I’ve decided to attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter is a mini-course in critical thinking for writers; the second chapter is a mini-course in rhetoric for writers. This post is part of chapter two. To have a look at other parts of the book, click here.
Concept 2.8. Selection and editing. The context for selection in writing is threefold. The writer has: (1) an end in mind—a thesis; (2) an audience in mind; and (3) some sense of the length-limit for the piece of writing. If, for instance, you’re an astronomer writing for a professional journal, your audience consists of professional colleagues—and the journal’s editor may generally accept no submission larger than, say, 8,000 words. If you’re writing a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, your audience is likely to consist of mostly nearby residents, and the editor may not accept letters longer than 200 words. So whether you’re writing something book-length or posting a tweet on Twitter, you don’t have an endless number of words and time to address everything, and therefore you must weigh your choices, making some points, but not others. In this sense, writing is always a zero-sum game: some words and ideas must necessarily win your favor, while others go unselected. There are victors and vanquished. What is essential and what can be discarded? How can the matter-at-hand be addressed most clearly—and with the fewest words? There is a process of efficiency-seeking at work. Like evolution, writing can be formidably “red in tooth and claw” (think of the school teacher’s dreaded red editing pen), and as such, it simply cannot escape its stakes and competitions. To echo the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834): may “the best words in the best order” win.
Change the environment, change the selection pressure. So writing is about choosing words and sentences for survival, and eliminating others. While writing, the author is constantly judging: “This seems like the best word choice for now; the best sentence; the best direction for this piece of writing.” But these judgments are subject to change. Imagine, for instance, after taking an hour’s break from writing, an author returns to her work and discovers the emotional weather inside her has shifted from pessimism to optimism. What then? Naturally, she’ll bring that fresh energy to what she has already written, scrapping some sentences and adding others. What was fine and worthy of survival in one hour may not be so in the next. The environment for selection has shifted. Notice how alike this writerly process is to Charles Darwin’s description of natural selection in the fourth chapter of On the Origin of Species (1859):
It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and intensibly [intensively] working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. (504)
Exchange into Darwin’s passage the writer for natural selection, sentence for organic being, and her writing for the world and you have a startling description of the author’s actual profession:
It may be said that the writer is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout her writing, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and [intensively] working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each sentence in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.
Why “daily and hourly scrutinizing”? Because the environment for selection is constantly shifting in both mental and physical space and time. Moods shift in authors, readers shift, and history shifts. Whether a sentence is conserved in its integrity and form or is revised or eliminated depends on how well it proves to be adapted to the environments it encounters. Threats to its existence come from the writer who might eliminate it altogether, the reader who might ignore it, and the sheer ravages of time (the last book or data base in which it appears may go up in flames).
Shifting tastes in shifting environments. Writing is also like the selections surrounding taste. Imagine, for instance, a woman in a fudge shop, selecting three different pieces of fudge of different types (one is white fudge, one is without nuts, one with nuts). Now imagine she decides, an hour after purchasing them, that one of the pieces is insufficiently chewy, so she tosses it into the trash. Now the trash bin itself is a locus for selection, with ants in the role of potential consumers—or rejecters—of the fudge.
In other words, forms of selection are occurring in every moment all around us. We have selection on the producer’s side; selection on the consumer’s side. Think of the videos on the popular website “Funny or Die,” which either attract eyeballs or are eliminated. For a piece of fudge the motto might be “Yummy or Die,” attracting mouths—or, if we can imagine a conscious piece of fudge that doesn’t want to be consumed, it would be “Yucky or Die.” This latter formulation is the evolutionary strategy for survival of many species of beetles, which squirt acrid juices into the jaws of their predators. Darwin famously learned about this firsthand, to his chagrin. In order to catch three beetles on a specimen collection hunt as a young man, he held one in each hand and popped the third into his mouth—which he then quickly expelled in foul-tasting shock, the beetle scurrying away, uncaught. “Yucky or Die.”
“Interesting or Die.” Writing, in turn, has a general survival strategy of its own: “Interesting or Die.” Lionel Abel (1910-2001), an early contributor to Partisan Review, in an interview from the mid-1990s, said this about the Russian revolutionary and author, Leon Trotsky:
He had a literary verve which was unmistakable. He was a great journalist. And the intellectual power of his criticism of the Stalin regime…[is] accepted nowadays as justified, that he was right. But we didn’t know he was right. We knew he was interesting. And, in a way, if you lived in the Village [Greenwich Village in New York City in the 1930s], what was interesting was right. Certainly, the uninteresting was wrong. I’m not willing to altogether give that up, even today.
The rough draft as material for selection. Writing is about seeing the sentences that occur to you in your mind as wriggling forms of life, then giving them material form—one’s thought-worms made flesh, as it were—by laying them out in front of you on the page and seeing what happens from there. To extend the metaphor: the writer’s organelles are letters; her organs, words; her organisms, sentences—and once those sentences get started, they suggest other sentences—they breed other sentences. By the time the writer is done with, say, a twenty minute round of writing, perhaps her words have come together nicely to transform into a single, vivid, ecological community of sentences; a little system of relations on the page (a paragraph or two of argument or observation; a lyric poem, etc.).
