writing as third order experience

Alan Dix
Lancaster University

article in Interfaces, Summer 2006

Full reference:
A. Dix (2006). writing as third order experience . Interfaces, 68, pp. 19-20. Autumn 2006.
See also:
Alan's pages on Research and Innovation
Alan's essays
The Science of Scientific Writing by George Gopen and Judith Swan, American Scientist, Nov-Dec 1990.
I was shown this article recently. Gopen and Swan use a cognitive view of writing and reading to give practical advive, in the same way as I do, but focused more at a sentence/ paragraph level issues. Their account reinforces advice I often give. I maintain that 'real' language and 'real' grammar (i.e. we the way we speak in day-to-day life) is not a process of heirarchical construiction and analysis, but instead more based on small patterns/ schema combined with laregly sequential processes of interpretation. I have tended to focu m ore on the backwards process whereby each wrod we hear or read 'binds' to the most recent 'matching' term (e.g. verbs seek the most recent plausible noun as a subject). Gopen and Swan focus more on the forwards process by which words and terms create expectations of what is to come (e.g. a noun [phrase creates and expectation of the following verb). This really deserves another essay all of its own ...

photo by DominicFahey @ Flickr

Writing is hard. If you write anything, academic articles, poems, letters to your mum, you know what I mean. But with writing, as with many things, if you understand what is going on, you can find ways to help yourself.

So why is writing so hard? As the poet said "let me count the ways ..."[1,2], but let's look at just one reason: third-order experience.

Some years ago I visited Pisa for the first time, or rather I passed through Pisa stopping briefly at the railway station en route to Pisa airport from a meeting at Marina di Carrara where the marble meets the sea. Of course, the one thing I had to do was to see the Tower. It was a hot day and I marched quickly through the crowded streets, my whole luggage on my back. I think I'd expected the main street to lead straight to the tower, so that it would appear first from a distance, but instead you take a slight side turn so that when you first see it you are close and it rises above you - leaning just like the pictures.

In fact it was smaller than I had thought, most things are, and the clear picture postcard view was obscured by cables supporting it from above, huge concrete blocks weighing it down below and scaffolding around. But still wondrous. Not just for itself and its, albeit obscured, grandeur, but because of what it represented. It was like meeting Batman, or James Bond, like a trip to Never-Never Land, a place you had read about in stories, seen pictures of, a part of childhood imagination, but it was real.

Now that was an experience, a first-order experience. I was there I saw it I felt it. While it captured my imagination and recruited my imagination, in itself it did not require my imagination, neither the Tower nor my being there. It happened to me then.

Now over the years I have told people about this, probably first my family when I went home. Talking to my children, who were still young, I used different language from that above. Partly because the situation was different and I used pictures as well as words, but partly because they are different from you, reader, they had not seen so many of the stock images of the tower, they had not heard of Galileo dropping cannon balls to test theories of gravity, they did not share all my own understandings or your understandings and so I told them a different story.

Telling stories face-to-face is second order experience. You are there, with the person. You need to understand who they are, what they know, what they will understand, what you have told them already, what they might want to know. You need to recruit all the power of your human social understanding, to watch their eyes for interest or boredom, feeling body language and to some extent seeing inside their own mind. You are thoroughly there at the moment of telling - you and the listener - that is your first order experience. But at the same time you need to hold in your mind the thing that you wish to tell about. Whether it was a real incident like Pisa, or embellished, or completely made up, the subject of the conversation is purely in your mind, called into your imagination - second order experience. Simultaneously you need to deal with the imagined experience of your narrative and the actual experience of your listener.

And what when you write? I started to type " Some years ago I visited Pisa for the first time ..." just a few minutes ago ... or was it weeks or months - when are you reading this reader? I mention you because I have to think about you. Do you know about the Tower, about Batman? What language would capture your imagination? Writing is a sort of imagining of telling. I am here, in my backroom the early morning sunshine on the garden. This is my first order experience.

But to tell you the story I have to imagine you reading these words, or more commonly almost imagine myself telling you these words. As I do the writing I imagine the telling, imagine you, recruit in that imagined picture of you all the same social understanding I need in face-to-face telling, but without you here to constantly remind me of who you are and what you know and care about.

And yet at the same time, just as in my face-to-face telling I need to hold that picture of the Tower itself, my feelings, the heat of the day, the small stall where I bought the can of drink ... maybe conflating several visits (were the cables there on my first visit or just the scaffolding?), but whether real or imagined calling that experience into my mind as I also imagine the telling of it. The visit itself is third order - the imagination in my imagined conversation and I have to hold all three experiences in my mind at once: my hands staccato playing over the computer keys, you my reader, and Pisa in its glory.

No wonder writing is hard.

But when we understand we can start to make it easier.

One problem is that blank sheet of paper, or I guess blank screen; how to get started. You know in your head what you have to say, but not how to say it. But strangely, if a friend walked in you would probably just tell them all about it. Narrative and story telling go back throughout human history and are perhaps one of the key things that turns us from mere human bodies and brains to human beings. So this second order experience, itself quite an amazing ability, is one that is intimately part of our common humanity. Some tell stories better than others, some stories are easier told than others, but we all, to a greater or lesser extent can do this.

