar later (this is not to say that you don't try to get grammar right, or that you don't fix an error if you see one, but that your attention is not focused on grammar).

When I started writing this post, I was going to focus on one grammatical construction—passive voice—and discuss it, because I had been talking with a writer about how her advisor was strongly opposed to the passive voice.  I have generalized, because the more general issue—the relative importance of grammar and content—is the more important issue. For a scholar or researcher, the ideas are first and foremost. They’re much harder to get in order, and they’re something that the scholar/researcher must do him/herself in order to be able to claim credit for doing original work. In fact, if a scholar/researcher can get the ideas in sufficiently good order, it’s perfectly acceptable matter of scholarly ethics to have an editor check and fix grammar. Indeed, if you’re publishing a scholarly monograph with a substantial publisher like a university press, they will have a copy editor review and fix your grammar.  (This point can be taken as further evidence that an editor for a publisher will be more interested in the ideas of the proposal that you send than in your command of grammar: the editor/publisher will be planning on and budgeting for having someone fix minor grammatical errors. The editor/publisher will certainly have access to plenty of people who can write grammatical sentences; they will be looking for people who have good ideas to fill a book.) 
The work of a scholar/researcher is first and foremost evaluated in terms of the content and ideas. If the ideas are good, they will get accepted and (hopefully) discussed. If the research is well designed and conscientiously executed, the results will be valuable, even if there are grammatical errors in the presentation. (Again, I don’t want to discount the role that grammatical errors play in getting work noticed and accepted.)

Last week, in a post of advice for dissertation advisors, I wrote about this general issue—about how the content is what matters for a scholar, not the grammar. This version of the same discussion is more directed at the writers than the teachers: when you write, where is your attention? Are you worrying about getting the ideas right or are you spending time and effort on grammar? For a lot of people, time spent worrying about grammar can take attention and energy away from the work that really does matter. Again, it’s the contents that matter most. Grammar is not trivial, but it’s not what the writing is about (unless, of course, you’re actually writing about grammar). 
My advice for writers, especially for scholarly writers: write to clarify and explore your ideas. Don’t waste your time worrying about grammar. Yeah, I get it: Your professors will complain about bad grammar, and fixing that bad grammar will reduce complaints. Still, write to clarify and explore your ideas and to heck with good grammar. Once you’ve got the ideas in order, then work to get the grammar right, too. But first, get the ideas in order.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Reasonable Expectations of Success and Rejection

I'm reposting from my blog's new home:
https://www.thoughtclearing.com/uncategorized/reasonable-expectations-of-success-and-rejection/

