Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Rare Shortcut to Better Writing

Helping attorneys choose better ghostwriters, my mission in Disputed Issues, is more modest —and more self-serving — than inculcating writing skill. Not that Disputed Issues would think to withhold a panacea for writing problems, even to protect a trade secret. Panaceas for writing problems are indeed often promised. I recall a law-school professor who required students to rewrite any passive voice sentence into active, and he advertised that this one change would work tremendous improvement in student writing. Solutions on offer in the popular culture are as simplistic, with short sentences the current favorite. Even some well-respected works, such as Strunk, include panacea mongering. If Disputed Issues eschews improving the writing skills of the masses — or even of the lawyers among them — the reality that the panaceas are mirages figures as at least one of the main reasons. But if a true writing panacea exists, you almost certainly don't know it because the numerous popular solutions do not lack exponents. I am aware of no advocate of my suggestion, which also affords a quick and dirty way to estimate the writing skills of a ghostwriter whose hire you are considering. My advice is: put serious effort into improving your typing speed.

The physical aspect of writing is little considered, but the method used to transform thought into writing creates a bottleneck for thought, which draws upon a limited pool of cognitive resources, some used in the physical labor of externalizing thought. Mental-resource limitation is the basis for the intuition that the stupid person is unable to walk and chew gum simultaneously and is the reason that multitasking has rightly fallen into disrepute. When you devote resources to the physical process of writing, they are unavailable for thinking, diminishing your ability to think the thought you would transfer to a medium. One of the most well-researched examples of resource limitation is channel capacity. Each sensory modality has a channel capacity that is semi-autonomous from other channels, so that if you try to look at one thing and listen to another, you will be more successful than if you listen to two different things piped to opposite ears.

Logically, this limitation of resources presents two ways to improve performance on the focal task: decreasing the resources that the brain must devote to competing tasks and choosing methods that have fewer overlapping resources. Improving your typing speed will decrease your use of resources at any given speed, as gaining skill amounts to making processing more automatic, and automatized processes are almost free of resource costs. Typing also involves less resource competition than alternative methods of output. Your dominant hemisphere, which takes the leading role in verbal thought, controls your dominant hand, usually one's unique instrumentality for handwriting. In being a linear process, typing also uses primarily the dominant hemisphere, but the labor is distributed over both hands, allowing the noncompeting nondominant to play a role. The other alternative to typing, dictation, drains the same resources involved in thought, because producing a stream of natural language, compared to striking keys or even writing with pen or pencil, is more akin to the language of thought.

In more obvious ways as well, the labor of transcription interferes with production of written work. The more arduous the work of transcription, the more the writer must buck the instinct for laziness, but with greater automatization and less attention, the physical work becomes less boring. The physical aspect of writing is often one of the least inviting. I predict that a substantial improvement in typing speed would cure many a case of writer's block.

You may not believe me without trying it. Once convinced, you have also gained a secret, slightly base way to screen prospective ghostwriters if you discover their typing speed.

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