The Challenges of Understanding and Action

2015-07-15 00.16.56-2There is an activity that we all engage in throughout our waking hours—and likely some sleeping hours as well—yet we mostly pay little or no attention to it: the effort to understand what is happening in our lives and in the world at large and what action, if any, to take in response. That this activity is so broad and deep, with an enormous number of aspects, probably explains why it is overlooked. But we ignore it at our peril, especially now when our shared knowledge has eroded, and with it our beliefs and values, and our ability to take joint action has seriously diminished.


Paying attention, however, has its challenges, not the least of which is what I call fundamental context: the general situation that every person in the world faces, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, economic level, nationality, and intelligence. The fact is, the universe is immensely large and complex, and our ability as humans to comprehend it is very limited, and therefore requires constant and innovative effort.

In addition, understanding has both an individual and a social dimension. Each person must do it with help from society, and society must do it with input from every person. Both dimensions are rooted in culture—which has been defined in many ways but which I view as the means by which we collect and maintain our shared knowledge, and then use this knowledge to construct the conceptual schema that we employ to understand experience and take action.

Finally, it is not clear what we can do to change things, given the shortcomings in our current understanding of the world and our attempts to act in response, both personally and as a society. I am sure, though, that publishing can play a critical role in the effort to understand and take action, contributing to both its individual and social dimensions.

© Martin Wilcox

Publishing in Context

Publishing in Context

How to Start a Book



Writing a book is challenging, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. A lot depends on making a good start. Here’s how to do that—in four steps.

Check your knowledge. The first step, which can’t be put off, is to check what you know. Are you drawing on a body of knowledge that others share? How are your ideas the same as and different from what they know? Has your knowledge been tested and used successfully? Is there a generally accepted set of terms for referring to it? Can you specify the relation between the ideas that make up the body of knowledge? Are there parts of what you know that you feel are solid but which you haven’t completely articulated?

This work can involve some writing, but it doesn’t have to. You can draw charts, make tables, create notes, compile lists of resources. You can use idea-mapping software to great benefit, as well as repositories of knowledge such as libraries or websites. When you write things down, remember that you’re not writing the book, so don’t worry about polishing text. Just concentrate on making sure you have a good grasp of what you know, and that what you know is useful (broadly speaking), complete, and coherent.

Many people skip this step because they believe they will do these things as they write their books. They have heard that writing is thinking, and that is true, but thinking is not only writing. Much of the thinking needs to be done prior to working on the book. If it is not, then the writing will likely be overwhelmed by the requirements of the knowledge work.

Conceptualize your book. Once you are sure that you have a complete sense of what you know, you must turn this knowledge into content, which means identifying a part of it that has a specific purpose for a defined audience. You project the value and use of what you know. In short, conceptualize your book by asking yourself what good you want it to do in the world.

Note that your book should not try to say everything you know—because it can’t. In carrying out this step you might think of other ways you can disseminate your content—in another book, in a related workbook, on a website, in a blog, and so on.

When conceptualizing your book you will need to develop an idea that organizes what you know. In addition, you must establish a set of terms that will effectively portray the main aspects of that idea. If you can draw on terms that your audience is already familiar with (adjusted for your particular presentation), it will help the book be more accessible.

The combination of audience, purpose, and an organizing idea constitute your book’s proposition.

Put together a first draft. Now you are ready to capture in text all the content you want the book to contain. This is where the writing begins. It is a task that takes some time, although in many cases you can make progress by gathering together material you have already written. But you need to make sure that you write statements about your audience and purpose. It is the goal of the first draft to be substantive and complete, not finally organized. You address the latter in the next step.

Structure your book. In this step you determine how the book will present its proposition. The best way to do this is by writing the introduction—at which point you are moving on to your second draft and the writing occurs in earnest. In the introduction you give an overview of your proposition, citing the audience (primary and secondary), saying what the book will do for audience members, and detailing chapter by chapter how the book will accomplish this. The introduction thus becomes a guide for turning the first draft into a second draft. You’ll note that the book’s proposition is closely related to its structure, but they aren’t identical. Authors sometimes conflate them.

Also, remember that a book is long text that typically supplies the big picture while providing specific observations and advice.

Moving on. With a complete first draft and a second draft introduction in hand, you will have made a good start on your book. In fact, it is much more than a start; more than half of the work of the book is done. Finishing the book will require you to complete the second draft, redoing text from the first draft and writing some additional material as necessary to realize the structure and accomplish the argument.

Then, in a third draft, you will polish what you’ve written, adjust the introduction to accommodate any changes that had to be made as the rest of the book was created, and do a final check for consistency and completeness.

Note: Publishing is by its nature a collaborative activity, which means to do it well you should get help with starting (and finishing) your book. At Publishing in Context we have years of experience in providing such help and would be pleased to assist you. See the description of our services for more information.