Some people just have bad taste. Or bad judgement. Or at least different tastes or interests.  You could create a work of great artistic genius, and it might get rejected.  Responses that you get for your writing are not solely determined by the quality of the writing itself.  When you offer a work for review, the reviewer’s response is shaped by his or her own interests, concerns, etc. The response is not all about the quality of your work. Any number of causes could lead to rejection.
My book proposal got rejected by a publisher a few days ago. It’s a bummer, but it’s not actually a big deal.  I expected to get rejected.  Or it might be better to say that I was reasonably optimistic about my chances, where “reasonably optimistic” means “realistic about possible outcomes of submitting a proposal.” Some proposals get rejected. Some proposals of worth get rejected. And the people who do the rejecting don’t always get it right. Rejection is not necessarily a referendum on the quality or value of my work.
Recently, in a cafe, I overheard a conversation about the band “Crack the Sky.”  It happens that when I was about 14, my cousin gave me their album Safety in Numbers, which has three tracks that I love.  For whatever reasons, Crack the Sky never broke it really big.  Their first three albums made it into the lower half of the Billboard 200 in the 1970s, and they became very popular in the Baltimore area, where they remain popular to this day.  The question we can ask is why this happened.  Does their music have some lack that prevents it being as popular as other acts that have “made it”? Or was there some circumstance outside the ability of the band to make it big?
Ability and effort are not clear guarantors of immediate success. Crack the Sky may not have the talent of more famous musicians, and that may explain their lack of huge success. Or maybe they didn’t make it big for reasons separate from their musical abilities.  Maybe their record company did a poor job promoting them. Success and talent don’t always go hand in hand. Many great artists have only been recognized after their time.
Along similar lines, I’m remembering a passage from Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract. He was writing about baseball in the early 20th century and about the minor leagues and the quality of minor league players. Many big league players, James wrote, talk about their lucky chance—how they had a good day when the scouts came out to see some other player on their team who had a bad day.  James goes on to note at least one example that suggests that the guy the scouts came to see—the guy who had the bad day that one day—went on to have a great minor league career because he was a talented player. We don’t remember that guy now in the same way we remember the major leaguer, but that minor league player might have been just as good or better. The difference between a major league career and a minor league one depended on that chance of having a bad day at the wrong time. Is the situation of Crack the Sky something like that?  Did they happen to play a bad show the night a promoter showed up? There’s reason to believe that they had the talent.
These situations are parallel to my book proposal, in a way: There are any number of factors that might determine whether my book proposal gets accepted, and some of these may not be a reflection on the quality of my book. Maybe the person who reviews my proposal is grumpy on the day that they review my proposal, and pessimism tempers their evaluation where on another day they would have felt more optimistic and would have been more interested. Maybe they like my book, but don’t think that they can sell it.
One thing that I do know (well, I don’t have statistics or citations, but…): most book proposals do not get accepted. Only a small percentage of book proposals get accepted. It’s not being unduly pessimistic to think that my proposal might fall into the larger class, even if I hope that my skill as a writer and the quality of the story that I share influence those odds. I would like to believe that my writing and my ideas improve my chances of acceptance—but I don’t believe that my skill or content can guarantee acceptance.  Not alone. 
In the long run, the question is whether I can get my proposal accepted by some publisher. I only need one acceptance. It would be great to get accepted on my first try, but I can hardly expect that. (As it happens, my very first book proposal was, in fact, accepted for publication by Routledge. It helped that my mentor, Jean-Pierre Protzen, the first author, added significant gravitas to the project, but I wrote the proposal.)  I expect to have to try several times.  It would be great to get accepted right away, but I don’t view rejection as a surprise, and don’t particularly view it as an accurate reflection on the quality of my work.  
I believe in my work. I’m highly self-critical, so I don’t think my work is perfect. I am, indeed, highly aware of many flaws in it.  But I still believe that the ideas I want to share about the writing and research processes could help many people, and I believe that the book is well written.  The strength of that belief is a support when my book proposal does get rejected. Because I believe in my work, rejection is frustrating and difficult, but I won’t rewrite my book because of it. I’m going to rewrite my proposal and send it to someone else.  I don’t want to be oblivious to learning from feedback, and maybe a long string of rejections will force me to reconsider the potential value of my project, but I do believe in my work.  
Hopefully you, too, can believe in your work.  It can be hard to believe in your own work if you are self-critical.  But, if you believe in your work enough to send off a book proposal (or abstract for review, or other application), then you should not let rejection shatter that belief. There is always a chance that a work will be rejected for some reason unrelated to its quality or value. Expect the chance of rejection as a reflection of the many vagaries of life, and focus on the larger picture of finding the one publisher who will take the work.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Opening moves

I'm reposting from my blog's new home: https://www.thoughtclearing.com/writing-technique/opening-moves/

How will you capture the attention of your audience?  The first words that readers see are crucial.  Will those words give a good impression? Will they motivate the reader to read on? Will they motivate the reader to care? Or to think well of your work (and of you)? Here are some suggestions for how to think about your opening words.

These considerations have taken on greater import to me than once.   Once, I would have said that the ideas were all. Was the underlying story a good one? That’s what mattered.  With greater maturity, I recognize that no matter how good the underlying story may be, if it is unheard/unread, it is of little value (setting aside the value that the writer may get from writing).  And to get the attention of readers, the opening moves are crucial.

I’m thinking specifically in terms of my new blog, but everything I write has a beginning. What works in a blog is not the same are what works in other contexts, but the basic consideration is still the same: I want people to read what I write. How can I accomplish that?  As a writer, the words I choose are the only tools I have to get people to read (well, I could include images in my blog posts, but, for better or worse, that’s not the aspect of writing that interests me). In this era of search engines, there’s a double level, in needing to get the search engines to notice and then getting readers to pay attention, but still, words are the tools I’m using.  

Whether you are writing a blog or writing for publication or writing a doctoral dissertation, a good opening helps. If you give your readers something that they want, and something that interests them, then your opening moves are going to help you the rest of the way. A good first impression matters.
Because I’m aiming at an audience of writers, I opened with questions of concern to writers, which I hoped would spark the interest of some to read on.  Different readers, of course, want different things. Your opening moves want to be particularly sensitive to these differences, because it is at the beginning of your relationship with the reader that you most need to draw them in. Once you have succeeded in getting someone interested in your work in a positive way, then you can start to pay more attention to your own interests and to discussing your own interests. 

