Parthenon temple on the Athenian Acropolis, Attica, Greece.

No matter how dense the subject, complicated the field, or convoluted the material, every interested reader should be able to access and understand the argument in any nonfiction book.

For some authors, this can be a difficult imperative to accept. When we’ve spent years–decades, likely–gaining expertise and building arguments, we often bury the assumptions, connections, and relationships that make up the foundation of our work. When we then condense our work into a book, we often assume our readers will do the work of excavation.

Although very (very) few readers will do this, authors often resist directives to make their arguments more accessible because it feels like a directive to dumb things down or pander to casual passersby.

To get past the resistance, we can think of accessibility not as a tool for making an argument artificially simple but as a tool for for making it functional and usable. In this case, functional and usable mean readable. Making thinking accessible means making a book readable, and it’s an authorial responsibility.

Books are, in part, a medium for delivering an author’s thoughts to a reader’s understanding. Ensuring successful (that is, readable) delivery depends on the access granted when authors adopt the conventions by which their thinking can be shared. 

These conventions usually guide authors toward locating their argument’s foundation and exposing the scaffolding from which their claims have been built.

Although this seems like it should be easy for an authorial expert, it’s very often not. The foundations of our most complicated arguments tend to be buried so deeply that even their authors can’t always easily find them. Consequently, many authors meet a moment of despair during the drafting stage–deciding that if their reader can’t follow their thinking, it’s simply because their thinking is too complex.

It’s possible. But far more likely, this is just the story we tell ourselves to avoid the difficult but necessary work of making our thinking usable, functional…readable.

While it’s true that not every reader will be interested in evolutionary biology and the future of genetics, or in the philosophical foundations and future of AI, those who are interested and motivated are capable of following the author’s most complicated argument, as long as it’s accessible.

We write for these readers–interested, motivated readers–readers who have sought out our work and want to know more. Making our argument functional and usable for them simply means making it readable.

Feedback is an integral part of any big project. Ideally, we solicit feedback from functional experts, neutrally review their notes, and integrate their applicable suggestions. In practice, however, we often solicit feedback from our friends, review their notes somewhat defensively, and search in vain for usable insights.

Feedback is always helpful, but it’s not always helpful in the ways we expect. Though we typically use feedback as a tool for finding solutions to our project’s problems, it’s a lot more effective (and more reliable) to use feedback as a tool for verifying our project’s problems (and determining which require our attention). 

We do this by looking for the feedback behind the feedback. Readers’ suggestions are often motivated by the emotional friction they experienced when encountering our project. When we look in the background, to the feedback behind their feedback, we can identify this friction and deduce the problems that generated it.

Let’s take a comparative look. Here, a list of solutions from a reader of a working draft:

  • Take out chapter 3–it doesn’t really seem to fit.
  • Chapters 8 and 9 are long and repetitive–join them together in a shorter chapter.
  • Some of the chapters start with stories and others don’t–start them all the same.
  • There are so many citations that I’m not sure what’s yours and what’s not.
  • The story in the conclusion is really interesting–move it to earlier in the book.
  • The same examples are used too much–mix it up more. 

These might be helpful, but they might be arbitrary. Is deleting chapter 3 a good solution? It’s hard to say when we haven’t identified the problem beyond “fit.”

If we look behind the feedback, though, we find more generative feelings:

  • I’m confused, and I don’t know exactly why. Maybe chapter 3 is confusing me, or maybe it’s another chapter.
  • I’m confused. Maybe it’s because some chapters have different forms than others.
  • I’m confused. Maybe it’s because there are a lot of interruptions in the sentences. 
  • I’m having a hard time following this argument. I’m confused
  • I’m not interested in this argument until it’s too late.
  • If I’m totally honest, I find this a little boring.

What’s the friction motivating our reader? Confusion: They can’t find the argument’s throughline. They don’t find the argument interesting. They may not find the argument relevant.

The feedback behind the feedback can feel harsh (which is one reason readers don’t offer it, and one reason writers don’t seek it out), but it very often points the way to the underlying issues keeping our project from completion. Sometimes, the most useful solutions are in there, but in the background. We need to look behind the feedback behind to find them.

