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Toward a Deeper Vocabulary

August 27th, 2017 · 39 comments

When Writing is More than Writing

As a professor who also happens to opine publicly about productivity, I’m often invited to stop by dissertation bootcamps — a semi-annual ritual at many universities where doctoral students gather to hear advice and work long hours on their theses in an atmosphere of communal diligence.

Something that strikes me about these events is the extensive use of the term “writing” to capture the variety of different mental efforts that go into producing a doctoral dissertation; e.g., “make sure you write every day” or “don’t get too distracted from your writing by other obligations.”

The actual act of writing words on paper, of course, is necessary to finish a thesis, but it’s far from the only part of this process. The term “writing,” in this context, is being used as a stand in for the many different cognitive efforts required to create something worthy of inclusion in the intellectual firmament of your discipline.

In my own academic work, for example, these efforts include the general synthesis of trends in search of new openings, the struggle to read and understand existing papers, probing for a fresh attack on a problem, trying to work through the technical details needed to pull an argument together, and, of course, the careful grind required to write up the results clearly — each of which presents a unique mental experience and its own set of challenges.

The tendency for bootcamp attendees to sweep such varied activities together into a generic term like “writing” is a minor linguistic quirk, but I’m beginning to believe that it points to a potentially broader problem: our culture lacks a sufficiently nuanced vocabulary for discussing rigorous cognitive efforts.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if, as Boas famously claimed, the Eskimos have dozens of words for “snow,” then in an emerging knowledge work society, we should have more than a handful of words to describe the mental efforts on which, more and more, our livelihoods depend.

39 thoughts on “Toward a Deeper Vocabulary

  1. Nic D says:

    Coin those words, write a version for the Hudson Booksellers market, and your next book will do great things.

  2. Deepti says:

    I agree. Another word usage I dislike is ‘research’ to mean everything from clicking through Google searches to reading archeological texts to building a Large Hadron Collider.

  3. lindsay says:

    I’ve always found your word choice and general depiction of work as interestingly revealing of your field. Experimentalists with substantial equipment and procedural requirements have a different set of work expectations than those who work on more theoretical or proof-based subject matter. Have you sought input on your deep work approach from people in the more hands-on fields to see how their approaches might differ?

  4. Darwin Lo says:

    You hit the nail on the head!

  5. Not sure if this is an invented word but I use the word cogitate- or chew it over-
    as in “Let me cogitate on that and I’ll get back to you.” I find this type of deep work happens well after meditating outside with my roses for about 45 minutes.
    Thanks for your posts Cal.

    1. Esther says:

      It’s a favourite word of mine: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/cogitate
      This definition:
      “to spend time thinking very carefully about a subject”

  6. LHLiang says:

    Yes, I very much agree. For experienced writers thinking about writing, or working over something, and writing sentences in your head, can be tantamount to writing. What’s scratched onto the page has different value depending on whether those words have ‘stickiness’ (whether those words get deleted or remain).

    For journalism and similar nonfiction I have found that planning the structure and making notes within that structure–for example, having the first couple of sentences for each segment or section–can make the actual writing time dramatically shorter.

    Fiction, as I have found, is a whole different ball game, and can require long off-periods before you focus again intensely on creating a world.

  7. Jodie Jantz says:

    In Education, we are currently struggling with a similar problem. Teachers are tasked with helping students develop 21st-century skills. But we never break that down into something that can be taught. Sometimes you see it listed as critical thinking skills or life long learners, but it is still not clear so many if not most teachers are left without a clear sense of how to follow the mandate. Thank you for giving me something to think about, as always.

  8. Akram Ahmad says:

    – Your take on how the term “writing” has been conflated to near-oblivion is spot on; in the process, the term “writing” has been watered down to the point where, as you correctly note, its effectiveness (in what it was meant to stand for) has been diluted to the n’th degree. But no need no throw up our hands in despair, I reminded myself as I read this essay.

    – To add to my excitement, the thoughts in your fine essay reverberate in unison with a closely allied point that I was trying to get across when I opined some on the nexus between beautiful code and beautiful prose.

