I’ve come to realize that my writing skills have much room for improvement.

Resting on my laurels

I used to be under the glib impression that I was an excellent writer.  This was based on a number of factors. First of all, in high school my English teachers all told me I was good. Part of their enthusiasm about me was more due my unusual approach to literary topics – I interpreted literature in a more analytical fashion than other students.

In college I considered myself an excellent writer, and wrote a total of three newspaper editorials which were well received.  Upon entering graduate school I considered myself good relative to all of the foreign students & professors, whose writing is, by English standards, downright terrible. To foreign students who may be reading this, please don’t be offended, I have the highest respect for you guys because you are bilingual. I have always struggled with learning a second language and really never had any strong desire to do so.  Still, much of the writing by foreigners is of poor quality. I recently read an article in The Journal of Physical Chemistry written by several Japanese researchers which was so poorly written it had a grammar error in just about every sentence. I could understand almost all of what they were trying to say, but the high density of errors was distracting, to say the least.

My point is, based on the praise I received in high school, and my standing in relation to the foreign student population at Stony Brook, I felt my writing was ‘good enough’.  I also drew conclusions from statistics on the performance of US students vs Chinese.  In the face of the fact that my math skills (and those of American students on average) are highly deficient, I took some comfort in thinking that at least my writing skills were better.  I was smug (and to some extent still am) with the idea that although the Chinese students outperform American students on standardized tests and math exams, American students turn out to be much more freethinking and creative.

The arrogance of Feynman

In addition to the aforementioned factors, I believe that there was another subtle factor which led me to believe my writing was ‘good enough’ – and this factor I call ‘the arrogance of Feynman’. Like many physics majors, I was heavily influenced by Richard Feynman. I read about half of the first volume of the Feynman lectures and several of his popular books. In these books Feynman displays his characteristic bravado and arrogance for which he is famous. Two of the worst cases of this are his dismissal of the then emerging social sciences (most notably in his lecture ‘Cargo Cult Science’) and his flippant attitude towards philosophy.  Obviously Feynman wasn’t very well versed in either the social sciences or philosophy, but, as is a flaw found in many intellectuals, he felt that his high standing in one field gave legitimacy to his criticisms of other fields. (And all too often, we give such people this undue legitimacy.)  In addition to his arrogance towards philosophy and the social sciences, I also think there is one passage in which he displayed an arrogance towards language – or at least, it can be interpreted in this way. The basic idea is this:

“You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. –Richard Feynman

This is an easy to understand idea which I have heard trumpeted by many physics professors. A corollary might be the famous maxim “What I cannot create, I do not understand”. The idea is that the words (ie, combinations of sounds) we use are arbitrary functions of the culture we live in , ie. they are just syntax.  The important content is in the relations between the different words – which is known as the semantics.  Presumably these relations map onto relations between things in the world, resulting in human understanding. Furthermore, a person may be able to spout the right words out of their mouth, but that doesn’t mean they actually understand the web of relationships underlying those words if probed deeper. I think we all have been guilty of using big words to impress, even without fully understanding what they mean.

It is easy to carry this way of thinking too far though. In physics we often hear people saying “that’s just semantics” or “that’s just a question of wording”. We like to think that physical theories are couched in precise mathematical terms and not susceptible to the vagaries of language.  I’m not an expert on epistemology so I’m not going to try to go into philosophical detail, but let me make two points:

The first point is that if you carefully investigate the idea that words don’t matter, you’ll find lots of problems. One being that the only way you can express abstract, intellectual knowledge is through words. (as opposed to knowledge about how to juggle three balls or tie a square knot, which you can demonstrate simply by doing it.) Words are defined through their use, so understanding usage (“semantics”) is very important. Physics is never purely mathematics, which can be viewed as merely a fancy bookeeping device, but is rather in the definitions of the various mathematical symbols, which are expressed in words. The words give meaning to the symbols, not the other way around.

The second, and more important point is that practically speaking, although the meaning is in the semantics (relations) the syntax itself is extremely important. You may understand perfectly how something works but that knowledge won’t be very useful if you can’t communicate it to someone else. I think this is an area where physicists can improve a lot, by standardizing the words we use and also our mathematical syntax. We can also improve a lot in our ability to communicate ideas to members of other disciplines (even within physics) and to the public at large.

Developing from slow crystallization to rapid realization

Now, getting on with my realization, let me briefly discuss what I hope to improve. The first thing is I would like is for my writing to be free from grammar and spelling errors and easily understandable by the intended audience. Ideally I would like to be able write something without having to proofread it a dozen times to remove all the errors. Right now, creating a good piece of writing takes me a lot of time and a lot of proofreading, which I am terribly inefficient at.

I also feel I can improve a lot in the way I organize my thoughts. Before I write something, I rarely have much of plan. This results in me starting to writing something, but then realizing I need to write something else first, only to decide maybe I should never have included the first thought to begin with. My writing is never done in a linear or even semi-linear fashion. It invariably ‘crystallizes out’ in a rather chaotic fashion. I do not think this is an optimal way to write something, and indeed, if it were not for word processors, which allow for the rapid manipulation of text, I would be screwed. I would like to be able to establish an organized outline beforehand, either in my head or on paper, and then execute it in an efficient manner, by writing each paragraph, reflecting on it, and then moving on to the next. I feel that the end result may be more readable than having ideas ‘crystallize out’ in a more haphazard fashion, because then my writing would have more of the much sought after “flow” which is found in great writing. [If you want to see great flow, try reading something in the Atlantic or New York Times. If you want to see poor flow, go on Wikipedia.] Obviously, acquiring such skills takes a lot of practice.