Wednesday, October 10, 2012

High Reps, Low Weight

You always have to be careful with analogies. Not long ago, I tore into the idea that writing a dissertation is like running a marathon. Yesterday, the shoe was on the other foot. Answering a question at one of my writing seminars, I said it might be better to write 9 18-minute paragraphs in three hours than 8 27-minute paragraphs in 4. Not only, I said, would this be a better use of your energy (the fourth hour of writing is rarely very effective), it may improve the "definition" of your prose, "just as a high reps, low weight workout improves your muscle tone."

Well, one of the participants said that that's just nonsense. That sort of workout, he said, will produce bulk, not tone. And last night I went home and looked into it and, sure enough, I was simply transmitting a widely held myth about "muscle toning" (this post and this one are representative of the contempt fitness instructors have for the myth). It seems that a lot of people who are worried about getting muscles that are too big, but do want them to be visible under their skin, have fallen for this myth. The truth, it appears, is that you can't, properly speaking, "tone" your muscles or "shape" them. All you can do is make them bigger and then reduce your body fat (mainly by dieting). That is what makes you "ripped".

Now, it's tempting to simply incorporate this new information into my analogy and rework it to make some other point. But it's important to keep in mind that it really just is an analogy. There is no real or physical connection between your muscles and your prose. There is no scientific reason to think that what goes for your abs and biceps will also go for your writing "chops". Nor can we really compare writing a paragraph in 18 minutes or 27 minutes with "reps" and the length of a writing session with "weights". On closer examination, all analogies will break down at some point.

In this case then, I have only been reminded not to compare writing to something that I know nothing about, like weight training. There are ways in which your prose is "like a muscle". But this, it turns out, isn't one of them. Hopefully some of my other attempts at this analogy still hold.


Jonathan said...

The analog is that intelligent training works.

Andrew Gelman said...

This reminds me of one of my pet peeves, which is when social scientists writing about causality use medical examples. I think that if a social scientist wants to make the claim that his ideas for causal inference are helpful for social science, he (or she) should use social science examples. See footnote 4 here.

Thomas said...

Yes, after writing this post I've started planning a series of posts that will try to say what I mean entirely without using analogies.

It's actually strange that one would tell scholars to think of their writing on the model of activities like music and sports. Why should they be more familiar with these activities?

As I say admit in this post, I'm much more likely to evoke a caricatured image of competence in music or sports, where perhaps a detailed account of something scholars are presumably familiar with, namely, writing, would offer a more constructive place to begin (and, I guess, end).

Stay tuned.