Writers are intimately familiar with the tension between the fresh-start promise of a potential story and the perpetual pain of a blank page. But when the new year turns over, most of us feel the discomfort between productivity and paralysis, too.

The calendar may be a construct, but we’ve tacitly agreed it’s a construct that renews itself on January 1. The implication of renewal suggests a new opportunity to rewrite our beginnings and endings, making plain the latent tension between doing and dormancy.

While we frequently discharge this tension through resolutions—declaration helps to provoke the momentum we need to act—resolutions don’t really work. This may be because resolutions borne out of a desire to discharge discomfort miss the mark.

It’s uncomfortable to feel caught between possible action and perpetual paralysis. But we shouldn’t seek to relax this feeling. We should think instead about trying to heighten it. 

The push-pull tautness of desire—I want to act; I don’t want to act; I want to act—is elemental. We rely on it, especially the uncomfortable friction it generates, to negotiate a generative balance between activity and rest. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s popular line suggests something similar: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Reframing irresolution as generative orients it to the future, aligning it with action. Withstanding such tension mistakes the locus of power. When we foster such tension instead, we open wide the world of possibility: “One should,” Fitzgerald writes, “be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.” 

This year, it might be worth resolving to work toward the generative balance that tension makes possible. In doing so, we sustain the conditions of imaginative possibility, which gives all action meaning.

Writing a book feels like—because it very often is—solitary work. But a published book is the result of coordinated teamwork. A roster of readers, reviewers, editors, copyeditors, production managers and production assistants, marketing managers and marketing assistants—and sometimes an agent or two—are responsible for binding a sheaf of pages into a brand new book. 

Some or all of the following people often have a hand in shaping a rough-draft manuscript into a clean-copy book:

    • First, the writer
    • Then, usually, a reader
    • And another reader
    • And another reader
    • Then, frequently, a more critical reader-reviewer
    • Next, often, a developmental editor
    • Then, after revision, another, second- or third-round reader-reviewer
    • Often, next, a copyeditor
    • And another, third- or fourth-round reviewer
    • At this point, possibly a query reader-reviewer
    • Or, a query editor
    • Upon submission, an editorial assistant
    • Then, an acquisitions editor
    • Next, an editorial board
    • Then, the acquisitions editor, again
    • Then, a developmental editor
    • Next, a copyeditor
    • Then, a production manager
    • Then, production assistants
    • Also, a marketing manager
    • Then, marketing assistants
    • Along the way, an agent might also read and shape words, sometimes serving as a reviewer, a developmental or other editor, and maybe as a copyeditor, too.

The point is this: We often feel alone, and this feeling of alone-ness can be amplified in the process of writing a book. Perhaps we assume we must go it alone. Perhaps we feel as though we really are on our own. But, in truth, no one writes a really excellent book alone. It takes a team of interested, thoughtful people to bring forth a book that matters.

When we’re faced with disappointments on a project to which we’ve committed time, effort, money, and emotion, it can be hard to know when to persist and when to quit.

On the one hand, grit can get us over the finish line, argues Angela Duckworth, even when our lungs are labored, our legs are heavy, and the race is too long. 

On the other, quitting the race can save us from overvaluing persistence for its own sake, claims Annie Duke. Why should we keep running, Duke asks, when we know we can’t win, and when a loss means more than just a hit to our pride?

To dig deep and show grit, or to pull up short and quit? It’s a timeless question many of us must ask about the commitments we care about, whether it’s a project, a job, a race, or a relationship.

It’s a hard question to answer because we often assess the costs and benefits of persistence versus abandonment only when things go wrong. Yet, when things go wrong, we’re not especially good at neutral assessment. The sunk-cost fallacy and other cognitive biases typically limit our thinking and confine our actions. We end up overvaluing our investments when they aren’t paying off, or blowing long-term equity in a short-term fit of pique.

Because life is uncertain and so many variables shape our experiences, there’s no easy way to decide when to show grit or when to quit. But we can get closer to the least-wrong answer by identifying the root of resistance. Ask yourself:

  1. Am I saying no (or, I don’t want to; I can’t: I don’t feel like it; I prefer not to; uggghhhhhh), more than I’m saying yes?
  2. What are my reasons for saying no?
  3. Are those reasons bounded by time and space, or are they existential and timeless?

