Escher's_Relativity

“[O]ne has only learnt to get the better of words for the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which one is no longer disposed to say it”  —T.S. Eliot

The doing and thinking required to write and revise means that writers are constantly calculating the output of their subtractions and additions. 

We’re counting on precision, but there is no exact answer. We can’t use perfect words; we can only use words that serve the moment. But, blink, and, as Eliot points out, that particular moment has passed. Those words, “shabby equipment always deteriorating,” which were so apt, are already wrong.

The attempt to fix moments in time, with words, frequently feels impossible and pointless.  This discomfort can coalesce into an unmovable obstacle, encountered by some as writer’s block. 

Writer’s block does not mean that you’ve failed. It means that you’ve stumbled onto the failure of words.

Such failure is constitutive of language because language is not commensurate with meaning. Our words always say less (and sometimes more) than what we mean. We can never really say just what we want to say–first because we don’t always know exactly what it is we mean, and second, because if we do, we don’t usually have the just-right words to convey it.

In other words, our thoughts and words can’t coordinate precisely. Writing lets us pretend otherwise by offering itself as a tool for facilitating closer connection. But its mechanism merely extends the variable of time, which magnifies imprecision.

There’s a solution to this problem, but it’s not without remainder. We must free ourselves from the tyranny of exactness by acknowledging our future failure. It’s not a personal shortcoming: It’s a consequence of communication, which is only approximate. 

Similarly, esprit de l’espalier. is linguistic melancholy. The perfect words–like the perfect comeback–often only arrive (if they arrive at all) when the moment has passed.

We can still write, we just have to tolerate that it’s almost always wrong.

Though a project outline can be a helpful roadmap, for an outline to be radically useful, it can’t be traditional. It must be interrogative. 

We often take it on faith that all outlines are useful: If you’ve got a destination in mind, you want (and often need) to know how to get there. After all, aimless exploration isn’t ideal or enjoyable when you have an end in mind and a timeline for your arrival.

Although for a big project like a book, the destination is typically “done,” the kind of outline we use can get us there or it can get us lost. 

Traditional outlines get us lost. They’re passively structured and inert, articulating the themes and topics that need to be covered and connected to get a project to done.

But their structure makes it easy to lose your way. They’re simple and feel satisfyingly productive to create. We frequently confuse the effort we put into the outline with the effort required to turn the outline into a finished project.

However, our attention to it is reinforced by the traditional outline’s serial structure. An A, B, C pattern makes it incredibly obvious what comes next–D.

The obviousness poses a problem. By emphasizing structural connection, a traditional outline leaves unanswered the question of why A precedes B, and how we should make our move to B. The structure is maximally authoritative but fundamentally inert.

Question-based outlines, or interrogative outlines, on the other hand, are radically useful. Simply posing questions transfers the exploration of topics and subtopics and their connection to one another from the outline and onto the writer.

For instance, a theme like AI ethics in biomedical research, offers a nearly infinite number of topics and subtopics to be explored. A traditional outline encourages us to list out all the topics and subtopics that fit under this theme and connect them via seriation. It provides shape to infinitude, which makes it satisfying. But what is the shape of linearity? And when is it complete?

A question, on the other hand, solicits completion. If we turn the theme above into a question like, How will ethics shape the use of AI in biomedical research in the short-term?, we limit the topics under discussion while still allowing for maximal experimentation in our response.

Questions are dynamic. They imply not just one but many answers. They assume–by their very structure–an argument. Questions are also future-facing: A question mark solicits our future participation in meaning-making. And when we pose a question to ourselves, that question mark demands our participation.

So turn your traditional outline into an interrogative outline by reformulating your outline entries into questions. You may be surprised by how easy they are to answer.

Semiotic Triangle

When it comes to writing, AI can generate poems, songs, stories, and fiction and nonfiction books. It can produce interviews and summaries and evaluations and copy of all kinds. As it gains more, better, and potentially multisensorial training, it will be able to do much, much more.

For some, the sudden surge in applications uncovers previously unexploited conveniences. If, for example, you spend too much time writing articles to refresh SEO relevance, AI offers a convenient solution.

For others, however, the purpose of writing is not always—or not only—to get the work done. It’s also to do the work. This is the case even though, as a proxy for thinking and reflection, and/or as a means for information exchange, writing is an inefficient, inconvenient medium.

It’s also often annoying, irritating, unpleasant, and very, very hard. Even writers consider writing torturous—a point made in Hemingway’s oft-quoted description of writing as “easy”—you just have to “sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

But inefficiency and inconvenience—and annoyance and irritation (probably not the blood)—are important parts of the process. They’re cause and effect of the friction created when we attempt to match what we want to express with expression. 

