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Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Aim Small, Miss Small"

Here's my personal take on the aphorism "aim small, miss small," which Thomas develops in this post, the "best seller" of Stupid Motivational Tricks, the post most often viewed by visitors to the blog. It took me a while to get the meaning of this and translate it into terms that made sense to me.

Even if you aim to be as precise as possible, as close to your target, you will still make mistakes and misreadings. Nevertheless, you won't miss by a mile: your errors are likely to be small and relatively insignificant ones. This applies to various aspects of scholarly writing: prose style, argumentation, citation practices. The purpose of being somewhat pedantic about seemingly small issues is to avoid bigger mistakes.

That is the negative case for "aim small, miss small," emphasizing hedges against error. I wonder if there is also a positive case to be made. After all, the purpose of scholarship is not to avoid mistakes, but to make an affirmative contribution. Here I would argue that precision produces insight. I'm going to have to develop the case for this in another post, though.


Thomas said...

"Lord, make me fast and accurate." I think the positive contribution lies in a sort of aim, fire, reload, aim, fire...approach to writing the paper. If you keep thinking "I have to stop the advance of this army", i.e., "I have to write this paper" (aiming big, that is) you won't make that affirmative contribution. You have to decide what thirty or forty claims you're going to make. Then miss them, each and severally, in a small way.

Jonathan said...

So for you it's the breaking it up into small pieces and trying to do the best with each one. That makes sense.

Thomas said...

Yes, even if you decide on, say, 37 claims and miss 3 altogether while coming up with 4 other ones you hadn't thought of until you wrote the first or second draft. It's the aiming small that makes it possible.