30 July 2013

How to Write for Others: JBS Haldane's Advice Applied to Law

J.B.S. Haldane contributed so many words to science popularisation one must wonder how he found time to do the actual science.1 His work is relevant to ‘those interested in (…) science education and science writing’.2 I am inclined to agree, and would extend his relevance to include education and academic writing more generally. This post examines Haldane’s tips for popular writing and applies them to learning law.

When writing for a public audience, asserts Haldane, ‘[i]t is good to start from a known fact, say (…) a bird’s song, or a cheese’.3 From there one may build up to complexities or abstractions. This does several things for your writing.
  • First, it introduces a clarity that otherwise-abstract ideas may not offer.
  • Second, it pulls back the reader’s attention: when academic texts are too dry and technical, all but a minority will drift and daydream; attention will return with a clear picture.
  • Third, intellectual development will occur for two similar reasons:
    1. you will struggle to, and overcome that struggle to, find links between the abstract and the concrete, which will better embed the material in your own mind; and
    2. ’you will probably discover your own ignorance (…)’ because the concrete-to-abstract link will illuminate flaws when it forces you visually to imagine problems.4

Haldane also claims that to write with analogies ‘may [need] (…) twelve hours’ reading to produce an intellectually honest article of a thousand words’.5 The implication is that if work is not honest it is not worth publishing. If work is worth publishing in this sense it is worth the time needed to make so that a wide audience will understand it. The effort necessary for that is never wasted because the process is also self-educative.6

As I stated in my blog aims, to write is to learn. To write down one’s thoughts on particular issues is useful even if there is no audience or assessment. To envisage a public audience and a few laypersons, however, may be prudent: when writing notes for yourself, imagine an educated layperson will read them; consider suitable analogies to drive your technical prose into a mind without your technical knowledge.

This practice will speed up your assessment-writing because you will find in your head a collection of ready, unpublished analogies. To string together already composed analogies will help you compile a first draft quickly. Moreover, the visual imagery will make it easier to consider whether certain ideas are consilient with or go against each other.

Writing first drafts as fast as possible is good practice:
  1. Time is freed to research deeper into cases and statutes (in law, anyway);
  2. The spare time may be spent researching broader media;
  3. Writer's block is precluded--though at best, this is usually an excuse for laziness, otherwise the purportedly blocked mind would not have thought to express its blocked state (if stuck, just keep writing 'writer's block' and write it in different ways (eg 'blocked mind') again and again until something relevant comes out);
  4. As recognised above, gaps and mistakes in your understanding are highlighted;
  5. A draft is produced to work with, which will provide themes that may be synthesised (mixed) together for higher marks.
There are therefore several benefits to having a mind and notebook ready with quasi-stock phrases. No one need see your first draft. So no one need know how it was compiled.

In a future post, I will write about editing your work; for now it is important to say the following, then give an example: assessed writing is probably better if you rewrite or even delete most of your initial analogies. If you are like me, then however useful your analogies, they will usually be inappropriate for academic or formal writing.

In my undergraduate dissertation, for instance, I wrote a running-metaphor/analogy with potatoes. The ratio of potato:butter:milk:seasoning was very useful when imagining law and morality’s relationship. The ratio determines whether one has creamy mash, or boiled potatoes and a glass of peppered milk (note: probably do not try the latter combination). With law and morality, law has either moral foundations or mere similarities. The analogy had to be deleted. But when I wrote my first draft, it was much easier to imagine food and drink than abstract, contentious ideas. As Haldane states, ‘you (…) have to educate yourself as well as your public’.7 Using potato-analogies made this easier.

Auto-didacticism (self-teaching) is part of higher education (ie university) as much as directed study. First class marks are awarded to those who show an affinity for relevant materials in addition to recommended texts. To read more than asked shows initiative and passion.

Also, recommended reading is what the lecturer is likely to be interested in. If you read and then write about a lecturer’s expertise, you may struggle to amaze them with new developments unless you synthesise the available material in an original manner.8 Lecturers are, almost by definition, experts in the areas they teach. If you discuss material that lecturers did not recommend it shows you found something in the literature that interests you personally. This implies you are paying enough attention that when new ideas are read, you can assimilate them into your taught knowledge. It implies, too, that you know the taught-material so well you can and have built upon it. Do not ignore recommended reading, though.

I have no reason to doubt Haldane on the issue of self-education. From personal experience, the above statements are rational. There is another, tautologous, benefit to including relevant analogies.

Whether known or kept secret, readers demand good writing. Writers who accede to those demands become good writers. Knowing this, it is best to keep the reader on one’s side, and clear analogies may help to entertain him or her. This relationship between reader and writer has a third element, tacit and as-yet silent: the written words complete a hermeneutic triangle: writer:words:reader, or author:text:interpreter. This issue will be considered in a future post.9

For now, I conclude with a summary:
  • Prompt a good imagination with crisp analogies.
    1. Use verbs and nouns to describe analogies.
    2. Be specific.
    3. For example, cats pounce while law evolves with steady purpose; not furry creatures speedily jump while social institutions slowly alter).
  • Finish a point before analogising or giving examples in general. That is, try not to separate a premise with its explanatory analogy.
  • Delete inappropriate analogies before handing in assessments; deleting may reduce your word count and create space for more criticism.
  • Be opportunistic: to write is to teach oneself, just as much as it is to inform others.
  • Before finishing the whole text, readers do not know what the writer will say next or how the writing is concluded. Help the reader with analogies that act as signs towards future intent, and your (complex) arguments will appear simpler--always appreciated by readers.

1 JBS Haldane, What I Require From Life: Writings on Science and Life from J.B.S. Haldane (Krishna Dronamraju ed, OUP 2009) xiii.
2 ibid xxvi.
3 ibid 4.
4 ibid 5.
5 ibid.
6 ibid.
7 ibid.
8 More on this in a future post, probably titled, 'Synthesis and Originality', or something just as indicative. I consider each, with 'creativity', in a post about Sartre's Words.
9 As n 8, but this one may be called, 'Hermeneutic Triangles'. I will update these endnotes accordingly. If I remember.

Created: 30 July 2013. Version 1.2: 4 August 2013.

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