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Why I Enjoy Writing Without Citations

Why I Enjoy Writing Without Citations

The post I planned to release today is quite long, and it has a lot of claims and references I need to link to, so I still have work to do on it. Instead, I'm writing about lazy writing and why it's not always a bad thing.

When I say "lazy writing," I'm being a bit tongue-in-cheek. I am, after all, writing a blog of my own volition, in my spare time, and I expect that my writing reaches a certain standard in order to be published. It doesn't sound like a ringer for laziness.

But even within writing of a high caliber, there are different levels of intensity of a certain sort; let's call it academic intensity. In academically intense writing, you're explicitly interacting with sources and claims in such a way that you need to link to every single citation and bit of evidence. In "lazy writing," by contrast, you don't need to link to anything unless very directly called for. Use quote marks for direct sources—we're not plagiarizing—but don't feel that you need to hunt down everything.

Lazy writing seems at first glance to be inferior and suited, at best, for a popular audience. However, I believe lazy writing can be a more honest approach to writing while also being more relaxed.

Do Citations Tell the Whole Story?

In everything I write, there are years of incidental research percolating up into the text. What do I mean by that? I may not explicitly cite a given Bible verse or passage of Plato, but it's still informing my thinking. I think of John Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government in a manner informed by Leo Strauss' interpretation of Locke in Natural Right and History and Strauss' work on esotericism more broadly. Do I need to cite Strauss every time I discuss Locke?

I also make allusions to texts, ideas, and memes (broadly speaking) that, by the nature of being allusions, would be destroyed if I cited them. For example, in a recent (very controversial) article I authored for work, I included an allusion in a single line that, I'm pretty sure, no one will see. The reference, which paralleled nicely with the article, was to Vladimir Lenin's What Is to Be Done?, a work which addressed a disagreement between factions among the Communists. The point of the work, encapsulated in its climactic sentence—"Liquidate the third period."—was that, by his very writing, Lenin had guided the attentive reader to participate in liquidating the "third period" and resolving the question in his favor. But if I explained that, in the middle of an unrelated piece, it would be out of order; if I gave the citation, without context, it would have merely confused the reader. Either way, it would have transformed the allusion into something else, perhaps something more accurate, but at any rate something less playful.

There's an extent to which citations are a fiction. They're an attempt to give credit where credit is due, but knowing that it would be impossible to actually credit every idea in its full genealogy contained in the paper. Citations pretend we live in an orderly, one-for-one world. Citations don't reflect how thought, writing, creation, interaction actually occur.

So, while citations are a net positive, it is sometimes good to dispense with the fiction and write freely, knowing that you're tipping your hat to authors who preceded you, many of whom you're not even aware you're ripping off.

Dropping Citations to Write More Freely

As an exercise: think of an argument you want to make. Now, using only the knowledge you have—incomplete as it must be—write out a full paper arguing for that position. In some sense, you're probably weakened, because you can't test your claims or provide corroborating evidence. But you might also notice that the arguments themselves flow more freely, that you can form them with less resistance because you are focused only on the argument and how to formulate it.

Citations are a secondary good to writing. The main point of the writing (at least for argumentative works, a category which encompasses more than you might realize) is the main good. If you write a poor argument that is well-cited, your argument still fails. For Christians, in particular, you can throw every verse in the Bible at an argument, but it doesn't mean that the verses are relevant or that your logic holds. (Someone could probably make a curve showing the strength of an argument as related to the number of verses cited; I'd wager it rises for the first few, then falls off like a rock.)

I would argue that the writing itself, writing as art, is a secondary good of higher importance than citation (in some forms of writing, it's the primary good). Freeing oneself from citations in order to improve flow, voice, and pacing is a beneficial practice. It's not practical to do it constantly—again, plagiarism is bad, boys and girls—but it should be practiced, at least periodically, when possible.

But Please, Still Do Your Research

Lazy writing, I have argued, has its benefits. I advocate that lazy writing is a good to be enjoyed in moderation. But do not overindulge!

There are dangers to ignoring citations; most prominent among them is that you write as if the world is how you think it is or wish it would be rather than how it is in actuality. The textbook example of this (literally, it's frequently assigned despite being absolute garbage from an academic perspective) is The Sacred and the Profane. It's a basically worthless work of armchair comparative religions; Eliade's synthesis takes precedence over the facts, but he didn't feel the need to look into them to be convinced otherwise.

And, to hammer this home, citations help you make sure you're not participating in plagiarism. It's one thing to acknowledge your thoughts are informed by others in nearly untraceable ways; it's another entirely to use the old five-finger discount on their thoughts and pass them off as your own.

Of course, people can come to the same conclusion, even a radically innovative one, independently without plagiarism. Two people independently invented calculus. For me, I sometimes later find that a position I stake out was taken up by some figure whose work on the subject I hadn't read. I'm not plagiarizing, but it's hard to know whether my thoughts on the matter were truly unconditioned by the author, even though I had not interacted with his writings directly.

You'll notice I'm putting my proposal into practice here; it's something I do periodically in writing, acting out the part I suggest ought to be played. I did name specific books, but that's because I can do so off the top of my head; nothing got a link, not even my own article. And you know what? It's kind of refreshing.

Also, you have a search engine. If you want to fact-check me: CTRL-C, CTRL-V, Enter.