Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, December 30, 2013

think

Austin Kleon is one of my favorite people on the internet, and I like this little reflection of his on doing something small every day. I like Steven Johnson’s writing too, and this series on writing looks like it’ll be fun and to some people quite useful.

But whenever I am asked to contribute to this genre — the writerly-tips-and-tricks genre or whatever you want to call it — I have always declined. I guess I am just skeptical that what I do will work for other people. But, being nothing if not critical, I can tell you what I think is generally missing from the genre, and why I think its absence is important.

By way of getting to my point, let me encourage you to look again at Johnson’s posts. He tells you how to “keep your hunches alive,” how to use e-book annotations, how to keep researching as you write, and so on. All very good in its way.

But: What if your ideas are crap? What good does it do — for you or the world — if you are clever and efficient in communicating thoughts that are carelessly arrived at, or ill-formed and incompletely worked through, or utterly unimaginative repetitions of what people in your would-be peer group have already said?

Now, perhaps your highest intellectual ambition is to be asked to give a TED talk, in which case all those vices I just listed will be magically transformed into virtues. But if you want to do really good work, intellectually and/or artistically substantive work, then your first question can never be “How do I express my ideas?” but rather “How can I acquire ideas that are worthy of being expressed?”

I don't have an actual answer to that question, but I have some thoughts that I'll get to in another post.