Once you have captured the attention of your reader, you want to try to anchor it by suggesting that the rest of the work offers some promise that they want fulfilled.  For example, as the last sentence of my opening paragraph, I promise some suggestions for how to think of your opening words, which, I hope, is a promise that got you to read on (I suppose that if you’re reading this that it might have worked). Or, for example, if you’re writing about research, you get the reader interested in a general question, and promise to reveal interesting things about that question (or about researching that question). Or, for example, if you’re writing fiction, you foreshadow some future tension (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — Austen), or you introduce a character (“Call me Ishmael” — Melville; “I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man…. I believe my liver is diseased.” - Dostoyevsky), or something strange and interesting (“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”).

What you don’t want to do is answer too many questions. You want to keep the reader wanting more. If you raise good questions right at the beginning, those questions can hold a reader’s attention through descriptive detail that gives background to your work, but that might be dry in and of itself (not that a good opening is an excuse for a bad continuation, but that’s another question). To keep the reader wanting more, it’s also useful to keep the opening short, that way the reader knows you’re not going to waste too much of their time—you don’t want to earn a “tl; dr” whether literal or metaphorical. And to that end, although there’s a lot more that could be said, I’m going to wrap this up.

To summarize:
  1. The opening matters
  2. Pay attention to your readers’ interests
  3. Appeal to those interests first
  4. Raise questions that you don’t answer
  5. Keep it short

Monday, July 30, 2018

Welcome to My New Blog (reposted from my new blog)

This is reposted from my home site, www.thoughtclearing.com, where I will be hosting my blog in the future.

Over ten years ago, I started a blog on Blogger, using that service because I didn’t want to try to manage my own blog (WordPress was still young, and I was unfamiliar with it–I’m hardly at the cutting edge of tech).
I started with a modest post about developing “momentum” as a writer–developing a sense of progress, a sense of motion that helps make each new writing session move better. It aimed at helping others with their writing, and also at providing a practice that would help me improve my writing.
It’s been an on-and-off project. For over a year back near the beginning, I wrote a post every day, usually with a length of around 1,000 words.  That practice helped me improve my own writing, but I let it lapse to focus on other writing projects (two books completed: one as second author–Horst Rittel’s Universe of Design, and one all my own–Getting the Best of Your Dissertation, as well as a third currently in submission to publishers).  For many years, I posted rarely, if at all, but last year, I started posting on a weekly basis with an aim to improving my search engine visibility, which is also my motivation for moving both blog and website to a new WordPress platform.
My primary aim is to provide useful suggestions and guidance for writers, though I will likely write about other subjects as they suit me. I invite you to ask questions: do you have any questions or ideas about the process of writing?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

On the incident with Jason Spencer and Sacha Baron Cohen

In an ideal world, people make rational decisions, right? They make decisions based on good reasons, on due consideration of potential outcomes, including bad ones, right? When people are driven by strong emotion, it is generally agreed that they don’t make good decisions. People do things when scared or angry that they would not do if they were calm and had time to reflect on the ramifications of their action.

With this in mind, it would be nice to think that our elected officials are making decisions based on good reasons, not reflexive fear reactions.  Whatever policy legislators  are going to propose, wouldn’t it nice to think that the deliberations leading to that policy were driven by due consideration of evidence and reason?

So, anyway, Jason Spencer is a Georgia state representative who just tendered his resignation as of July 31, 2018 because he did some stuff that was recorded for television, and after the fact he regretted having done these things. Putting aside any judgement of the people or actions involved, I want to focus on Spencer’s explanation (from the BBC):

[Spencer] said in a statement Baron Cohen had taken "advantage of my paralyzing fear that my family would be attacked". 
"My fears were so heightened at that time, I was not thinking clearly nor could I appreciate what I was agreeing to when I participated in his 'class'," he said.


His paralyzing fears were heightened.  Apparently, Spencer goes through life constantly fearing and expecting terrorist attacks from people of the Islamic faith. He’s far more likely to be killed in an automobile accident, or by any number of relatively innocuous causes, but for Spencer, apparently, the myth of constant threat from Islamic terrorists is constantly at work, and, thus “I was not thinking clearly nor could I appreciate what I was agreeing to.”

This is the problem with discourse that focuses on vivid dangers like terrorist attacks. It stops us from reasoning clearly; it stops us from making good decisions.

