There must be some not very nice name for it. In any case, I need to be better about following my own advice. I’m thinking at the moment in particular of advice about writing.

I like the distinction that gets applied to Marx between forschung and darstellung, research and presentation. (Hence most of what I write is more of a grundrisse, because I get bored after the writing-as-thinking process is over. It’s something I want to improve on, the thinking-about-how-to-write-well part.)

I like a metaphor for this, one of hiking around in the woods. When I was kid I stayed with my grandparents a real lot, and later after my grandfather died my family moved into that house with my grandmother. It was out in the country, kinda rural. Across the street was a nice big woods. I used to tromp around there with my dogs – dig up anthills, maybe see a deer once in a while, watch ducks or geese in the pond. Writing is initially like that – tromping. One finds cool stuff. The next step, rewriting, is the process of going home from the cool stuff one finds, and taking someone else by the hand back to the cool stuff. In the process it is generally poor decorum to take the person exactly the same route one took the first time: that route generally involves walking into a barbed wire fence or thorn bush, slipping on wet leaves, getting one’s shoes wet in a puddle. It’s one thing when that happens by accident but is another entirely to do that to someone else knowingly. Writing is discovering things in the woods, a process which occasionally really sucks. Rewriting is making a decision about the things one wants to show somebody, to guide them to some of the stuff one discovered.

A condensed version of this is what I’ve told students who have come to me for advice (or just assuaging of nerves) about writing. It seems to work. The point is to say “it’s okay to write a draft that’s not a good paper, I do that too, for some of us writing is thinking so everything changes during the process” and then to get them to rewrite afterward. Good writing is rewriting. The goal’s also to get them to take more time on writing and rewriting, if possible, to say “not only should you bring me somewhere in your paper when I read it, but by the time it gets to me, when you bring me to the destination, it should be your second time there”. Which means it takes longer to do – first to find somewhere to show me, second to find a pleasant route to walk me to the spot you found.

I wish I could follow that advice better myself.

All of this is also a nice reminder that, for all its many flaws, grad school has perks. I like working with students. That’s part of why I came back to university. My wife pointed out that I had really enjoyed and been very animated about the teaching I’d done. Nice to get reminded of that sometimes.

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