© Martin Wilcox

The Context and Purpose of Publishing

© Martin Wilcox

          There is a lot of talk today about how publishing should change. People say it should alter its business plan; put out more, or perhaps only, digital products; promote open-access or self-publishing; and more. This discussion, which focuses largely on technical and technological issues, needs to take place, but it has become so passionate that it has diverted us from another, at least equally important, discussion: how publishing should not change.

In order to talk about that we need to pay attention to the context, and through that the purpose, of publishing.

Although it is seldom discussed, the context of publishing is knowledge, and the context of knowledge is culture.

Culture has been defined in a myriad of ways. Rather than trying to define it by describing its specific manifestations, such as beliefs, values, goals, and practices, I prefer a functional definition: Culture is the systematic way that we humans test, adapt, preserve, and pass on what we learn from our collective experience. It is the dynamic container of our shared knowledge.

Of all the cultural activities that relate to knowledge, publishing has become one of the more prominent. Whether as a contribution to a scholarly discipline as in academic publishing, as part of an exchange of expert ideas about how to conduct work as in professional publishing, as a guide to a practical task as in specialty publishing, or as an entertainment as in trade publishing, it provides knowledge for a defined purpose to a specific audience.

There is a range of knowledge processes that support publishing—for instance, scanning the environment, using empirical methods to evaluate validity and truth, perspective-taking, collaboration, and popularization. The first three examples are important but not always present; the last two are always at work and essential.

Collaboration is a process in which two or more people work together to understand and accomplish a common purpose. It is a knowledge process because collaborating inevitably requires people to refer to and pass along what they know. In an organizational setting, collaboration has only recently been recognized as important—often distinguished from teamwork, which has received much more attention, because the latter typically involves people in a formal workgroup, or in formally recognized roles, whereas the former involves people who aren’t members of the same formal group work. Thus, it commonly necessitates working across a variety of boundaries (vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic, and geographic). In a general setting, where formal groups are the exception, collaboration is much more prominent. In publishing it is how things get done.

Popularization is the means by which expert knowledge is made available to a succession of ever-wider, more general audiences that can make use of it. Because expert knowledge is everywhere, it can begin anywhere—in an academic discipline, in an ongoing practical activity, or in an association of shared interests, or wherever these may intersect, to name a few. And there are many degrees of popularization—beginning with a very small amount, where, for instance, an expert informs his or her peers about something he’s learned; to somewhat a slightly greater amount, where the expert informs experts in closely related fields; to a very great amount, where an expert portrays his or her knowledge to a largely lay audience. For each degree, the audience must be considered and knowledge must be transformed.

Golden Leaves Floating Copyright: Melanie Arrowood Wilcox

Golden Leaves Floating
Copyright: Melanie Arrowood Wilcox

Given its context, the purpose of publishing becomes obvious: to contribute to the sharing of knowledge. Thus, the cultural and social aspects of knowledge use and dissemination, especially the essential processes of collaboration and popularization, are central to our understanding of what is happening in publishing and how we should move forward.

In addition, we need to acknowledge that publishing has six interrelated but distinct stages: knowledge verification, content development, publication development, production, marketing and promotion, and sales and distribution. On occasion, there can be some overlap, often resulting in confusing one stage with another. Each of these contributes to its purpose.

  1. Knowledge Verification. Publishing must begin with a commitment to contribute in some way to shared knowledge. To follow through on this commitment, it is necessary to judiciously consider the value and quality of the knowledge that is being added. It can come from a scholarly or a practical field; it can be held individually or organizationally.
  2. Content Development. Content development is a large part of the popularization that publishing organizations do. Thus it is the means by which expert knowledge is transformed into something that can more readily be understood and used by people throughout society. Within any knowledge field, a great deal of effort is expended to make it internally consistent and expandable (that is, something that can be contributed to). This is accomplished in many ways but especially through a precise and detailed terminology and, closely related, through organizing concepts. Except for the community of experts in the field, the terminology and expert concepts cannot merely be passed on to a more general audience. Content development develops a terminology that is accessible to a wider audience and is relevant to its needs, and finds more understandable organizing concepts. It can be understood as turning knowledge into content.
  3. Publication Development. This was once essentially book development, but now it involves developing different kinds of products. But the book is not dead, and furthermore it needs to be understood that in many cases when we talk about the book what we are really referring to is text: language that is put into a fixed form in various ways, the most prominent way historically being written (and then printed). This text, language in fixed form, is an important type of technology, which was developed in the course of the cultural activities of preserving and sharing useful knowledge. Publishing is essentially about content in textual form to create products that serve cultural needs.
  4. Production. Production is the stage in which collaboration and popularization are essential—with editing producing an understandable and useful text, and design and layout creating a presentation that is efficient and accessible—assuring that the product is effective at sharing the content in the developed text.
  5. Marketing and Promotion. The purpose of both marketing and promotion in publishing is to let an audience know that a publisher has some content that the audience needs and can use. It is not to create a need that doesn’t already exist, although sometimes an audience may not be aware that it needs something. Marketing aims to inspire an immediate, or not-too-distant, purchase. Promotion, on the other hand, informs people about a publication and aims to set the stage for an eventual purchase. Both are key to the effective sharing of content.
  6. Sales and Distribution. This is a part of publishing that is much discussed and changing. In the midst of this, we must make sure that sales and distribution are driven in large part by the knowledge requirements of people, by what they need to understand and do, and not exclusively by technological considerations.