To some extent, the first bad decision is to focus on the vivid and emotional event that is a terrorist attack. Of course, such an attack deserves attention, and of course, the victims of such an attack are deserving of sympathy. But so, too, do all the people who have fallen victim to any of the sundry dangers of modern life. Well over 30,000 people die in automobile accidents in the U.S. each year (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motor_vehicle_fatality_rate_in_U.S._by_year), but Spencer doesn’t appear to be afraid of that very real and far more likely danger. The thing about terrorist attacks is that they are special. They are unusual. They make good news because they are special and different. We are shocked by them. With something like automobile fatalities, they are so common that we cannot be continuously outraged or distressed. Trying to report on automobile fatalities would be a bit like the body counts that were featured on the news during the Vietnam war: it becomes numbing. That numbing might be good if it lets emotions ebbs and allows higher order reasoning, but that same numbing is bad because it allows the problem to be ignored.

The vividness of the unusual event is precisely what makes it so psychologically powerful—so able to trigger the fears that overwhelm good reasoning.

Wouldn’t it be nice if political discourse was dominated by arguments based on good evidence and sound reasoning, rather than decisions dominated by fear where the person making the decision is “not thinking clearly nor [able to] appreciate what [he/she is] agreeing to”?

As someone with an explicit interest in clear thinking (or at least in “thought clearing”), I place a high value on trying to seek out the best reasoning and on trying to avoid situations where decisions are made on passion rather than reason.  I know that no significant decision is ever purely rational, but that doesn’t mean that one cannot strive for rationality. Horst Rittel, who shaped the program in which I studied, held that rationality was ultimately impossible, but that nonetheless, we ought to strive to use the tools of rationality as much as possible to guide our decision-making for the precise reason that the decisions we make can have vast consequences. We can’t eliminate the emotional elements of decision making. But we can—and should—make a concerted effort to avoid letting our thinking be constantly driven to a state of panic due to a threat that is, realistically speaking, incredibly small.

Monday, July 23, 2018

What is Writer's Block?

Recently, I read something that argued that there is no such thing as writer’s block, and that, in fact, writer’s block was essentially just an excuse for people who don’t want to work hard. That reminded me of one of the books about that I really dislike.  (Sources that I dislike will remain nameless because I’d rather not write bad things about people.) The idea that writer’s block doesn’t exist is something of a pet peeve of mine: I find it annoying beyond the scope of the claim’s significance. People who talk about experiencing "writer's block" are talking about something, and arguing that those people are just being lazy strikes me as facile and insulting. Plenty of people who struggle with writer's block are anything but lazy.  I'm not going to provide any set definition, but I want to consider a few issues related to writer's block.

It may be the case that the term "writer's block" is poorly chosen.  A book that I do like (Hjortshoj, Understanding Writing Blocks) argues that we should talk about “writing blocks” rather than “writer’s block” because that puts focus on the process and takes focus away from the idea that it is a personal problem.  From a strategic perspective—from the perspective of trying to help people get writing—I like Hjortshoj’s point.  But on another level, I don’t think that makes “writer’s block” an inaccurate term—in fact, in a way, it is completely accurate to focus on the personal nature of the problem.  Blocks in the writing process are intensely personal because the writing process is intensely personal, and losing focus on the personal element can interfere with attempts to understand how to work through individual writing problems.

Even if the term “writer’s block” is not poorly chosen, it is problematic because it is used to describe a wide variety of issues: one person’s block may have very different causes than another person’s.  We can generalize and say that these problems are psychological in nature.  We would not use “writer’s block” to describe, for example, someone who stopped writing after suffering a stroke, or a brain injury. And, indeed, we also want to say that “writer’s block” is only appropriate to describe someone who has a psychological issue of some significance. “Writer’s block” is not appropriate to describe someone who is just lazy. If you’re not writing because you’d rather do something else because the other thing seems more fun or more appealing, that’s not writer’s block, that’s just your choice about how to spend your time. By parallel, a person can choose to drink alcohol without having a drinking problem—it may not the best choice, but it’s a choice, not a real problem—so, too, can a person choose to avoid writing without having a problem writing (not counting the inherent difficulties of writing, that is).

But once I start to talk about motivation and intention, the discussion moves into slippery territory, and this may be part of what makes it difficult to define writer’s block (and also part of what makes otherwise seemingly intelligent authors write silly things like that there is no such thing as writer’s block because it’s just that people are being lazy).  At what point do we say that someone has moved from bad choices to actual dysfunction?  I’d rather not get into a debate about where the boundary lies.  It’s entirely possible to imagine someone who is supposed to write instead deciding “I’m going to go have fun with my friends.” It’s entirely possible to imagine that this choice was made simply because going to have fun with friends is fun, while writing is difficult (and often not fun at all). It’s also entirely possible to imagine that same choice being made by a repressed fear of writing that leads to avoidance.  One of these situations would not be writer’s block, but the other would be or could be.

