The art of arrangement

When I started university, I realised quickly that I didn't know how to write well. If I were to achieve what I set out to achieve -- namely to excel, graduate, and move on -- this would have to change. I realised that I needed practise, and I realised that simply writing when asked to write would never make me good at writing; musicians and athletes practise their crafts regularly, so why shouldn't I?

To this end, I invented what I called "The Index Card Exercise". The Index Card, or file card, is a small, sturdy, lined paper that fits about a hundred words. Every day I would write one idea on one card, and then put the card aside in a file box.

Here's the key point: every day. It doesn't particularly matter what you write on the card, as long as you're writing. Compare: musicians practice scales, but rarely in public performance would they play a scale. When you practice writing, you do something similar: you work on expressing ideas, whatever the idea might be, so that in other circumstances, you'll express ideas more clearly and precisely than ever before. Those circumstances could be when writing essays for exams, or when conversing with colleagues, or when presenting strategies to a committee, and so forth.

By the end of my first semester, I had nearly a hundred cards -- nearly 10,000 words. When I needed to write end-of-semester papers, I looked through my already-written ideas, picked out the ones that I thought supported each other well, and arranged them, physically, into the outline of an essay. What remained to do was the rewriting that characterises good writing -- precisely what I've been emphasising here.

I found this technique useful for a few reasons. First, I generated a tremendous number of words without worrying about how many words I needed to generate. That is, I avoided the anxiety of word counts. Second, I found that I had lots of ideas that I would otherwise have forgotten, and those ideas were worth developing. Third, I found it easier than ever to develop complex ideas because I could, literally, rearrange the simple ones at will, noticing which ideas followed from one another, which needed further development, which seemed irrelevant, and so on.

This is the art of arrangement made tangible, and I encourage you to try the same technique.

* * *

Which came first: the argument or the conclusion? When you create a outline of an argument, typically the conclusion comes first; this is the thesis statement you develop for the first of a traditional five-paragraph essay. Then, you develop the supporting points, perhaps address an objection, then restate the thesis as a conclusion.

I found this structure did not match my thinking. Often, I found that conclusions were patterns I noticed in collections of facts. This was difficult to outline in an familiar fashion, because my conclusion would often shift, sometimes subtly, as I considered and reconsidered (wrote and rewrote) the relevant facts of the case. Now, one might adapt a traditional outlining technique to accommodate this kind of shifting, but why not invert the familiar and let the conclusion arise from the facts, rather than discovering facts to support a conclusion.

I realised this resembles the way we learn concepts. Learning is, in some respects, the process of making something from nothing -- depending on how you view the nature of human reason. When I considered questions such as "How did I come to know the colour black?", I realised that I had to, at some point, not know what "black" is. And then later, after someone, likely a parent or teacher, pointed to enough black objects, I was able to identify "black" as they did. This, in short, is a simple model of how we acquire concepts.

We acquire (and develop) conclusions similarly, though the process can be more complex. Conclusions resemble concepts.

The art of arrangement involves pointing out supporting points, to speak metaphorically, much as a parent or teacher points out things that are black, drawing the reader to the conclusion. In the next reading, "Notes on 'Camp'", consider how Susan Sontag develops the concept "camp" by indicating what counts as "camp" -- and consider also that she is, at the same time, arguing for a conclusion.

Last modified: Tuesday, 17 July 2018, 7:53 PM