With apologies to Daniel Kahneman for a post title that reflects his fascinating book Thinking, fast and slow (and if you haven’t read it yet, you should), I’ve been prompted to reflect on the impact of social media and the internet on the way in I – and, I guess, other people – write.
Most obviously, of course, there is the hazard of the indiscreet tweet – the sudden intuition or instinctive response in 160 characters of unwisdom – which may well end up in the libel courts. But more generally there is the sense that the immediate, the passing flow of experience and ideas, can be captured and sent out for the benefit of the world, or at least your circles within Facebook or Twitter followers. Writing fast, capturing the moment, recognizing and acknowledging the fleeting shimmer of an idea or feeling, may be valuable in itself for the writer, as the ‘mindfulness’ and ‘just sitting’ traditions of Buddhist meditation testify, but does it actually produce a useful text?
Writing fast encourages stream of consciousness keyboarding – allowing a narrative or argument to flow naturally from thought to page. In many ways, I welcome this, because it makes for a more lively text. In my own experience of over 35 years of writing books, I know that there are times when everything comes easily and the paragraphs just fly by. It is the most wonderfully creative outpouring, and you never want it to stop. But I also know that many (if not most) of those moments of free-flowing, engaged writing are lurking in the unpublished manuscripts and notes scattered around my office! The art, of course, is to produce text that feels spontaneous, that exhibits all the characteristics of the flow of the Tao, even if it has been worked over many times. The ‘writing slow’ element at its best is revising slow.
At the other extreme there is the well-crafted, ‘slow’ academic paper that leaves no detail unexplained and makes its points with razor logic, but which thereby becomes boring in the extreme. I used to think that I was the only person who secretly found most academic philosophy boring, and was therefore encouraged by an interview with Nigel Warburton (himself a lively and prolific writer of popular philosophy) in the latest edition of ‘The Philosophers Magazine’, where he admitted his own reservations about the style of much academic philosophy. But poor, dull writing is not the same thing as slow writing. Writing slow is the necessary stage of working over intuitions and refining them into arguments that make sense; taking time and trouble to check the validity of what is said.
Kahneman has pointed out the many ways in which our unconscious habits of mind can lead us to wrong conclusions and bad decisions, particularly where intuition leads us to ignore statistical information that does not conform to our preconceived ideas. We are all vulnerable to those errors, both in thinking and writing, but the art is to know how to balance the fast and slow elements, not to stifle intuition or deny the value of the natural flow of text onto screen, but to know how, when and by how much to allow the ‘slow writing’ or serious editing and improvement to do its work without killing off the spirit of the ‘fast’ original.
Which brings me to the reason for this blog post….
Until the end of last year, I’ve mostly been writing books to fit particular slots in their publisher’s schedules. Professional writers are expected to deliver on time and to exactly the right length and level, often fitting text into a publisher-determined format. Anyone who thinks that the writer’s life is one of leisure, with occasional, inspired forays into the book-lined study, can think again. It’s all a matter of deadlines, of responses to reports by professional readers, of a limited number of days to go through proofs or supply extra bits of text. And for most educational writers, whose income from writing would condemn them to utter poverty if not starvation, it is also necessary to take on other work in order to make a living, which eats away at the time available for writing. Even trying to explain complex philosophical issues in straightforward text, which has been my bread-and-butter for most of my working life, is not experienced as ‘writing slow’, but ‘writing fast’ in the sense of trying to get one’s immediate sense of what it important down onto the page as quickly and efficiently as possible – I can’t think of a time when writing, for me, felt leisurely. There has always been pressure to deliver.
Now, being in receipt of a pension, all that can change. Thanks to the internet and the ease with which e-books can be produced, I am reviewing some of my out-of-print material to see whether it can be improved, updated and made available in e-book format.
The first of these – Buddhism: key ideas is a new edition of a little book that came out in Hodder’s ‘101 key ideas’ series in 2000 – is almost ready for publication. It provides a set of 101 short explanations of Buddhist ideas, all linked together to provide a coherent, overall view of what Buddhism is about (if that is possible – but that’s another matter!). It was originally aimed at the general ‘Teach Yourself’ trade market, where the whole series flourished briefly before going out of print two years later. It was a curious idea – that every and every subject should be divisible into and explained through exactly 101 ideas, but it was an interesting challenge for those of us writing for the series. But, reflecting on the book a decade later, I see its potential for students, either as a revision aid, or as a starting point, from GCSE upwards – hence the new edition.
I had it mentally scheduled for publication at the end of this month, but that deadline has arrived, there is no distressed editor on the phone enquiring about the text, and I recognize that more can be done to improve the book. In any case, students are unlikely to need it now until the beginning of the new term. Hence, I am deliberately ‘writing slow’, trying to reflect and analyse how to make it as useful as possible, while keeping the text accessible for students of all ability levels. That’s the sort of thing that demands ‘slow writing’ – intuiting the importance of an idea, or even of how to present it, may be ‘fast’ but it needs slow honing to achieve clarity.
And one of the benefits of the internet and e-publishing in general is that material can be made available so cheaply – in this case a book costing £4.99 a decade ago should now cost about £1, and the next book to be adapted, my Religion and Science A level text (in Hodder’s Access to Religion and Philosophy series), is going to drop in price from £13.99 to £1.99! I know how difficult it is for schools to be able to afford sets of textbooks these days, especially where they cover only part of a syllabus, rather than acting as a core book. Hopefully, any new material I produce, or old material I re-issue, will be at a level where no student who might benefit from it will be denied access on grounds of cost. (And, in case you think the state pension is clearly over-generous tome, I will make more from a £1.99 download than from a £13.99 book purchased from a bookshop – which is sad, given how much I enjoy bookshops!)
So I’m thinking fast but writing slow at the moment! This summer, I’ll be off on holiday without the threat of a publisher-imposed deadline hanging over me. And, speaking of holidays, have you packed a copy of The Philosopher’s Beach Book for your holiday reading? If not, please click on the link to my website and take a look at some of its free sample material; you may just like it enough to want the rest of the book!