Monday, May 7, 2007
Against Binary Thinking: How to Write X Number of Pages on Any Topic
As you progress in your college career, and sometimes even as you progress through just one term of that college career, it's likely that you'll be asked to write longer papers. Many students, when first confronted with the challenge of writing a paper longer than what they've written before, think: "But that is not possible to do. It is already difficult for me to write a paper that last X number of pages. Now that I am being asked to write a paper that is X+more, certainly it cannot be done."
Now, obviously that's not true. If there's one thing you learn in college, it's that a lot of people write, like, whole books on, like, just one thing! All sorts of people do this! The bookstore is full of these whole books that are just about specific stuff!
How. Do. They. Doooo. It?
One strategy for strengthening the content of your writing, as well as for giving yourself options for writing longer papers of more depth, is to ask yourself at what point you are defaulting to binary thinking. Then, when you find that point: don't let yourself think that simply.
Binary thinking is essentially thinking that sees no shades of gray on a certain topic--it is the belief that something is either black or white. The world we live in is rarely this simple, but we often like to think about the world as if it is that simple, because that makes our thinking easier.
Example: If I decide to use binary thinking about fruit, then I don't have much to say about fruit. If you ask me if apples are good, I say, "Yep. Good." I could maybe describe why I think apples are good, but it seems unnecessary. Types of fruit, my binary thinking decides, are either "good" or "bad." Apples = good. Oranges = bad. Bananas = good. Kiwi = bad. And so forth.
That might seem like a silly example, but experts on fruit or on nutrition could certainly evaluate the qualities of fruit for many pages, in any number of ways, because they do not engage in binary thinking about fruit. To them, apples have certain qualities of taste, they have certain kinds of nutritional content, they are grown in certain ways and in certain places, etc. All of these factors are open to description, interpretation, and evaluation. Even writing about apples alone, if one isn't just going to try and immediately label them as "good" or "bad," could go on for many, many pages.
In college, you are often asked to write in response to the ideas of some kind of authority--your professor, perhaps, or whoever wrote your textbook, or whichever major historical figure you're studying. If you're asked to write about Ghandi, for instance, and you are engaging in binary thinking, then it's hard to write, because all you think is, "Well, Ghandi was good. Everyone knows that. What am I supposed to write? Just how what he did was good?"
Every person, theory, or event has complexities that can be explored, though, if you are willing to engage in complex thinking. If you don't just want to write about how Ghandi was good, that doesn't mean your only other option is to kind of crazily and desperately try to write about how he was "bad." It means you might describe his beliefs and his actions, and interpret how he came to those beliefs and why he might have taken those actions, and then evaluate the effectiveness of various beliefs and actions, and how they changed over the years, and why they changed over the years...and now the pages are stacking up. You can write a much longer paper on Ghandi that way than you can if you interpret your topic as "Ghandi: Good or Bad?"
Good or bad, all or none, cool or crap...binary thinking. Avoid it, and your writing will be stronger, more interesting, and more engaging. And you'll be able to write X number of pages on any topic, regardless of what X is.