If we start to think of writer’s block this way--as a pattern of not writing due to some psychological difficulty--we can see it in a variety of ways. In some cases it may be a symptom of some other psychological issue (e.g., depression). In others it might be a problem experienced only in the specific area of writing. Stage fright could be seen as a parallel, in the sense that some cases of stage fright are generally limited to fear of performing in front of others, while other cases are the manifestation of some larger issue, for example a more general social anxiety.

Another issue to consider is that the source of the problem does not always lie with the writer (or at least not with the writer entirely). I worked with a master’s candidate who was struggling because many previous drafts of work had been rejected by the thesis chair with the only feedback being to rewrite the entire thing. Someone who can produce several complete drafts definitely has the ability to write, and a history of producing writing is strong evidence that the writer is capable of writing. But none of that is a guarantee against getting stuck at some point. Repeated, unreasonably bad feedback could certainly cause an aversion to writing in the most reasonable of people. If you start to feel like your efforts are futile, it becomes harder to keep working. while it is true that the writer faced with such unreasonable feedback will need to find some solution somehow—but the best solutions that present (get a thesis chair who will actually try to help you learn! Quit the program and enroll elsewhere) are not writing solutions and my be pretty distasteful in themselves. Finding a solution is still problematic, but it’s useful to keep in mind that there are outside forces that can trigger problems with writing. Struggling against outside barriers can hardly be considered a personal weakness.

At its worst, writer’s block can become a severe and difficult self-reinforcing concern that contributes to other issues.  Someone who suffers from depression, for example, might struggle to write due to negative self-opinions or evaluations. In such a case, one bad writing session might lead to self-criticism, which makes the writer feel bad, and which then makes it harder to write the next time. And if writing goes poorly two times in a row, the negative feelings increase, causing problems in the third writing session, etc. A cycle like this a little self-perpetuating: it definitely takes effort to break that cycle. And if the writer starts to focus on the writer’s block as separate from the other issues, it can start to feel as if problems are compounding (“Not only am I depressed, but I have writer’s block, too!”).

To wrap this up, I’d like to note how much I like to avoid semantic debates: trying to precisely define “writer’s block” is just a problem that I don’t want engage. The issue isn’t whether “writer’s block” exists or what “writer’s block” is; the issue is how to get writing and how to write effectively. It seems silly to argue that all writers who are having trouble writing just aren’t trying hard enough. But it also seems silly to think that all writers who are having trouble writing have the same problem. For some, it’s this; for others, it’s that. The specific reasons that a person doesn’t write, and therefore might want to say that he or she has writer’s block, vary wildly from person to person. For some, it might be a mild aversion, for others, it might be related to or caused by significant emotional difficulties, such as depression. 

I have not directly answered the question “what is writer’s block?”  Nonetheless, I want to conclude by looking forward in the direction of a topic for a separate post: what does one do if one is not writing and suffering from that? What can you do if you are experiencing a writing block?  From one perspective, the answer to “writer’s block” is to view it as the symptom of some other problem and then to work on that problem. Focusing on writer’s block itself can distract from doing things that will benefit you. It is meaningful to talk about writer’s block, but only as a symptom of some other problem. From another perspective, the answer is simple, but not easy: develop a good practice. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Perspective and telling your story

This is a follow-up to my previous post about writing from the heart and writing exercises, in which I argued that, while it is always important to be true to the story that you want to tell, sometimes it is a valuable exercise to try to tell that story in a way that suits a particular audience, especially an unfriendly audience.  This takes that same issue from a slightly different perspective—from the view that any story can be told in different ways. I’m not talking about there being two sides to every story, in the colloquial sense of different people viewing the same event in different lights—though that is closely related. I’m talking about how one person with one story can tell that one story in different ways and with different perspectives.

Consider, for example, this blog post and my previous one: both are telling my views on writing to varying audiences, including hostile ones, but the first focused on viewing the activity through the lens of a writing practice—a practice to develop your writing skills—and this through the lens of the variety of perspectives inherent in a given story.

Or consider, for example, a research analysis using a novel method: just from the start, one can focus on what the new method reveals about the subject or on how that particular analysis reveals insight into the method. Both of these are typically present in any research project that applies new research methodologies to old, established fields of study.