    1. Akram Ahmad says:

      Hastening to add—yes leave it to me to omit important details at times lol—that in my opining elsewhere I had noted how: “…more relevant to our present theme, Cal had this to say, in his slim and stellar book entitled How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students ? (Broadway Books), on the craft of writing, as should be practiced in daily life. Thus, in a chapter in that book, with the delightfully evocative title Write as if Going for a Pulitzer

  9. I tend to enjoy and use the following, as verbs:

    Attack, dissect, framestorm, mind-map.

  10. Kurt Simmons says:

    Gerald M. Weinberg once told me “There is a difference between ‘writing’ and ‘writing down.'”

    Sounds like the PhDs are having a “Writing Down Bootcamp.”

  11. Greg says:

    Musicians spend hours a day in “practice rooms”. Although they are not “writing’ they are in deep mental effort to produce the transformation of notes on paper to a performance.

    I suppose if would be a head-raiser if the Boot Camp suggestions were: “Remember, you must practice every day”. 🙂

    Different names for snow. Very Interesting topic Cal, thank you!

  12. Catherine Mpofu says:

    How about: remember to allow yourself time to think every day. 🙂

  13. KD says:

    It does’t take away from the core content of the post in any way, but here is some info regarding Boas and his supposed claim that the Eskimos have many words for snow. Simply put, this is a media driven exaggeration of what Boas actually wrote.
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4419

  14. Chris says:

    I think you’ve written about this topic before because I’ve had this same frustration for the past year or so since you’ve mentioned it. I am a student and religious person, both of which require time spent in a number of mental states. What frustrates me is that I’m not able to adequately articulate to others what I actually spend a lot of my time doing. For example, I do what I call “meditating” a lot, but I hate to use the word meditate because of its associate with the Asian religious/spiritual practice where one sits cross-legged and repeats mantras, which is completely different than how most of us actually meditate. I know I’m on a tangent, but for me meditation simply means to be in deep thought but with no words in your head; more in a state of receiving insight than mentally saying anything. But what’s frustrating is that there’s no word for that, at least that I know of.

    1. Josh says:

      That’s very true. It’s frustrating listening to something like a Tim Ferris podcast and the person being interviewed states that they “meditate”. I then wonder whether they focus on their breath, or whether they repeat a mantra from the Hindu, Christian, or Buddhist tradition, or whether they focus on a point in space, or any number of other things “meditation” can mean. I appreciate how Cal coins a phrase or word for each practice he preaches: “productive meditation” “quiz and recall” and “deep work” (to name a few).

  15. Carl says:

    Here! Here!

    Writing when/where you don’t have anything to say is a waste of brainpower.

    Perhaps the most atrocious*popular incarnation of this bad mindset is Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art.” (Give this book to an enemy who has creative aspirations.)

    1. Karin says:

      Strange take on War of Art. I think it’s brilliant (except for the weird angel stuff). I don’t read Pressfield as advocating writing when one doesn’t have anything to say per se — certainly not putting that stuff out for public consumption. It’s about finding and doing one’s true/desired work and mental forces that keep a person from that. Does your resistance to his discussion of resistance flag anything interesting for you?

  16. Carl says:

    I will say that writing my dissertation would have been easier if I had spent more time writing — something else. Long form email conversations did more to get rid of writer’s block for me than just about anything else.

    Trying to master the mechanics of writing while also composing a dissertation or novel is like trying to learn how to juggle while riding a unicycle.

  17. Tim Knittel says:

    Useful for contemplation as always.

    I think this concept dovetails nicely with David Allen’s ‘Next Step’ model. If the outcome desired is a written piece, often the next step isn’t writing, in the sense of stringing a series of words together. It may be checking out a book from the library, compiling existing notes, crafting an outline, etc. so when a student says, ‘I should be writing,’ what they may be trying to articulate is, I need to make progress, but I haven’t identified the next step in my process.’

    1. David Drake says:

      I agree completely! This is where GTD really shines in that one identifies the next steps in a project. So, if a student needs to prepare a written dissertation and then defend, saying I need more “writing” is too generic and not specific enough. Maybe the next step is to analyze your data. Maybe it is to do more literature research in preparation for the Introduction.

  18. How true. In the days when I used to still write code (I’ve moved on to other duties now), I’d sit at my desk for an hour or more staring at the ceiling and scratching my chin. When someone would ask what in the devil I was doing, I’d reply, “Programming.” The actual transcription of code is the briefest part of the task.

