Writing as successive approximation

2017-03-14

in Psychology, Writing

With the possible exception of short spur-of-the-moment missives or a transcribed stream of consciousness, it seems to me that all writing is a process of successive approximation in which you begin with something which isn’t what you want at the end, but which provides a structure that allows you to reach the objective. In part, this is because it isn’t possible to keep every part of a piece of complex writing like an academic paper in mind simultaneously. Rather, we must rely on a mental map that allows us to make changes in one area while maintaining overall coherence. Otherwise, we could never write anything longer than the longest passage we’re capable of memorizing and reciting, or we could only write documents that lack coherence from part to part, like Montaigne’s cheeky essay “Of Drunkenness“, where he veers about between opinions and moral judgments. In one passage, he calls it “a gross and brutish vice” before going on to praise Germans who “drink almost indifferently of all wines with delight” and saying that the French are “too sparing of the favours of the god” for only drinking moderately at two meals a day.

This process for maintaining coherence has been made salient for me recently through the effort to revise my PhD proposal to meet both my and my committee’s expectations.

It’s interesting to consider the process of successive approximation in writing in light of the concept’s origins in the psychology of behaviour change. B. F. Skinner’s analysis concerned the efforts of one (theoretically more cognitively sophisticated) animal to influence another’s behaviour through differential reinforcement. I love this video on how to trim a dog’s nails as a demonstration.

While it may be undertaken in service of an outside person like a professor or academic supervisor, writing is a process where both the reinforcement and the behaviour are internal (some people give themselves tangible rewards for hitting targets but it’s not something I have ever done systematically). The general question of how to train your own brain is an interesting one, especially for those of us who can sometimes observe self-destructive tendencies in our own conduct.

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