Idea therefore leads to idea, thought to thought, as when the poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) wrote of his path through an autumnal woodland that branched unpredictably into new paths, way leading “on to way.” The writer is a pathfinder, unwinding sentences onto the page, then choosing further paths out of those sentences to still other sentences. And at some point the writer steps back to see where he or she has been. This is where editing begins.
Editing. The first step in writing is to just relax into the process of making initial selections among the ideas that occur to you. (“X comes to mind. I think I’ll say something about x. No, y is better. Yes, I’ll write about y instead.”) The second step is to get your thoughts about whatever it is you’ve decided to write about to flow out of you as actual, material sentences on the page. At this stage, you want to bring the stakes down on yourself, not over-fretting about perfection, completeness, grammar, or perhaps even coherence. It’s okay to make mistakes at this point. You know that writing is a process of imaginatively unleashing material, then chiseling it back. These sentences will be subject, soon enough, to later selection and correction in editing, so for now you let things fly. To let things fly naturally entails attention, not just to rational thoughts, but emotions. As the journalist and author Robert Wright concisely puts it, “emotions are judgments”; they are what surface in the writer as conclusions your brain has subconsciously–and perhaps quite quickly–worked out about such things as aptness of phrase and aptness of direction as they occur to you: “Yes, this phrase is good, this direction is good; these feel right.”
The sequence of selection thus proceeds from mind to emotion to material sentences to editing. At each of these steps you are imaginatively venturing outward to new ideas (“word are birds”), then back to the nest of four things:
(1) the music of your sentences together (how your language is flowing)
(2) your audience (the ear you are writing for or the group you are writing to)
(3) the piece of writing’s length limit
(4) your thesis or end (think in Shakespeare of the ghost of Hamlet’s father urging the ever erratic Hamlet not to forget his “almost blunted purpose”)
These four function together as form putting pressure on your flights of novelty, even as your flights of novelty put pressure on form.
Artificial vs. natural selection. So editing is where the writer’s actions have their most obvious analogy to artificial selection as opposed to natural selection. Before the eye of a writer are a variety of sentences gathered like dogs in kennels or roses in greenhouse beds, and just as the breeder of dogs or the cultivator of roses has a collection of specimens before her eyes, and an end in mind, so it is with the breeder and editor of sentences. The writer possesses what blind nature cannot have: an ironic perspective on the forms of life she has already generated. From your writerly vantage, you enjoy distance, and can cultivate what you want to say, cutting back on some words and allowing others to suggest still other words. Hence do your surviving words become “fruitful and multiply,” but to an end in mind: your object. If your sentences are organisms and your paragraphs little communities of organisms, your end may be to gather these communities into a greater ecosystem of interrelation, sending it forth as an essay or book–which might then undergo yet another form of selection by readers, perhaps going viral.
Richard Dawkins. For being an early and vigorous defender of the theory of evolution by natural selection against its critics, 19th century biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) became known as “Darwin’s bulldog.” In the late 20th and early 21st century, the sinewy and quick-witted Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins (b. 1941), in his equal enthusiasm for the power of evolutionary explanation, has been called “Darwin’s greyhound,” and in his seminal 1976 work on evolution, The Selfish Gene, he argues that what underlies all of life’s activity is the reproductive imperatives of genetic material: a chicken, as it were, is an egg’s way of making another egg; an anthill is a way to make another egg-filled queen ant, and so on. Dawkins in turn argues that human languages, being codes for carrying information, function analogously to genes, moving words, phrases, and ideas about like viruses from mind to mind, some being more successful at provoking humans to attend to them and reproduce them than others.
Memes. In the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins coins a term for the viral and replicating nature of human cultures and languages. Cleverly mashing echoes of the words mimesis (imitation) and memory with genes, he calls those bits or clusters of culture and language that go viral memes. Memes, like genes, are replicators. Among their potential iterations, memes can travel small and independent (“Got milk?”), can mutate (“Got beer?”), and can also be carried along in larger memetic clusters (as in the familiar phrase from the 23rd Psalm—“The Lord is my Shepherd . . .”—in the King James Bible).
An obvious example of a meme is the repetition of the phrase “I prefer not to” by Bartleby, a copyist in a 19th century law office, in Herman Melville’s well-known short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853). In Melville’s story, the phrase comes to infect the minds of the copyist’s employer and coworkers, and it has even taken on a life of its own outside of the story itself, becoming readily associated with all forms of passive resistance to authority, from Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy in the 19th century, to Gandhi and Martin Luther King in the 20th.
Here’s Dawkins from the last chapter of The Selfish Gene: “Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches” (206). There is a cultural catch-all quality to Dawkins’ use of the term, and thus the takeaway, for the writer thinking memetically is to attend, not only to the content and syntax (word order) of what one says, but to the material style of communication—for these too are potentially memetic. Just as, for instance, physical building arches communicate an architect’s purposes and style to viewers, so do the writer’s letter arches to readers, as when a sans-serif font like Helvetica (a font lacking small lines at the end of strokes) goes viral in advertising, becoming ubiquitous in culture as a font associated as clean and modern in feel.
