BLOCKED

(Programming Note: new podcast episode available today, featuring an extremely interesting take on government responses to the current pandemic by an expert in emergency management)

Shelter-in-Place has coincided with my need to crank out a couple of sample chapters, ideally one introductory and one substantive, for the book I'm working on. The other people involved are suitably convinced that the idea is solid, and moving forward will require sampling the product, so to speak. With all this time and opportunity I'd love to report that I am making great progress, but.

There are two major obstacles I've come to understand with writing a nonfiction book, presuming one takes the first step of coming up with an appropriate topic. The first is research. There is always more research you could be doing. There is always one more book to read, one more article to find, one more archive to burrow into. Some people may find research difficult to do, but I find it more difficult to stop doing. There are too many Takes, too many ideas, too many directions in which a narrative or argument could go. Before you know it, the book that exists in your head is 2000 pages long and so thorough, so complicated that maybe five living people will have an interest in reading it.

I just described all academic books, for the record.

The second problem is anticipating criticism. I think I'm pretty good at looking at arguments and finding the flaws in them. But this includes my own arguments, and over time it is adding up to a kind of rhetorical paralysis. Not only does it make it hard to construct an argument without immediately backtracking to disassemble it, but it makes the entire task end up feeling kind of pointless. Everybody (whatever number of people that may be) is just going to rip the shit out of this anyway, so what's the point.

In the end, I try to focus on that last point and convince myself to plow through that inevitability if I can get paid to do it. Some days it works better than others. Today it wasn't very helpful.

14 thoughts on “BLOCKED”

  • Michael Nitabach says:

    These are totally interrelated. The way I avoid the paralysis of too deep an understanding of the weaknesses of my own arguments is to intentionally keep my knowledge of the underlying substance at the perfect level of superficiality.

  • Ed, good on you for being able to think AT ALL right now. Stay Positive, bro, and good luck. Same to everyone "here" too.

  • Anubis Bard says:

    Think of it as a bowel movement. Necessary, satisfying in its way, and the end product has its pungent moment, but then, if you're a physically and mentally healthy person, you move on.

  • Eh, you can probably get away with pointing out some of the possible holes in your arguments with footnotes. Snarky footnotes. A bit of self-depreciation will hopefully convey the humble author's, well, humbleness, as well as indicate you're a good sport and writing a fun book. One of your footnotes should definitely invite critics to write their own book if they don't like yours…

    I am far too acquainted with the perfect being the enemy of the good. Good luck.

  • I look forward to your book.

    I too like getting more info on a topic that interests me. But I remind myself that, beyond a certain point, additional research just looks like confirmation bias. Sure, the reward's there, but …. so limit yourself to research that will *challenge* your current argument.

    One reason I'll look forward to your book: people whose paralysis-by-analysis comes from criticizing their own arguments inevitably do have stronger arguments. I'll bet trained arguers learn from experience that they can make arguments in multiple directions, even in an objectively unambiguous case. The presence of weaker points does not compromise the premise. Just make sure you address all of the counterarguments that could compromise the premise.

  • These are the exact reasons that I never converted my dissertation into a book. All I could see when I wrote was what was missing, either in research that I should do or the holes in my arguments that everyone else, I told myself, were sure to see. In the end writing it just made me feel bad all the time so after a few years I finally screwed up the courage to just drop it. I was lucky by then that my livelihood no longer depended on publishing it. That said, I still regret not finishing it and toy with the idea of going back to it.

  • Hi Ed. I’m a postdoc in a hard science. Your description of paralysis speaks to me intimately and, I gotta believe, to 99.99% of academics.

    One thing that helps me is to remind myself of the idea that science is this massive mountain built on the efforts of thousands of people over centuries. Everybody fights to just take us a tiny bit higher up. Your paper/book is not supposed to be the ultimate answer that jumps to the top of the mountain and ends the field. You’re just supposed to push us up the mountain a little bit, introduce something new that, over time, helps the whole community make progress. That’s how it’s always worked and that’s what we should take pride in, adding SOMETHING to the body of ideas. Once you finish the book other people will respond and build on it (including you). This is good! Hope that helps.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    I hear you, Ed, but I have to believe (and I hope you do too) that your thoroughness, attention to detail and refusal to be complacent will pay off in the long run with a really good product.

  • Edward Blum says:

    As a lawyer, I find that once you find that all the cases (research) are citing the same cases (research) you're done.

  • I've written several fiction books– not the same issue, but has some similarities.

    It's important to separate the "editor" and the "author" functions in your head. The editor goes after the arguments, rebuts them, takes them apart, etc. The author freely creates them, spouts out drivel and dreams away.

    They're antithetical. I can't write and edit at the same time. I have to do it sequentially. (Sometimes I make notes: go back and fix this. Make sure this holds water. Don't depend on this because it sounds cool. It's probably wrong.)

  • "Sometimes I make notes: go back and fix this. Make sure this holds water. Don't depend on this because it sounds cool. It's probably wrong."

    No wonder howcome my writing career never took off!

  • There is an entire subgenre of academic writing that spends more time anticipating and rebutting the rebuttals to it arguments than actually making its arguments. And you can't always convince the people who work in this subgenre that it's a bad thing.

  • Michael Alaimo says:

    The inevitable rhetorical bickering aside, you’re simply a good writer. Lots of us enjoy your writing for its wit, erudition, logic, humor and sarcasm. I may not ultimately agree with every argument you put forth, but I’ll be the first person to buy your book when it comes out (something I said on this blog a decade ago).

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