What should stay the same for publishing, despite the innovations of new business models and technological capacities, should be the context it operates in and the purpose it fulfills. Collaboration, popularization, and the six stages of the publication process must continue. These can be done in different ways by new combinations of people and resources, but if publishing is to continue its contribution to society, they must endure.

Publishing in Context




The Need for Conceptual Thinking

© Martin Wilcox


Today in the United States we are in the midst of a crisis of thinking. The problem is not, as some might assert, that we’re thinking too little; it’s that we’re not thinking conceptually.

Let me describe conceptual thinking and give an example of where its absence is having an adverse effect.

Conceptual thinking generates ideas that explain and organize experience, helping people understand what is happening and thereby take appropriate action in response. It can be disruptive because it challenges the established ideas that have been used to organize experience, but it is absolutely essential because the established ideas that frame our experience become less and less effective over time and must be replaced.

Conceptual thinking is characterized by four essential qualities. It is purposeful—that is, it defines the reason and usefulness of ideas: who they help, why, and how. It is contextual—that is, it acknowledges the environment it operates in, which means it must be anchored in facts. It is generative—that is, it promotes the creation of related ideas. And it synthesizes—that is, it brings together relevant elements into clear systematic relationships.

It is important to note that conceptual thinking occurs at two interactive levels: as a specific individual challenge and as part of a general social activity.

At the individual level, the challenge is for each person to make sense of his or her life. Many of the issues are of course personal (What do I value? What should I do with my life?) but, because we live with other people, most of the issues are social (What motivates the people I interact with? How should I treat them?). Conceptual thinking on the individual level is inevitably social.

On the general level it is social by definition—because it contributes to the knowledge sharing, and thus to the communal understanding and values, that is the basis of culture.

People have a strong sense of the need for conceptual thinking but in attempting it they often take shortcuts, not working things through and paying attention to its essential qualities. They rely on stereotypes or received concepts. They feel that big ideas are required, but what they often come up with are broad ideas that ignore purpose and context, resulting in ideas that are simplistic rather than simple.

Consider education. In the United States, we have been struggling with the need to improve it for decades. The public discussion about how to do this, however, has seldom considered purpose and context.

What is the purpose of education? Is it to train people for jobs, or is it to prepare them to play a productive role in society, with an understanding of values, history, and the power and limits of our shared knowledge? These are not mutually exclusive, but which is the most fundamental? Conceptual thinking would help answer this. Unfortunately, people discussing education at best make occasional references to a purpose, but even then it’s not thought through and certainly never generally accepted.

And what about context? Is the context for education business or society? Business, because it is part of society, can be helped by education but it can’t be the primary focus for it. If the context of education is fundamentally society, then a range of social issues are relevant and must be addressed: poverty, opportunity, responsibility, and health, to name only a few.

Instead of addressing the fundamental issues of purpose and context, the discussion about education has been characterized by a multitude of technical approaches that are put forward as broad solutions—open classrooms, year-round schools, magnet schools, immersion, and, most recently, standardized testing to increase teacher accountability, not to mention privatization. Many of these suggestions would no doubt have a place in a high-quality education system. But without a shared understanding of purpose and context, we spend a lot of energy dealing with questionable ideas. Privatization, for instance, because it would be financially out of reach of many, if not most, students, would not likely be seen as a viable approach; it wouldn’t benefit society in general.

People have been addressing the need for more effective thinking for a long time. There has been a great deal of effort devoted to promoting what is termed critical thinking. And this is worthwhile. But this movement often seemed to make conceptual thinking a mere aspect of critical thinking. I believe the two are distinct. Essentially, the former generates ideas and the latter evaluates them. In addition, critical thinking has tended to have an individual focus, not emphasizing the necessary social aspect of thought.

All the work that has been done notwithstanding, most of the thinking that is being done today in the United States is neither conceptual nor critical. It is enumerative and mercenary, reshuffling existing ideas in the hope that some combination of them will provide a competitive economic value. Such thinking consumes a lot of resources, effort, and intelligence but it is formulaic, which is probably why so many people think computers could do it better.

And things can go wrong in other ways. We can see a different kind of response to the felt need for conceptual thinking in the repeated calls for innovation. This recognizes the necessity for ideas that change the way we do things, but it tends to put conceptualizing into a largely money-making frame.

I believe the lack of conceptual thinking is a major factor contributing to the mediocrity that characterizes so much of American leadership and management—where a great deal of time, intelligence, and money is used up by a focus on a narrowing world, while companies, government, the environment, and society wither. If we don’t start thinking conceptually, the problems we face today will almost certainly overwhelm us.