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« How do you read philosophy? | Main | On rest, and being good to oneself »

03/12/2014

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Jon

I just discovered your blog and really enjoyed reading this post. I look forward to exploring around elsewhere on your blog now. I've always been interested in how other people go about the writing process so this was interesting to see. Particularly since I'm an early career prof. working on a the first paper of a new project post-dissertation. I have been grinding away at it the way you described doing early on...I may just try getting the rest of it down on paper and working from there rather than being so meticulous with each paragraph as I plod along.

Thanks for sharing!

Anthony Adrian

Not sure how many people would be interested in how I write since I haven't published anything, but here goes nothing:

Everyday I wake up at or around 6 a.m., make a pot of coffee and plop right in front of my computer to write for about two hours. It's the only time I feel creative. Maybe it's the caffeine. Maybe my mind still has one toe in the pool of the subconscious. Who knows? At minimum, writing first thing in the morning affords me the all too important opportunity to indulge in my coffee addiction while being productive.

But after plopping down, things go one of two ways. The first way—if my idealized, disciplined self has his way—ends up with me writing using the Mumford method. It's divine. Really. You'll be churning out papers in no time by taking his advice. His approach to writing is just about bullet-proof, except where it's not.

My beef with Mumford's method comes down to this: it doesn't allow me to practice my prose! This is important to me because...I'm not so good at writing prose. But I aspire to be better. The thing is, if you are to follow Mumford's advice, you will work on a paper in bullet-note format until the idea is rock solid, write one complete draft, fix spelling errors and turn the thing in.

At what point am I supposed to develop my style? As I write the first draft (which doubles as the final draft)? No. After I've turned the paper in? (In my case, for a grade.) Again, no. It seems as though you're left with one option: fiddle with the style after completing the the first/final draft but before turning it in. But this takes away a good deal of the allure the method once had. Mumford suggests his routine allows one to produce more work with minimal revisions. But producing stylish work is just so damn hard. I feel as though I need to practice it every day, not once a paper is in its near-finished form.

The second, and more frequent, way things turn out involves me sitting down and writing the way Mumford wants me to avoid: I type up a bunch of stuff in my text editor (Emacs, of course), "thinking" as I write. The scare quotes are there because I don't always see it as thinking an issue through for the very first time. Instead, I think of it as practicing my philosophical skills simpliciter. Consider it this way: in nature a substance is never without properties, though we may "abstract" the substance from its properties, and vice versa. Likewise, in nature, content is never without style, though we may abstract the content from the way in which it is presented, and vice versa. Given my pathological aversion to using symbols—while being a member of the Society for Exact Philosophy!—this means there's plenty of style issues for me to work through. Sure, lots of the stuff I write gets the old heave-ho. But I write in LaTeX (sometime Markdown) so the material I nix remains with me, not just in my heart but also in the document, only "commented" out.

One of my professors—himself a style monger—claimed Mumford's method is a great tool for people who don't enjoy writing. And I sort of agree. Writing is both intoxicating and the bane of my existence. But I'm addicted to writing qua writing, not as a mere hurdle I must jump in order to do philosophy. I fear I can never follow Mumford's method, at least not without maiming it to the point where it may no longer be recognizable as such.

Anyone who has read this far can only begin to see the extent of my tortured relationship with Mumford's method. And yet I still recommend it to anyone who will hear my advice! Stephen Yablo once called Quine's criterion "powerless," going on to clarify his judgment as not stemming from any distaste for the method. Rather, Yablo "reveres" the criterion as ontology's one last hope. With respect to writing and the Mumford method, I couldn't have said it any better myself.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Jon: Thanks for the kind comments!

Hi Adrian: Thanks for sharing your process! It seems to me that the Mumford method may be a great method to draft papers. However, I would be *very* surprised if it would lead to papers of a publishable quality. Judging from your comment, it looks like the method simply has you write a draft and turn it in -- without revisions. I don't know anyone who thinks they can put together something of publishable quality that way. In my experience, at least, making something publishable takes a lot of revisions. Anyway, I think there's only one way to develop one's style, and that's simply to write, and write a lot. I've found that as time goes along, my style has simply improved organically, as a result of a *ton* of practice.