The perspective that you take in writing or telling your story can shift, even if the underlying story itself remains the same.  Now it may be that you are more interested in one perspective than the other, but that only makes it a little harder to shift to other perspectives. Because stories are complex, the other perspectives are always there.

The researcher who picks up a new method may be so fascinated with the method and learning the method that he/she tends to focus on the methodological issues despite matters of interest in the subject, or may be so focused on the research subject that he/she disregards matters of method.  And yet, in this generic situation—applying a new method of analysis to an old problem—both the perspectives are always there.  This can be most easily seen by imagining two separate audiences: one, the audience of people interested in the subject, the other, the audience of people interested in the development of the method.

The perspectives focused on theory and subject aren’t the only possible perspectives, of course. Any work that bridges disciplines will naturally have separate perspectives for each discipline. And then any study of literature or history or any social phenomenon could choose to focus on a variety of perspectives, including historical, economic, sociological, or technological concerns. A Jane Austen novel, for example, could be examined through all these lenses (and probably has been).  Or a building designed by Le Corbusier. These many lenses could be turned on almost anything related to humans.

How does this perspective (that every story can be told from multiple perspectives) affect your practice as a writer? In my previous post, I was talking about writing to a hostile audience while staying true to your own story, and I think there’s a similar opportunity there. In the previous post, I suggested using the attempt to write to a hostile audience, and to suit one’s words to the hostile audience, as an exercise to improve your skill as a writer. Now I’m suggesting a way to deepen your thinking about your work by imagining the different perspectives that different audiences are taking.  What perspective is your hostile audience taking?

By understanding the perspective of your audience, you can better craft your response so that you can reach them.  Understanding the perspective of your audience means understanding what they are going to focus on as important.  Now it is quite possible that what they want to focus on is not what you want to focus on. In the long run, of course, you do want to try to bring the discourse around to focus on what you want to focus on. But the starting place is to focus on what they want to focus on.

If you think of the different perspectives on your story as all being present in your own story, you can start to see how to tell the story you want to tell, even if the first things you need to talk about (write about) are not the things that you care about most.  Such shaping of your presentation to suit your audience is not a sell-out of your story: you can stay true to your story. It can be a very good learning experience as you try to imagine your work through someone else’s eyes. (But of course, try to imagine your work through reasonable eyes—you don’t want to get stuck asking yourself self-destructive questions about your work.) Imagining reasonable objections to your work is a good way to make it stronger—finding real weaknesses is the first step in fixing them. (But, again, be reasonable: all work has some limitations, so don’t throw your work away as soon as you see some weakness in it.)

Hostile audiences are often hostile because they see the world differently from you. Trying to understand their perspectives can help you gain some insight into your work by looking at it from angles you may not usually consider, and trying to communicate your understanding of their perspective can help reduce their hostility to your work. 

Trying to build such communicative bridges is not, in my view, an abdication of your story or any sort of selling out.  Communication need not be focused on and framed around a disagreement, even if that disagreement is central to the work being done.  The very fact that you are communicating with a given group means that there is some common ground—some place on which you stand along with your hostile audience.  That common ground is a good place place to start a discussion that will lead to a point of dispute. That shared perspective, however limited, is a tool to try to bridge the differences.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Writing from the heart and writing exercises

Last week I wrote about a scholar who does great work, but whose dissertation has not satisfied its reviewers. I am, to some extent, writing about that same or a tangential concern and a related idea that came up in my creative writer’s group. A poet in the group was talking about submitting work to various journals/e-journals and about his recognition of the tension between writing what he wanted to write and writing what would suit the journal/editor. This is a similar tension to that experienced by a scholar who is trying to please an audience that is in some way hostile to their work.  To what extent do you change what you say to please the audience? Especially when the audience has power—power to accept or reject your work? This is, in a way, one face of “selling out”: doing work that you don’t really believe in for financial gain.

To speak of “selling out” focuses on a sacrifice of integrity, and that’s not really where I want to go. I think there is a lot more to the dynamic between writer and audience than a simple, clear assumption that pleasing and audience is always a sacrifice of integrity. There is a balance that can be found between (1) writing for yourself and to be true to your own vision and (2) writing to please an audience, especially one that doesn’t want the same things you do. There’s a lot in this dynamic that I’m not going to discuss in this post. I want to focus on just one suggestion: view the task of writing to please a specific (possibly hostile) audience as an exercise in developing your ideas and your skill as a writer.

