Last week, I wrote a post reflecting on the time I’ve had for reflection given all that’s going on in the world. In that post, I tried to make use of my time by reflecting on the progress this blog.
I found I learned quite a lot by re-covering my work. Just the act of writing little introductions forced me to think about what I was doing. This activity gave me a better idea of what I’m interested in, too. But it wasn’t all sunshine.
One thing that stood out to me about my work thus far was how sloppy, disorganized, unclear and unsituated it was in the wider discussion regarding each of the topics I cover. This realization made me a little bit embarassed. That embarassment quickly morphed into a desire to improve.
This blog is a form of equipment. It affords me to determine myself in the world as a thinker, a writer and a teacher in the same way that a hammer and pendulum-bob afford a carpenter to determine himself. The problem is that my current efforts are not reflecting that image very well.
As such, I am now going to publically self-flagellate. The point of analysing myself out loud in front of an audience is that it makes my failings unavoidable. I’m giving myself an immanent incentive to be better at my job. If I can’t avoid the truth, I’ll have to act on it.
I’m not going to pull apart each article individually. That would be excruciating for me, and boring for you. I want you to read this, because you are helping me to make myself grow. Above all I’m trying to be practical, not a sado-masochist. So instead, let’s look at some obvious negative trends I’ve noticed in my work.
I. Lack of Focus.
I have a real tendency to start a piece of writing just based on an interesting idea. And then I get going, only to end up somewhere just weakly related to the spot where I started. I don’t need to give an example of this. You could read almost any of my pieces and see an example of how I struggle to stick on discrete subjects until they’re done.
That fact is fine if I’m writing a piece that tries to be an exploration. For example, I think my lack of focus is fine in ‘Why Heidegger Needs to Be Impossible to Understand’. One of the gifts this blog gives me is a space to sketch out ideas I would otherwise neglect. That’s a good thing.
But it’s a real problem for me that I’ve not written any essays with an explicit purpose since ‘Tango as Spiritual Practice’. I’m not sure I wrote any explicitly purposeful essays before that since ‘The World is a Dream.‘
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first one is my most popular piece here, and the second one was my most popular piece on medium. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that they are two of my own favorite pieces.
As for all my other pieces, my conclusion is they’re unfocused because they’re spur-of-the-moment and done in one draft. I just don’t plan them well enough. Tango as Spiritual Practice, and The World is a Dream both benefitted from being planned long in advance with explanatory notes and structure.
The common factor in each was that I decided the topic before I even started writing. That’s not a good way to start putting words on paper, but it is a good way to start writing a piece. I settled on each topic in advance by writing notes for myself– doing what I recommend in this piece. I should probably take my own advice now.
II. Lack of Background Research and Reference Handling.
It has come to my attention that I do not handle background literature well at all. When I use it, I sort of just throw a name-drop into the piece, hoping you guys have read enough of me to infer the reason for it context-free. I don’t think that’s very helpful for either of us.
Usually this is because I already know what the reference says, and I don’t want to go through the effort of explaining what the reference says and why it matters.
Some of the people I’m trying to imitate, like Scott Alexander, can get away with using established terms and concepts and dropping unexplained references into their work because they live in a sort of captive conceptual ecosystem– writers like Scott have a bunch of consistent readers with whom they share a cultural context. That makes understanding them much easier (1).
I don’t have any of those. Because I’m writing about quite difficult things like Heidegger, and quite cutting edge things like 4E Cognitive Science (2), I do think it’s fair to give myself some wiggle room. These are slippery concepts. But that doesn’t mean I have a licence to waste your time.
My proposed solution is to spend more time ensuring I know what I’m talking about, and then spend more time making sure you do too.
III. Lack of Polish and Revision.
I regularly write without giving myself the chance to properly reflect on and criticise what I’m saying. But beyond that, I need to stop neglecting the writing itself. I tend to believe that anything coming out of me spectacular person unbidden and unmolested is just sui generis fantastic. That goes for concepts and for sentences, too. And who knows? Maybe they are perfect sometimes. But one thing is certain: they really aren’t always.
My inability to properly draft and polish my work might be about avoiding that. After all, if I never revise a piece, then I never need acknowledge how shoddy it is. I never admitted that reality to myself before writing the first draft of this line, but it’s true. Pretty perverse logic, eh? Pure vanity, I tell you!
But it’s not even the good kind of vanity. The irony is because I want to avoid my weakenesses, I’m producing sub-par work. Whose vanity am I meant to be flattering again? It’s not mine any more.
I should do more to live up to my own impressions. Otherwise, I’m just a narcissist who doesn’t produce enough good work to keep the narcissism palatable (3).
I need to admit this was almost a one-and-done post. What can I say? I’m an addict. Admitting you have a problem is the first step towards solving that problem. I’m trying to overhaul all my bad habits, and that takes time. There is no good way to do that which isn’t persistence.
I’m worried I won’t be able to post as much here if I work harder and longer on each piece, which might mean less content for you and less exposure for me. I’m going to have to suck it up. I’d rather put out my best work infrequenly than a wave of dreck I half-assed. The world already has so much too much lazy, half-assed dreck writing.
For those who are planning on sticking around, I’d like to thank you for your patience and support. I hope to repay you by making this blog much better.
(1). If you’ve ever used a spoken idiom in a conversation with a foreign speaker of your native language and confused them, then you know what I’m talking about.
(2). The “Four E’s”: Embodied; Embedded (in a world and a society); Enacted; and Extented (across environmental objects)– 4E Cognitive Science is a way of studying the mind that tries to understand it through its intimate links with the body, the social world, and the material world.
(3). Of all the lines in this essay, this was the one I spent the most time on. I don’t know what that says about me.