Anthony Adrian

Marcus: You're right about the necessity of writing a lot in order to develop style. I think we need to read an awful lot, too. Reading lots of *non-philosophy* has been most helpful to me.

As far as I can tell, (Stephen) Mumford does suggest using his method to publish papers. He claims it's how he writes both articles and books. It seems to work for him!

I think I'm going to try this free-writing stuff you mention. Seems like a good idea!

Marcus Arvan

Anthony: I have to disagree on the reading bit. Over the course of my career, I've found that I tend to subconsciously pick up the bad habits of whomever I'm reading. When I was reading a lot of Rawls, I ended up writing a lot like Rawls (yuck!). When I read a lot of Kant, I ended up writing a lot like Kant -- something I've also noticed among Kant scholars. My experience has been that I write better the *farther* away I get from reading. This is I think an added benefit off my habit of writing out of my head, with no books or articles around. It helps me compose simply and intuitively, in my own voice.

Pierre

Thanks to Marcus Arvan for sharing this: although I am unsure whether I have anything like a method (which is a way to say my method is somewhat wrong), I do believe this will be helpful.

Now there remains a question that is probably of a lesser interest to those who natively speak English: as a native French speaker, even though I am a bit more at ease than many of my compatriots with reading, writing or speaking (wiz an oribel aksent) English, I still have difficulties putting my ideas into written words and adequately to develop my arguments. This has, I am afraid, the effect that what I write is far from reaching the quality I would like it to reach, not to speak of the quality expected if I am willing to publish anything (assuming it is not a plain mistake to have engaged in a PhD).

So does anyone have an idea of how I could improve my abilities in writing philosophy? Interestingly, I have a symmetrical issue when writing in French: when trying to put an idea into words, I mix French and English syntaxes and find myself somewhat confused, so that what is clear and simply expressed in English lacks intelligibility in French. (I also hope I did not make serious linguistic mistakes: this would make my whole question quite ridiculous.)

elisa freschi

Pierre, I completely understand your point (English is not my first language, and not even my second one). In my case, I just gave up writing in my first language, because it takes too much time and energy to develop two parallel terminologies for whatever new concept I need to introduce, and because almost all the people I want to reach do in fact read English. I even wrote my PhD thesis directly in English. I use other languages only in the classroom.

Elisa Freschi

By the way, I have always had the feeling that most readers of this blog come from the US and/or have English as their mother tongue. If this is not the case, show up! We might want to start a new thread about this topic.

Pierre

Actually, as I am at a French-speaking university (actually two due to joint PhD advising), I *must* write my thesis, as well as my class requirements, in French. Otherwise I try to write in English, but I probably lack both training (sure thing) and a good method to attain a greater fluidity. I also have very few occasions to actually speak English: perhaps speaking English on an everyday basis would help me (hypothetical yet plausible enough).

However I believe it is a good exercise to go from one language to another, as it helps me see what makes an idea clear in both languages (especially when a phrase is so written that no straightforward translation is possible). Several times it helped me understand complex issues, in part because French and English have structures so different that the extra effort on translation forces me (and plausibly other people as well) to examine precisely how a sentence, and hence an argument, is organized.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Pierre: Thanks for your kind comment. Unfortunately, I probably can't give you much in the way of helpful advice, as I've always been terrible at foreign languages myself (and not for lack of trying!). I guess the only piece of advice I have is the one I would also give people for whom English is their primary language: namely, keep things simple. I always figure: if something can be said clearly at all, it can be said simply, in short, concise sentences using simple words.

Pierre

Thanks alot: simple as it is, keeping this in mind should be helpful (and hopefully, as I “train” myself, I should become more efficient at writing).

Would you mind considering the intro of a paper that I intend to write? Getting feedback from native English speakers, and thus from people who know, on reading, what makes a paper (to begin with: its intro/motivation) fit or unfit for publication, is really difficult for me as my everyday university life is a French-speaking one.

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