The preceding exercise won’t tell you what to do, but it may give you enough clarity to make a plan. For example, if your resistance is rooted in overwhelm, take a break, or take steps to reduce contextual chaos.

If, on the other hand, your resistance is related to the possibility that we are mere drops in the swelling ocean of humanity, that there’s nothing new in its depths, and that nothing you say or do can really change the rhythm of the waves, well, quitting isn’t going to change that, so you might just need to make a plan to comfort yourself before keeping on keeping on.

Garden shears isolated on a white background

Producing quality writing depends on successfully wielding two opposing forces: creation and destruction (addition and subtraction; expansion and reduction). On the one hand, you have to make it. On the other, in the process of making it, you have to let go of some of what you’ve made.

Unsurprisingly, the letting-go part of the process seldom gets its due. Writers refer to it as “killing your darlings” or “the cutting room floor.” Though the pain of the effort is communicated through verbs like “kill” and “cut,” it is a fundamental part of producing quality writing.

In fact, journalist Kevin Sullivan, in conversation with journalist Chip Scanlon, cites it as the best writing advice he’s ever received: “Don Murray, my college journalism professor and friend, said you can always measure the quality of a piece of writing by the quality of what you cut.”

It’s hard to let go of our brilliant turns of phrase, or our tightly crafted paragraphs. It’s harder to let go of whole narrative arcs. But Sullivan confirms that quality writing requires us to recognize that what we’ve created will almost always benefit from what we can cut.

To make it easier, save your cuttings as clips. The benefit is practical—you can consult your clips to develop new darlings. It’s also emotional—you can keep what’s not currently required, saving it for another creation.  

Screen Shot 2022-07-28 at 11.12.17 AM

Books are big projects. They require time and effort and can be consequently quite difficult to complete. Many (many) writers have to work hard just to make the time that allows us to put forth the effort. 

So, when we finish a draft of a big-project book, we want to be done—done with the time-finding and done with the effort-expending. We want to be done done. Yet, despite the meaning of “finished,” a finished draft is never The End.

Instead, it’s usually the beginning of implementing the big changes that move a draft from finished to accepted. Big changes are often suggested by critical readers, developmental editors, or hands-on agents and often include the following:

  • Too long: The book needs to be significantly shortened
  • Too much: The book needs to be broken into two or more projects
  • Too general: A specific audience needs to be identified as the book’s target readers
  • Too oblique: The argument needs to be obvious and integrated
  • Too weak: The argument requires more, specific, primary, secondary, or other evidence
  • Too confusing: The argument needs to be positioned as the impetus of organization 

Suggestions like these can feel big—too big. It can be overwhelming and demoralizing for authors to realize that their manuscript requires even more time and effort for completion.

But big changes don’t always translate to big effort. Revision, even major revision, is far easier to complete than the hard labor of producing the draft.

In the same way that carving a stone is challenging, while mining stone is backbreaking, shaping a draft into manuscript form is part of the process of artistry. Once the backbreaking work of creation is finished, refinement often feels like relief.

Authors asked to implement big changes can take heart: The request is often a testament to the reader’s confidence in the author’s craft.

Although he may be better known for his “2nd 4th grade” illustration skills, Tim Urban’s essays can be energizing. Exhibit X: His recent NYT editorial, in which he offers advice on how to approach time in a (near) post-Covid future.

The editorial is based on his “depressing math” posts from 2014 and 2015. There, Urban reminds us that although we tend to think we have all the time in the world, we don’t. Even if we’re very lucky and live a very long time, the experiences that define our lives—visiting friends and family, eating pizza, reading books—are not limitless. In fact, they’re depressingly countable. 

It’s gloomy. But it’s also galvanizing. When we realize that the life we (perhaps) passively live can be easily broken down into countable experiences, we can activate our agency to make different choices. Different choices can change the math, making the sum a little less depressing. 

Elsewhere, in Exhibit XX, Urban makes a similarly gloomy-but-galvanizing point about procrastinators. Based on his own rich experience, Urban argues that procrastinators frequently forget that, “No one ‘builds a house.’ They lay one brick again and again and again and the end result is a house.”

