Bacon, who was wrong about many things, spoke truly when he said, “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not.”
Although I am not often asked about conference, I am often asked about reading and writing. Here are a few of things I have learned over the years.
Preparation for the Act
Build quiet into your life. Listen.
Turn off the television and social media. Don’t monitor messages continuously, but only at fixed times. Don’t pretend that you can multi-task.
Turn off anything that thumps, even if it is supposed to be a pleasant thump.
Spend time with friends. Love those entrusted to you. The strings of the mind lose their tone if their tension is never relieved, so play sometimes.
Don’t skip necessary sleep. You will lose more time through fatigue and confusion than you think you have gained by staying awake.
Never suppose that if your subject is one of the humanities you don’t need to learn logical reasoning and mathematics – and conversely.
Learn your mind’s rhythms. There is a time for lying fallow, and a time for sending up shoots.
Learn how your mind understands. An example: Some can’t teach anything until they understand it, but others can’t understand anything until they see how they could teach it.
Fish don’t know they are wet; and not just fish. Try to become aware of what you take for granted.
Don’t worry about the fact that everything can be doubted. The question is whether you have good reason to believe it.
Don’t worry about finding yourself. If you try to acquire the virtues, your self will take care of itself.
Do not be misled by those who say that seeking is an end in itself. Seek the truth to find it; find the truth to yield to it.
The Act of Reading
It is better to read a few good books well than to read many books poorly. Seek guides who can tell you what they are. But don’t rely exclusively on them; explore.
Whenever you read something difficult, read it out loud. Whenever you read something beautiful, do the same. Do not shun the difficult; seek the beautiful; avoid the foul.
If a book is worth reading, it is worth reading more than once; and in order to take it in, you may have to.
Read about subjects other than the one you are studying.
Read real books, not just internet postings, and read in many styles and genres.
Avoid reading books about books until you have read the books they are about.
Read more old books than recent ones. Get outside the little island of your own time.
Learn what an author teaches not for the sake of knowing what he teaches, but in order to find out whether it might be true.
Reach across time to ask the authors questions. Have them reach across time to ask you questions. Make them ask questions of each other.
Never confuse a mere rebuff with a thoughtful objection.
If you do raise an objection, give the author a chance to answer.
Don’t worry if you find yourself reading more slowly. You will.
The Act of Writing
Don’t write “about” a “topic.” Claim something; solve something; answer something. Everything begins with asking something.
Don’t just write about theories of things. Write about things.
No matter how much you love and cherish that unnecessary part of your book, essay, chapter, paragraph, or sentence, remove it. This is the only meritorious form of murder.
Don’t hurry in framing your questions. A badly framed question invites a badly reasoned answer.
Write often. If you have no reason to write on Tuesday, think of one. You don’t have to write all day.
If you suffer writer’s block, warm up by writing something else for twenty minutes. A letter. A limerick. Anything will do.
Outline your arguments before you write them. Eventually you will do this in your mind. Eventually it will be second nature.
Don’t talk too much, or too soon, about what you are writing.
Don’t revise your draft until a day or two has passed since writing it, so that you can read it as if it were written by someone else.
Always remember that your reader can’t read your mind; all he has are your words.
Whatever you can’t make interesting isn’t interesting to you.
Whatever you can’t explain in simple language, you don’t understand.
J. Budziszewski is a Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin. This article has been republished with permission from his blog, The Underground Thomist. Further reading: What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, by J. Budziszewski.