The Science of Refinement, Composing, 22/12/2014

If I were in film full-time, this would be where I did my
editing, and my life in general would have a much
higher overhead.
Keeping it light today with another post about my editing process on the Ecophilosophy manuscript. Here’s just a quick example of the kind of thing that I do, if you’re not sure what an editing process on a manuscript like this is all about. 

One of the recurring events as I go through this manuscript is me shaking my head in relative shame at some phrase that I included in the original final draft two years ago. I even have moments where I wonder why my committee gave me the damn degree for this work. As I go through the text today, I see so many ways to improve my expression and drastically change quite a few sentences around. 

I like to think that all good writers go through this thought process when they revisit older work that may have sat in a vault for a while. Now, I have no idea whether they actually do. I just like to think this to maintain my self-confidence as a writer. 

Here's an example of the kind of cuts I make and why. I cut the italic part of this sentence, for a reason that I'll explain below.
“Nuanced philosophical reasoning requires precisation because philosophical concepts and systems are so technical and complex enough that each sentence describing a philosophical system must be written with the most exact meaning possible.”
Appropriately, this section of the manuscript is about an approach to philosophical analysis that focusses on making statements more precise, one of the early works of Arne Næss that I discussed last week. The core idea behind this conception of preciseness is that a short statement is usually quite vague or ambiguous. It can have many different interpretations, all of which are valid because they flow from sensible speculation on how the words should be understood. 

These interpretations might not even be mutually compatible, which makes sense because most unproductive philosophical conversations are just people arguing over mutually contradictory interpretations of the same relatively vague sentence or set of sentences. Making a statement more precise means that its set of possible interpretations shrinks without including any new interpretations that weren't in the original, vague set.

Here’s why I made the cut: the meaning of a statement becomes more precise as you add more material. Grammatically speaking, a very precise statement will contain far more than one single sentence. Most sentences, taken on their own, are actually rather ambiguous. Only when you add more and more qualifications, elaborations, and general detail does what you say starts to become more precise. 

So a sentence would inevitably be rather vague, especially if its subject is rather complex and open to many possible interpretations. A paragraph's worth of explanation less so, and as your statement becomes more precise, it grows longer to account for more details and possibilities. So while it’s important that each sentence be written with the most precision possible, its size forces a natural limit. And I didn’t want to focus a reader's attention on individual sentences as the sole vehicle of philosophical meaning. 

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