Word of Caution Writing Tip


Word of caution

Once you have a rough idea of what you want to write about, you might want to reconsider before you commit yourself. One of the most crucial decisions is being made here, and too precipitous a jump might land you in trouble.

On that tramp steamer returning up the American coast from the South Pacific, after passing through the Panama Canal , we made our first stop in the United States in Charleston Bay for a customs inspection. One of the things the inspectors were looking for was dope, of course. The other crew members were wise to this dance. Since I was the only gringo among the crew, they figured my room would be the last one to be searched. So they decided to hide their stash with me. But when it came to finding a hiding place, they had a rule: Reject the first ten places you think of, even if some of them seem foolproof. The idea was that if we thought of them, so would the inspectors. There was a deliberate rejection of the arrogant assumption that somehow any idea that popped into our heads would not just as easily pop into anyone else's. It was good advice. And the eleventh hiding place was a beaut. As it happened, the inspectors glanced through my doorway, saw that I was white, nodded politely to me, and then ransacked the other rooms. Since they never entered my room, we never found out if our hiding place was a safe one. Nevertheless, the lesson stuck with me. And it applies equally well to the writing of college papers.

Any idea that pops into your head is bound to pop into the heads of almost every other person in the class. There is no such thing as "free will". We are all products of our environment and our genes. Our differences are due to different contingencies of reinforcement. Our thoughts are not created by us. They come irresistibly out of the depths of the mind. We cannot cause a thought to come before we have already thought it; nor can we stop a thought from coming without first thinking it. Ideas are like other sensations that are sensed by the mind. Just as we hear sounds and see sights, we "think" thoughts. But for some reason, unlike with hearing sounds and seeing sights, we are cursed with the arrogant illusion that we somehow create the thoughts we think. Not so.

Hence, you want to avoid jumping on the first idea that pops into your head. Since you are quite similar to your fellow students, and since you are all in the same classroom environment, the chance of the same ideas popping into each of your minds is very likely. And sure enough, most papers on any given topic in any one class bear a remarkable and boring similarity to stale popcorn. The few papers that are different stand out. They wake teachers up. They impress us. We say, "Here is a student who can think and not just react like some Pavlovian dog." In fact, such students are also reacting, but they are reacting from a more complex level - and they get better grades.

Thank you.

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