We can use our facility with second-order experience story telling to help our third-order experience writing. Have you ever noticed that that same topic you could not write about, if asked a question by email becomes easy to write down? I know I have written long emails on things that I had long failed to get started in writing 'properly'. The email to a friend is not so different from telling your friend, you know them so well, you can imagine their reactions - and have often shared many experiences with them: so you have to do less explaining, say things more shortly and in the end, just like in conversation, they can mail you back and ask if things are unclear.

So I have often suggested that students who are struggling to get started, simply write me a email about a topic, or write in a word processor, but to me personally. By simplifying the second-order of the imagined reader, doing the third-order activity of writing becomes easier.

In fact the hardest part of writing is the second-order imagined reader and this tell-it-to-a-friend technique is focused exactly on that.

Very often I've found my best academic papers come after I have had to give a talk on the topic. Even though I have still had to produce slides before the talk, somehow imagining actually saying the words is easier than imagining someone reading them. And of course the slides are not the whole words, just prompts or overviews. Because this third-order experience is in some way easier than writing, I make a better job of creating a structure that is understandable and engaging. Not that the eventual written words are the same as the words used in the talk, but the structure I produce is often far better than when I start to write from scratch. When I do come to write, it is like retelling an old story rather than telling it for the first time.

Even when there was no talk to give I have sometimes suggested to colleagues that they write a set of slides as if they were going to give a talk on a topic and then use those as their outline for a paper.

Again this technique helps you to bring that elusive reader to mind and so understand what will sound best and read best.

Often what you write seems perfectly good to you, and maybe even your close colleagues, but when someone new first reads it they have no idea what you are on about. Often you completely forget that concepts or ideas that are second nature to you need explaining to others. The single phrase that seems self-explanatory needs a whole paragraph or even paper to explain (as if I had just written 'third-order experience' in the middle of something else). This is a problem in picturing the experience or knowledge of your imagined reader. Sometimes this is because the concept is a new one that you are introducing in the paper and will explain later. The problem is that you expect your readers to understand before you have told them!

Once you understand the problem you can do something about it. You may simply omit the reference to the as yet unexplained concept, or may add a short explanation sufficient for the time. Alternatively you might give the reader a clue that they are not expected to understand. At the beginning of this article I wrote "let's look at just one reason: third-order experience" - I did not explain third-order experience as a concept, but I think (I hope!) that the way it was phrased, the fact that it was also the title of the article, would mean you understood that this was to come, the thing you were about to learn - one of Rumsfeld's known unknowns[3].

Of course here is exactly where the tell-it-to-a-friend approach does not help - in fact the reason for the problem is that you are writing as if for yourself or a close colleague. Writing for a friend is often a good way to start, to fill that empty screen, but not how to end the writing process.

But that vague faceless unknown readership is hard to write to, talking to a tailor's dummy, just like designing for a user profile rather than a person. So make it personal. Perhaps imagine a persona: a typical person whom might be reading your words, an imagined person, but a particular singular person, one you can really imagine speaking to - recruit your latent social intelligence waiting to help you and guide you. Or perhaps a 'real' real person: try writing for that colleague across the hall, who knows your vague area, but not the particulars. The first person I ever worked for used to tell me he always wrote so that his mother would understand ... didnít I start with letters to your mum?

And you dear reader ... who do I imagine you are?

Strangely I've not pictured you as a person, you are vague, but not entirely faceless. I think I have given sufficient lectures and talks that I have got used to talking to a group and understanding them as a group - and we do this frequently: groups of friends, family, it is natural. Talking to groups of unknown people though is different and common advice for speakers is to focus on a single member of the audience and speak as if for them alone (although that can be embarrassing if you are the chosen person!). Just like writing for a specific persona or person, by talking to one person our natural communication abilities surface. I know I still notice specific groups of faces as I give talks and in particular those who smile and react to my words, gauging the level and pace of my presentation by the light in their eyes.

So you, reader, are more like a lecture hall, full of half-glimpsed faces. And have I managed this third-order experience successfully? Now, when I write 'third order experience', does it mean more to you? Are you the sleepy professor at the back of the hall, or is it your eyes and smile that I have noticed in the crowd?


  1. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Sonnets from the Portuguese.
  2. There is extensive writing about writing. For an academic perspective, especially about the process of writing see Mike Sharples "How We Write", Routledge, 1999 or for first hand accounts by poets and novelists see Brewsetr Ghiselin (ed.), "The Creative Process", University of California Press, 1952.
  3. See BBC News "Rum remark wins Rumsfeld an award" 2nd Dec. 2003.http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3254852.stm
    "... as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know ..."
    I find myself with little good to say of Donald Rumsfeld, but this often ridiculed phrase, is in fact sharply perceptive, and worth reading carefully and remembering. In many areas it is the unknown unknowns that are most difficult but most important. Strangely ethnographers study the category that Rumsfeld omitted: the unknown knowns, the ones we don't know that we know (sic), the tacit understanding that makes ordinary life flow. To some extent this article is exactly about this unmentioned category encouraging you to explicitly know more about your tacit understanding of people and communication.

Alan Dix 23/7/2006 (article © 3rd June 2006)