A scholar—or any writer—should be aiming to write about things that really matter personally. Write about things that you really care about and believe in. If you’re working on something that you care about and believe in, it’s much easier to do the work, and much more satisfying to work, and that generally means that there’s less danger of writer’s block or avoidance.

But what do you really care about? Is that something that can be expressed in only one way? To what extent can you shape your work to suit your audience without sacrificing your own integrity?

It seems to me that any idea can be expressed in many different ways.  It seems to me that most really substantive ideas have multiple dimensions that could be discussed in varying proportion to suit varying audiences.

To put this in terms of poetry, one might choose to express some thought—the transient nature of life, for example—in different poetic forms—sonnet, haiku, etc. Each form shapes how the idea is expressed, but none fundamentally change the underlying idea (or at least none need change the underlying idea—but most writers learn as they write, and learning does change ideas).

When writing to an audience that wants something other than what you want—if you really want to write haiku and your audience is expecting or demanding a sonnet, you can say “I’m not going to do it! I write haiku!”  That would lead to something of an impasse. What I am suggesting is that you approach such situations saying to yourself, “Maybe I can learn something from the exercise of writing a sonnet. Maybe I can learn something about my ideas and something about the craft of writing that will help me write better haiku in the future.”

Approach such situations is as an exercise—opportunities to stretch your communicative repertoire.  If you don’t want to write what the other person wants to read, and if you think of the task in those terms, you can easily feel resentment for having to work on something that you don’t want to work on. If you say “can I choose words that will satisfy my critical reviewer and also stay true to my purpose?”, then your challenge may not be flavored with resentment—and that’s worth a lot (especially if you are one of those people for whom resentment fuels procrastination).

There is a lot that can be done to shape a presentation of your ideas without sacrificing them or your integrity.  Let’s set aside extreme cases where you are called upon to make a statement that directly contradicts your beliefs—if the editor at the journal wants a poem on a subject you don’t want to write about, don’t write it. If your professor wants you to say “Marx was right about everything” and you don’t agree, don’t write it. But if you’re not being forced to a direct contradiction of your beliefs, then look for the challenge of writing your own ideas in a way that will reach the difficult audience. Look for the opportunity to develop your skill as a writer and the opportunity to find a new way to express a familiar idea.

You may need to (temporarily) abandon the ways in which you have previously tried to write about your work.  This can be frustrating and difficult, but it can be a great learning experience for a writer—both in terms of developing a greater discursive repertoire and skill as a writer.

Looking for new ways to communicate and old idea doesn’t change the underlying purposes, the underlying quality, or the underlying value of the work. It doesn’t stop the underlying message from being shared with others in other forms.  What it does do is stretch the scholar/writer’s ability to bridge communicative and intellectual gaps.

There is a problem in trying to write in a way that reaches people with whom you have fundamental disagreements—trying to write in their language often requires adopting some of the conceptual structures that they use.  This makes the exercise in trying to write across these communicative gaps quite difficult while still remaining true to your own vision.  But, if you remember to think of the exercise as an exercise—an attempt to develop the ability to write/speak to disparate audiences—then these dangers are challenges to be surmounted, rather than causes to abandon your beliefs.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Make Them Reject It!

At a certain point, it is necessary to trust yourself that your work is good enough and ought to be accepted. Some self-doubt is appropriate—after all, there is little logical certainty to be had, and no matter how much data you gather or how many books/articles you read, there are always more data to be gathered and more books/articles to read. But, as a matter of practicality, eventually you must believe in yourself and believe that the work you have done is good work. At that point, it’s necessary to challenge your readers to reject your work.  You don’t want to get rejected, of course. You want to take the attitude that your work should be accepted, and that if someone is going to reject it, they better have damn good reasons for rejecting it.

Eventually, it’s necessary to force the issue with your reviewers—professors, editors, grant reviewers or whoever. It’s necessary for your work to be reviewed, regardless of outcome. In this post, I frame that in terms of “make them reject you,” not “make them accept you,” because I want to focus on the common emotional dynamic that many authors face where expectation of a negative response starts to impede progress. If your progress is delayed by thinking “they’re going to reject it,” then you might benefit from thinking “I have done good work, and I believe that my work should be accepted, and if they don't accept it, they better have a good reason, not some overly general complaint.”

In this post, I am generally writing to people who have brought their project to a certain level of accomplishment—people who have been basically diligent in their research and writing. If you haven’t completed a first draft yet, it’s probably better to finish the first draft and solicit feedback, expecting a critique, rather than “making them reject you”—getting a first draft returned with feedback isn’t a rejection, it’s an opportunity to improve the work.  Still, even during the early stages of a project, it’s good to think “I am going to do good work, and when I’ve finished, they better have damn good reasons if they reject me,” because it’s easy to get hung up thinking “they’ll reject me” at any point in a project.

