Sometimes people feel a sense of “writer’s block” at the beginning of a new project, but often that feeling comes from a misunderstanding. In the book How to Take Smart Notes, Sönke Ahrens criticizes writing teachers who encourage their students to “brainstorm” to come up with a topic for an essay or a research project. I think processes that include free association and a sort-of informal openness to surprising combinations of ideas can be very useful, especially in group settings. However, I tend to agree with Ahrens that if I’m doing the work of making Reading Notes and then turning them into Permanent Notes and Evergreen insights, coming up with a topic to write about ought to be the least of my concerns. The whole point of this note-taking process is not only to provide us with ideas we want to pursue, but to actually show us which ideas we are most interested in. We’ll see this process in action as we continue. Right now, let’s look a the first stage in the process: evaluating sources and highlighting ideas we find.
When you read a book, highlight, and then record your impressions and thoughts; and when you take lecture notes, you’re beginning the writing process. Yes, you’re recording information that might be on the exam. But you are also engaging with and evaluating an argument. In books, articles, and even in lectures, the author isn’t just reciting some random assortment of facts. Even if they seem very natural and spontaneous, most lectures and discussions are built around a central question or idea. If the lecturer doesn’t come right out and tell you what that is, try to figure it out. Does the syllabus give lecture titles? Are they in the form of a question? Is there a framing question at the beginning of a discussion? If it didn’t come to you in class, review your notes later and try to boil down the lecture’s or the discussion’s theme into a sentence or two. If you’re really stumped, ask.
Boiling important ideas you encounter down into a sentence or two is a key skill you’ll be learning in this process. Taking a complex narrative from literature, a textbook chapter, a primary source, or a lecture and being able to say, “This is what that was about” is a crucial step in the journey from hearing about the knowledge of others to creating your own.
As you find ideas that interest you, write them down. Review your lecture notes sometime after class (and preferably before the test!) and jot down the ideas that stood out to you. These ideas probably will be related to the point the lecturer was trying to make, but also probably will be a bit unique. Some specific things may have caught your attention, that may not be the same as the things that the person sitting next to you noticed. As long as you don’t completely ignore what the lecturer or author was trying to say, following what interests you is usually a good idea.
You’ll want to take notes when you read, too. We are going to show you a bit about how writers work: how they generally organize arguments, how they generally use setting and point of view to create atmosphere and mood; how they generally present narrators and characters to engage problems, and other similar techniques. These are valuable clues to help you determine what a text might “mean” – in general. Your task is to analyze them in the specific context of the text you are reading and interpret how they make that particular verbal contraption work. You might find once you get used to it, that such active reading doesn’t diminish, but actually increases the pleasure of reading.
I mentioned that one of the things you’ll be doing, as you engage with a text, is evaluating an argument. While any statement can be thought of as an argument, there is a more specific definition of the term. Under most circumstances, any deliberate statement that qualifies as a text worth engaging with is likely to have a main point that its creator is trying to make (some will also have sub-points, but they will typically serve the main point). This is the text’s argument.
Humans have been writing and reading for thousands of years, so it shouldn’t surprise you that people have been trying to work out the details of these processes for a very long time. One of the most famous writers on writing in the European ancient world was Aristotle (384-322 BCE), who was a student of Plato in Athens and later became a teacher of Alexander the Great in Macedon. Aristotle was interested in a lot of subjects, including philosophy, physics, biology, ethics, politics, geology, and logic. In his writing on rhetoric, he analyzed statements and identified some characteristics of argument that we still use today.
Aristotle found that logic was a main ingredient of many (but not all) arguments. You might recognize the logical sequence: All rabbits are mammals; Spots is a rabbit; therefore Spots is a mammal. Aristotle called this a syllogism, and he recognized it as the most powerful type of argument. You can see how it’s impossible to argue with the conclusion once you have accepted the validity of the two premises. If you can organize an argument this way, moving from agreed-on premises to an irrefutable conclusion, you’re likely to convince a lot of people.
Of course, most of the time we don’t have the advantage of being able to argue from premises that are incontrovertible facts. Sometimes our job is to show our readers new facts in order to lead them to our new, original conclusion. These can be newly-discovered ideas or they can be ideas that the reader may not have considered in the context we suggest. More often, however, what we’re really arguing about is the truth of our premises. We live in a world of uncertainty, after all. Because of this uncertainty, many of our arguments are based on premises that are tentative, leading to probable rather than absolute conclusions. Sometimes we go to great lengths to pretend our premises are certain and our conclusions irrefutable.
This may all seem ridiculously abstract. We don’t spend much time these days, dissecting or disassembling the way we think and looking at the parts. But stick with it – it’s important. When a political leader makes a claim such as “Markets should be unregulated” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, there’s usually a trail of argument behind it. If you want to understand (or especially if you want to challenge) the claim, the best place to look is at the premises that lead to the conclusion.
The form of argument we’ve been looking at above is called deduction. It builds from accepted facts to a specific conclusion. There are two other forms you should know about. Induction goes more-or-less in the opposite direction, starting with observations or evidence (like data in a scientific experiment) and ending with a general conclusion. Because in the real world we never have a chance to look at all the data, these conclusions are, by definition, tentative. But in day-to-day life we often take inductive ideas as facts. We know what’s going to happen when we throw a ball, not because we’ve studied physics and calculus, but because we’ve done it before and experienced the results. Even so, careful scientists still talk about the theory of gravity (or evolution). They don’t do this because they aren’t convinced that the theory is correct, but because there’s always the possibility that new evidence will be found that will require them to adjust or modify the theory. The point is, inductive reasoning is supposed to follow where the data leads it. But the other, equally important point, is that it’s much easier to use evidence to prove a statement is wrong than to prove it is correct. As a famous living author has recently observed (paraphrasing an even more famous dead author), you can look at white swans swimming in your lake all your life and not Prove the theory that all swans are white. You only need to see one black swan to disprove the theory, however.
Aristotle identified a third form of argument that may surprise you: narrative. Stories and anecdotes persuade us because we identify with the people and situations of the story, and because we understand the ways stories work we expect them to unfold in ways that “make sense”. A Nobel Prize-winning psychologist recently warned of “narrative fallacies”, which he describes (quoting that other recent, living author I mentioned) as “how flawed stories of the past shape our views of the world and our expectations for the future.” In fact, he said, the less actual information we have, the more compelling the narrative seems.
A famous recently-deceased historian defined history as a verbal artifact that historians use to “combine a certain amount of data, theoretical concepts for explaining these data, and a narrative structure for their presentation.” A good story can sometimes make up for sparse data or sketchy interpretation. Great storytelling sometimes can take the place of data (induction) or even agreed-on facts (deduction) in an argument. The most powerful stories can reach past the logical appeal to reason, bringing the emotions of the reader or audience into play. Fear, pride, contentment, resentment, love, and moral outrage are all powerful elements of argument, so it’s important to be able to recognize whether a writer is appealing to reason or to emotion. And then to ask why.
Also available as a video: https://youtu.be/IpeoQDoi_I4