  19. Veronika says:

    I was first confused by all the “you should be writing” memes – once I had all the ideas and results of the paper, the actual writing time needed seemed negligible. But I’ve adapted my thinking about “writing” to “everything I do to advance my own papers” – with the downside that it is more difficult to track, as opposed to word counts.

  20. Rick says:

    Related to this (and some of the comments):

    A good piece of advice from a YouTube video (Teaching Talk: Helping Students Who Procrastinate (Tim Pychyl)) is to never answer the question “what are you doing?” with “working on my thesis,” because it doesn’t really mean anything.

  21. I think you’ve hit on something really important here, Cal. People almost ALWAYS visualize “writing” as sitting at a keyboard and seeing their fingers fly across it. Instead, “writing” really represents a whole series of different stages including: researching, thinking, planning, incubating and editing.

    The people who are mindful about separating these stages are usually the most productive.

  22. David Stern says:

    Oh, I always thought they were talking about actual writing as they often talk about “pomodoros” etc. I just assumed that their discipline is just different to mine (economics).

  23. Ben Donkin says:

    Holy crap, your writing in this blog post, as well as the ideas in it, are so good!!

  24. Susan says:

    Thank you! Working in the fashion industry, I sometimes experience similar frustrations with how to properly convey to my peers how I like to spend my weekend or free time, which heavily revolves around studying things I want to get better at or subjects I want to better understand. I sometime use the words “reading” or “work” because it’s more acceptable than saying I was “studying” when in fact that is truly what I do. If I respond to some people who ask what I did with, “studying”, they ask, “what for?” And when I tell them I study for fun– some look at me clearly as if they do not understand, and more often like I am odd. Sometimes I meet folks in my generation of the industry that understand and even respond with interest about whatever else I’m interested in outside of FASHUN. As an academic, I expect you rarely have problems with this, but for me, it’s a conversation hump I have to deal with frequently.

  25. Good point. Creating a thesis is a complex process. I tried to think for another catchy phrase that will send a clear message about the activity and have a problem coming up with one. My examples are “Theses Creation” “Theses Step-by-Step.”, or maybe “Theses Today”?

  26. Angelo Diodore says:

    That is extremely curious for me cause I ever think (and I can be wrong) in portuguese we have a lot of words for emotions and mental efforts.
    it makes me wonder if this is often the case in more poetic languages, or is like the common phrase “americans think by numbers” or just cause we love complicated words, like inconstitucionalissimamente. Sorry for all that bullshit of mine, I’m spaced out (I hope this is not slang for drugs)

  27. Jessi says:

    I read a good book recently where the author had a great term for all the hard mental time necessary to create that kind of output.

    It was called DEEP WORK, don’t know if you’ve heard of it. 😉

  28. Jones says:

    This would be a fantastic thing to see from you. Personally, I would love to see it focus in on the academic writing and research process, but I think a great deal is transferable to other areas as well. I would love to see you use your knowledge about successful academic research to give a more nuanced picture of the distinct intellectual tasks involved. This is something I’m thinking about a lot (writing a dissertation now).

  29. Jones says:

    To clarify a little further: I think the greatest single misapprehension I had about research before actually going in is that “writing” is primarily about writing. It’s not, and conflating those two things is a huge obstacle to progress. One of the really big reasons why people make that mistake is that, until they become autonomous researchers, most of the non-writing steps that result in writing are done for them — syllabi, seminar discussions, guidance from professors, etc.

  30. D. G. Cole says:

    Writing is thinking.
    Once again Cal has missed the point of others sound advice. Writing is the most important step in the dissertation because the act of getting the words on the page is both the hardest and the most important part of the process. The problem is that most students think like you and conflate all of the other stuff with writing. They think to themselves “I have to think this through first before I write.” Then, when they put pen to page so to speak, they think that one draft says what they want. But, they leave the reader lost in their still confused thoughts.
    I have no doubt Cal knows how to write — he is a productive writer — but most Ph.D. students are not as prolific or skilled as writers. The advice to write every day is sound and means exactly what is says: Put butt in chair, hands on keyboard.

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