Urban here echoes Epictetus; indeed, the stoics have enjoyed a popular renaissance in Oliver Burkeman‘s and James Clear’s arguments on habit formation. Part of their message is that transformation is not the result of epiphany but the product of mundane persistence. (And persistence is most efficiently executed through habits.)

Taken together, depressing math and the procrastinator’s faulty memory can help us think about the mediating role we can play in our own lives. By intervening in the parts—whether in terms of the experiences that add up to a life, or in terms of the small steps that result in a transformative project—we can change the whole. From the perspective of the present, this kind of intervention requires a persistence that tethers it to the mundane. It’s often only from the vantage point of the future that we can see its bigger meaning.

Stars

(Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA)

Although the American myth of meritocracy continues to crumble to smithereens, some of its fragments are worthy of consideration.

For instance, what does it mean when people who cannot succeed by virtue of their demonstrated abilities and merit, nonetheless continue to achieve? In this context (which is ours), what does success—or failure—even mean?

Success is typically communicated by signifiers of wealth, respect, or fame. It denotes achievement—which itself connotes effort—both of which confer the legitimacy collectively extended to success.

But when wealth, respect, and fame are gained without effort’s exertion, success becomes a more fragile, fluid word. It no longer refers to a meaning relatively fixed by the collective, and depends instead on the relative interpretation of a powerful few.

Failure is, or maybe was, different. Failure, denoted by lack rather than plenitude has always been fluid. We see this in the concept of failing up, where failure must be modified and fixed by its direction. The collective agrees, relatively speaking, that failure is not fixed.

To whom does it really matter if success and failure are now both fluid, relative terms? Well, for the collective seeking to award success and punish failure, it’s a problem. When we become less capable of consensus on what constitutes effort and exertion, we can no longer agree on who has won, and what, or who has lost, and how.

For the individual, however—for you—the responsibility of relativity can be a gift. Determining success and failure according to your own criteria is harder than it sounds, but it allows you to set a standard that matters to you. This is self-help at its most autonomous. Rather than reaching for a collective sense of success that appears increasingly empty, we can extend our efforts toward the kind of success toward which we want to strive. Of course, we can still fail. But, then again, we always could.

After the Locking, instructs Vonnegut, comes winter.

Here in Minnesota, winter has—emphatically—returned. I marked the occasion with a frigid run, thinking about my slippery but well-worn route, the new-but-old year, and the old-but-new omicron variant.

As I ran, I listened to Slate’s Political Gabfest, in which David Plotz, Emily Bazelon, and John Dickerson discussed a provocative conundrum: When is it okay to critique a friend’s creative efforts?

The initial, unanimous response? Never! 

But as they talked over variations on the theme, their answers started to shift:

Well, probably never…if you want to retain your relationship.

Perhaps sometimes…if they’re  particularly successful or are particularly solicitous.

Probably yes…if you’re a partner responsible for heading off potential embarrassment.

Definitely yes…in fact, you’re obligated.

The move from “you can’t” to “you must” seems to depend on the creative effort and on the relationship between creator and critic: Ultimately, critique might be necessary when the effort is writing and the critic is an editor.

Writing, Plotz argued, requires a critical reader because writing is iterative

Iteration describes repetition, making iterative a felicitous adjective when applied to writing. Writing requires repetition on both abstract and practical levels. When we write, we not only reproduce what we know; we also engage in mechanical reproduction—writing, reading, rewriting, rereading, asking others to read, rewriting, rereading, asking others to reread, then rewriting again.

It’s challenging, sometimes agonizing work, but modern iteration differs from rote repetition by its invocation of forward momentum. Iteration isn’t only repetition; it’s repetition toward refinement, toward a “desired result.”

Iteration is consequently an apt word for the work of writing. It’s also, possibly, an appropriate word for the work ahead.

In 2022, we face the same virus, the same intractable government and community responses, the same political rigidity, the same individual and collective challenges to childcare, school, and work, not to mention healthcare and other basic needs. The repetition itself feels like an inescapable, isolating trap. 

The language of iteration might help us conceive of a way out.

The gentle onomatopoeia in iterative means the word requires repetition for its completion. Like winter, like running, like writing, iterative work is repetitious work. However—and also like winter, like running, like writing—the repetition can reach beyond equivalence. Though 2022 is already a repetitive year, it doesn’t have to be the same as what preceded it.