AI can make the match easy by smoothing away this friction, but the convenience comes at a cost. In fact, Tim Wu writes in the still-relevant “Tyranny of Convenience” that although convenience helpfully and necessarily sands down some of life’s rough corners, if we sand away too much, we lose the edge.

Making easy our primary goal radically limits our choices, and thus the individuality we express in the act of choosing. Yes, AI can make the work of writing easy, but it smoothes away the friction that invites (perhaps requires) individuated expression.

We can and will turn to AI for a wide variety of tasks. But when it comes to writing, the hard work of enduring the annoying, irritating, unpleasant, and terribly inconvenient friction of writing is (part of) what makes us meaningful.

The most viscerally painful critique I received was from my PhD advisor in a high-stakes, high-reward meeting before my defense. She’d reviewed my 320-page, 466-footnote project. She had much to say.

I, of course, wanted to be showered with praise. I also wanted appreciation for the years of work I had put in. I wanted approval that would not only validate my efforts, but would also free me from this project, which felt more like a boulder than a millstone around my neck.

Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that I didn’t receive anything like the praise I sought. Instead, my advisor was outraged that I hadn’t adequately cited her influence. Then, she picked apart my argument, piece by piece, pointing out its every weakness and dismantling, theoretically and conceptually, the logic of its overarching structure.

I was annoyed. Then incensed. Then devastated. I was also embarrassed—embarrassed that my work hadn’t garnered her approval and embarrassed to realize that I wanted that approval so badly.

Today, more than ten years on, a major part of my work includes participating in similarly high-stakes, high-rewards conversations about high-commitment projects. I’m frequently the critic, but my work is also often the object of judgment. I still wonder: Why is it so hard to hear critique?

I’ve come to feel that critique hurts for a variety of reasons: It hurts because it mimics our inner doubts and insecurities. It hurts because it indicates rejection from a group we seek to join. Critique also communicates a strong signal that we must return to something that we long to release. It’s a painful indication that despite our efforts we haven’t achieved our aims.

I haven’t learned to lessen the quick sting of critique, but I’ve learned something more important: I’ve learned to see critique not as evidence of universal disappointment but as an invitation to collaboration. It may not be gentle, thoughtful, or even particularly well-meant, but critique frequently identifies problems and offers ideas that can make my ideas better.

Luckily, learning to view critique as collaboration isn’t a perspective shift that requires ten years to make. I believe I learned it back then, after the hurt of my advisor’s words subsided. When I felt capable of opening up my document yet again, I applied many of her suggestions. I ripped apart the garment I had spent years weaving, then pieced it into something new. It actually didn’t take nearly as long as I had feared, and once I was finished, I experienced the relief of utter rightness. The project was not only in better shape, but it had finally, finally achieved the form I’d been aiming at all along. 

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to feel the pain of critique many, many times. It still hurts, but now I consider it an invitation to collaboration. When I accept, my projects benefit.

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.  

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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.

“But is it publishable?” For writers of half-ademic books, it’s a common refrain. The manuscript’s “half” status can feel like the source of trouble, causing writers to question manuscript viability or marketing fit.

It’s true: It’s challenging to publish a book without a high concept or that doesn’t neatly fit into an obvious genre. But concept or genre adherence are not usually the right answers to questions about viability or fit.

Rather, when a writer’s doubts arise about a manuscript’s potential success, the cause is more often an ambiguous diffuseness in the argument or story. 

To provoke a sharper focus, editors might ask, “So what?” As in, so what if people feel bad and sad about climate change? So what if kids in special education classrooms don’t receive comprehensive sex education? So what if our genes matter more—but also much less—than we typically assume

So what? is an efficient editorial tool. It’s also a useful imperative to articulate an argument’s strongest expression. When you answer your manuscript’s so what?, you identify your manuscript’s reason-for-being. You make its fit at least obvious.

And yet. Sometimes, it’s not the answers that need to be made clear but the questions.

The order of operations for writing a book doesn’t always proceed logically. For instance, writers–especially those writing out of an academic tradition–might create manuscripts that offer subtle and complicated answers, but the answers apply to questions that haven’t actually been articulated.

This frequently results in an obliquenesswhat I above refer to as a diffusenessthat generate questions about viability and fit.

Consequently, the issue of viability and fit is not necessarily about manuscript and genre–it’s about the answers that have been found and the unasked questions that are driving exploration.

For many writers, simply articulating their questions creates the space required for the answers to fit, and for the manuscript that contains them to fit, as well.