I’m writing this post because I was recently talking with a scholar at the very end of a dissertation who was trying to respond to unreasonable expectations. A complete draft had been provisionally accepted, and in my eyes, it easily surpassed the quality necessary for a doctoral dissertation.  But the scholar was getting hung up on comments from some of the reviewers—getting hung up trying to make plans to respond to unreasonable complaints. And what was really needed was that the scholar assert that the work in the dissertation was done responsibly and to a reasonable standard. No work is perfect; every work has limits. At a certain point complaints that are logically defensible in the abstract become completely unreasonable in the context of the real practice of research.

When I say unreasonable, I’m thinking of one comment this scholar had received, in particular. One professor had said: “You didn’t come up with these ideas. Where did you get them?” There are contexts in which this might be a reasonable complaint—if, for example, the professor is absolutely certain of a specific source that uses the idea in question—but it is not a generally reasonable complaint inasmuch as the expectation and primary criterion for scholarly success is to come up with something new. The presumption that the scholar did not come up with the ideas is problematic.

A complaint like that must be met with confidence. It must be met with “These are my ideas. I have not read them anywhere else or heard them anywhere else. If you know of someone who has used them, please tell me.”  This doesn’t work, of course, if you want to claim that some well-known, established idea as your own—“every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” for example—but if ideas are really yours, it’s necessary to claim it, and to force the other person to prove you wrong. Say: “I have never seen this before, and I looked for things like it. Have you ever seen it? If so, where? Because I would like to see that source.” Such a response: 1. claims that you have been diligent; 2. forces the reviewer to specify, thus revealing whether the complaint is reasonable (there’s a source you should have used and didn’t) or unreasonable (it’s just an excuse to complain); and 3. it presents you as wanting to use the information (i.e., you want their advice, and you avoid conflict). This kind of response can help defuse complaints that are driven by emotional rather than intellectual motivations. And remember, it’s perfectly possible to independently come up with an idea that someone else has also had (e.g., Newton, Leibniz, and calculus)—it’s not a crime to assert “I haven’t seen that source, and came up with the idea on my own.”

A similarly unreasonable complaint is an open ended “how do you know no one else has done this?” A good scholar takes steps to find all possible resources that touches on the issues in their work. But no scholar, no matter how good, can read everything written. There are simply too many publications for any one person to read or even review them all. A good scholar will take steps to know what has been published in the literature, and then, having taken those steps, should proceed to do his or her own work.  At some point the scholar has to leave previous publications behind.  It should be enough to take diligent action to survey the literature and then to say “I have taken appropriate steps to review the literature, but that does not guarantee that my search did not miss something.”  On a certain level, this problem is something like the more general problem of induction: no matter how many observations an empirical scientist may take, it is always possible that the next observation will not follow the pattern set by previous observations. No matter how many articles you may read on a subject, you cannot guarantee that there will not be some other article that you did not find in previous searches. New articles are published every day--even if you did all the work as of yesterday, that could have changed with new publications.

It must be admitted that it is appropriate for a professor to ask what you have done to ensure that you haven’t missed anything. And it’s not right to be unduly arrogant about the work you have done. But when complaints like “how do you know there isn’t some work you haven’t seen” is combined with a less reasonable complaint like “these ideas aren’t yours; where did they come from,” then it’s appropriate to start to read that complaint as being unreasonable rather than just reasonable.

Ever since David Hume elucidated the problem of induction in the 18th century, empirical science has struggled to negotiate the problem that the next observation may break the pattern of previous observations. You’ve only seen white swans and never a black one? That doesn’t prove that there are no black swans, but still…  You’ve only seen books/articles that address one aspect of an idea, but not another? It doesn’t prove that there are no works that address the other idea, but…

At a certain point—when work has been executed diligently and carefully—you have to ask whether their complaints are reasonable, and you have to assert that your work is worthy. You have to force their hands: make them either reject your work or accept it, but don’t let them implicitly reject it by getting you hung up on unanswerable and unreasonable questions.

At a certain point, you have to force them to take their own stand and explicate their concerns, and if they reject you, either they have good reasons (I mean reasons that seem good to you and worth responding to, as opposed to unanswerable, unreasonable questions like “how do you know you’ve read everything?”) or you challenge their rejection (with, of course, an explanation of why your work ought not respond to their complaint).