Toward a Deeper Vocabulary

When Writing is More than Writing

As a professor who also happens to opine publicly about productivity, I’m often invited to stop by dissertation bootcamps — a semi-annual ritual at many universities where doctoral students gather to hear advice and work long hours on their theses in an atmosphere of communal diligence.

Something that strikes me about these events is the extensive use of the term “writing” to capture the variety of different mental efforts that go into producing a doctoral dissertation; e.g., “make sure you write every day” or “don’t get too distracted from your writing by other obligations.”

The actual act of writing words on paper, of course, is necessary to finish a thesis, but it’s far from the only part of this process. The term “writing,” in this context, is being used as a stand in for the many different cognitive efforts required to create something worthy of inclusion in the intellectual firmament of your discipline.

In my own academic work, for example, these efforts include the general synthesis of trends in search of new openings, the struggle to read and understand existing papers, probing for a fresh attack on a problem, trying to work through the technical details needed to pull an argument together, and, of course, the careful grind required to write up the results clearly — each of which presents a unique mental experience and its own set of challenges.

The tendency for bootcamp attendees to sweep such varied activities together into a generic term like “writing” is a minor linguistic quirk, but I’m beginning to believe that it points to a potentially broader problem: our culture lacks a sufficiently nuanced vocabulary for discussing rigorous cognitive efforts.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if, as Boas famously claimed, the Eskimos have dozens of words for “snow,” then in an emerging knowledge work society, we should have more than a handful of words to describe the mental efforts on which, more and more, our livelihoods depend.