Here are two additional, memorable sentences from Dawkins using either the term “meme” or “memes”: “If a meme is to dominate the attention of a human brain, it must do so at the expense of ‘rival’ memes” (211), and “When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes” (214).
Writing 2.8.1. Try imitating evolution, making way lead “on to way” (in the poet Robert Frost’s phrase). Start a path for thoughts. Write a paragraph or two in which you write exactly 200 words, no more or less, on any topic of interest. As with artificial selection in the breeding of dogs or roses, have an end in mind and an audience. While writing, notice your mental process of selection and elimination. You might say to yourself, for instance, things like the following: “What sentence most smoothly and naturally clarifies or builds upon the previous sentence?” or “This seems like the best word choice for now; the best sentence; the best direction for this piece of writing.” After writing a bit, go back and look at what you’ve written and interrogate each sentence with questions like these: “Why that word in this sentence and not another?”; “Why those words in that particular order?”; “Why that sentence next, and not another?”; and “Do the sentences move along smoothly and rhythmically together?” Alternate between writing and noticing what’s driving your choices in the writing. Attend to your feelings as you write (recall that “emotions are judgments”). Again, fiddle with the writing until you’ve shaped it into something consisting of exactly 200 words. A little organism, as it were.
Writing 2.8.2. If, in 2.8.1, you generated 200 words, look at what you have and write another paragraph or two explaining to yourself the processes of selection you went through to get those words onto the page. Be a naturalist here. What’s the story you tell yourself of how your piece of writing came to be? What’s holding your paragraphs together as paragraphs (as opposed to just being a series of disconnected sentences)? What seemed essential to keep, and what inessential—and why? If you feel you’ve made something alive, ask yourself whether it is Leonardo’s symmetrical and harmonious Vitruvian man, or something more akin to a Frankenstein’s monster: a piece from here, a piece from there; a thing ugly, and perhaps even worthy of destruction. As the standard for evaluating your writing, think “Interesting or Die.” Is what you’ve produced worthy of going on? Who or what decides?
Writing 2.8.3. Take what you’ve generated from 2.8.1 and give it an edit. Edit at the level of word choice, word order (syntax), tone of voice, musicality, and energy. See if you can breathe some more life and interest into your piece of writing than it has now. Perhaps, in your edit, additional thoughts will occur to you. Get those down as well. Let the writing grow a bit beyond their existing 200 words, but do not exceed 300 words. To give yourself additional ideas for writing and editing, ask yourself what environments they might encounter and how you hope to delight or interest the readers in those environments with what you’ve written (perhaps some fellow students you are taking a class with right now; perhaps yourself ten years hence, stumbling on the paragraphs again; perhaps a person a century from now flipping through your journal on sale at a thrift shop, etc.). What environment(s) are you aiming your words at? Momento mori (remember death; remember the limits placed on you by space and time); momento delectus (remember your power of selection in the situations and moments available to you).
Writing 2.8.4. Discuss what you wrote in 2.8.1 with one person or more, focusing on the issues you wrestled with as a writer. Is the writing working?
Writing 2.8.5. Write a paragraph to an individual you can speak with immediately after doing so (either by phone or in person), gambling on an argument that you think might persuade him or her to feel, act, or adopt a belief of your choosing. The purpose of this experiment is to gamble on an audience, then get immediate feedback from that audience as to the pay-off—or failure—of your argument. Was your argument persuasive to the person? Did you hit or miss the goal of your writing?
Writing 2.8.6. Pick a topic and write three completely separate paragraphs on it. To be clear, don’t write one piece of writing with three paragraphs, but three separate pieces of writing of one paragraph each—all on the same topic. Your goal here is to have three different, full paragraphs with different starts so that you can then choose the one you think is best after setting all three aside for a time. (After writing, you may have to set the paragraphs aside for at least a full day to really bring a fresh eye to them). As with three pieces of music, each paragraph will start differently, and so acquire its own unique tone and logic from its first “note” to the last. So try this. Select three of the below words or phrases to get you started on three completely separate paragraphs. Let them set the beat for your writing. Start one paragraph with one word or phrase, the second with another, etc. In part two of the book, we’ll refer to such phrases as mutagens—agents of change. (See the book’s Introduction for a discussion of mutagens.)
Once … Consider … Contrary to … It is … It was … One day … In the past … Have you ever … Although … It is a well-known saying that … It is well known that … After … The subject of x has become … Over the past x years … As we start … At the beginning of … Perhaps … Like most … Roughly speaking … I … In light of the recent … While it is true that … Contrary to popular opinion … Contrary to x … Imagine … Visualize … On the one hand … Back in the day … In the past … One the ironies of existence … At one time I thought … At one time … I’m interested in x … I’m an x … For me, … What, where, when, why, how [as in, raise a question: “What do you suppose it would be like to live with perfect courage?”; “Where in our culture is stillness and quiet valued?” etc.]… I recently … The recent story of … Recently … Have you noticed …