September 6, 2010

10 Tips on How to Write Less Badly
Brian Taylor
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By Michael C. Munger Most academics, including administrators, spend much of our time writing. But we aren't as good at it as we should be. I have never understood why our trade values, but rarely teaches, nonfiction writing. In my nearly 30 years at universities, I have seen a lot of very talented people fail because they couldn't, or didn't, write. And some much less talented people I see one in the mirror every morning! have done "# because they learned how to write. It starts in graduate school. $here is a real transformation, approaching an inversion, as people switch from ta%ing courses to writing. Many of the graduate students who were stars in the classroom during the first two years&the people everyone admired and loo%ed up to&suddenly aren't so stellar anymore. And a few of the marginal students&the ones who didn't care that much about pleasing the professors by reading every page of every assignment&are suddenly sending their own papers off to 'ournals, getting published, and transforming themselves into professional scholars. $he difference is not complicated. It's writing. (achel $oor and other writers on these pages have tal%ed about how hard it is to write well, and of course that's true. )ortunately, the standards of writing in most disciplines are so low that you don't need to write well. *hat I have tried to produce below are +0 tips on scholarly nonfiction writing that might help people write less badly. 1. Writing is an exercise. ,ou get better and faster with practice. If you were going to run a marathon a year from now, would you wait for months and then run -. miles cold/ 0o, you would build up slowly, running most days. ,ou might start on the flats and wor% up to more demanding and difficult terrain. $o become a writer, write. 1on't wait for that boo% manuscript or that monster e2ternal3review report to wor% on your writing.

. why would you thin% that you can ma%e an important contribution off the top of your head in the middle of the night 'ust before the conference/ *riters sit at their des%s for hours. 4I do my best wor% at the last minute. tal% with other smart people over drin%s or dinner. 6arado2ically. then at least you wrote something. $he articles and boo%s that will be read decades from now were written by men and women sitting at a des% and forcing themselves to translate profound ideas into words and then to let those words lead them to even more ideas. whatever. It's easier to write when you're interested in what you're writing about. +. 1on't worry that what you write is not very good and isn't immediately usable. $hey as% :uestions. you are a smart person. *riting can be magic. . teach.ou get ideas when you write5 you don't 'ust write down ideas. intimidating graduate students or faculty members. an image of the ideas that e2ist in only your mind at this one instant. -003word answer to 4*hat are you wor%ing on/4 It never changes. and how great it will be. . And the more unwritten it is. 0o one wor%s better under pressure. not input. distant from you in space or even time.. do something else. wrestling with ideas. great.2. $hey have all the answers. $hey are at their most dangerous holding a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It's not true. if you give yourself time. <ure. If later in the day you feel li%e writing some more. But if you are writing about a profound problem. But if you don't. because you can produce in the mind of some other person. 3.4 =oo%. '. and it is pretty intimidating. go to meetings. Set goals based on brilliant. (i!e yoursel) ti*e. and they still have the same pat. "ne of the :uestions he as%s 'ob candidates is.ears pass. $hey can tell you 'ust what they will write about. And then write a whole bunch more. *e have all met those glib. Many smart people tell themselves pathetic lies li%e. ind a !oice" don#t $ust %get publis&ed. go on long wal%s. if all you are trying to do is 4get published. *e focus on 4getting published4 as if it had nothing to do with writing about ideas or arguments. because most of us don't thin% that way. After you write three pages. e2cept that one little act. And embarrassing. 4I will wor% for three hours4 is a delusion5 4I will type three double3spaced pages4 is a goal.4 you may not publish very much. . in some bar or at an office party. because they are not actually wor%ing on anything. the more brilliant it is. 6repare for class.% 7ames Buchanan won a 0obel in economics in +89. 4*hat are you writing that will be read +0 years from now/ *hat about +00 years from now/4 <omeone once as%ed me that :uestion.!eryone#s unwritten wor.

1on't do it as an afterthought or tell yourself you will write when you get a big bloc% of time. <o he can practice his pat little answer endlessly. . $he smug guy with the beer and the cigarette/ >e's a poseur and never actually writes anything. It is hard to refine your :uestions. define your terms precisely. in disguise. Write. *hen you are actually writing. or doing paperwor%. 6ut your writing ahead of your other wor%. I happen to be a 4morning person. having meetings. /ic. stupid. 4ot all o) your t&oug&ts are pro)ound. through hundreds of beers and thousands of cigarettes. Many people get frustrated because they can't get an analytical purchase on the big :uestions that interest them. $hen they don't write at all.a pu00le. But we observe Asomething elseB. of your wor% as an answer to a pu??le. but they are helpful in presenting your wor% to an audience. or even conceive. . then you aren't wor%ing hard enough. whether that audience is composed of listeners at a lecture or readers of an article. <o start small. because it is hard to e2plain.. • • • 4@ and .ou. and you are not sure what will happen ne2t. <urprisingly.ou may be a 4night person4 or something in between. and it %eeps evolving.. $hen I spend the rest of my day teaching. 1.4 4$heory predicts AsomethingB. I'll tell you why. $here are many interesting types of pu??les. <:uee?e the other things in5 the writing comes first. 6ortray. 3.ou are the winner here. 1on't be fooled. you will feel inade:uate. *hen someone as%s. Is the theory wrong. . or %now 'ust how your argument will wor% until you have actually written it all down. start with same assumptions but reach opposing conclusions. and wor%ing as hard as you should be if you want to succeed. .ou don't li%e the section you 'ust finished. actually are wor%ing on something. 7ust ma%e sure you get in the habit of reserving your most productive time for writing. 'ust by %eeping your head down and putting one writing foot ahead of the other for a long time.4 you stumble. If you don't feel li%e that. >ow/4 4>ere are three problems that all seem different.4 so I write early in the day. t&en s2uee0e t&e ot&er t&ings in. or is there some other factor we have left out/4 1on't stic% too closely to those formulas. and tired. . on the other hand. 4*hat are you wor%ing on/. all are the same problem. $he wonderful thing is that you may find that you have traveled :uite a long way up a mountain.

and sometimes what they learn is that they were wrong. Munger is chairman of political science at Duke University. It is often more editing. C2change papers with peers or a mentor. 0early all of the best scholars are profoundly changed by their e2periences in doing research and writing about it. or posing your pu??le. $hey learn by doing. If you have trouble writing. at least.dit your wor-. "ne of the great advantages of academe is that we are mostly all in this together. they are not completely correct. 6recision in as%ing your :uestion. *riting lots of pages has always been pretty easy for me. $he difference between a successful scholar and a failure need not be better writing. . I have gotten to the point where I can ma%e writing wor% for me and my career. I always laugh to myself when new graduate students thin% they %now what they want to wor% on and what they will write about for their dissertations. I could never get a 'ob being only a writer. 0obody's first drafts are good. a position he has held since 2 . reciprocate by reading their wor%. and when you are sic% of your own writing. will not come easily if the :uestion is hard. o!er and o!er. But by thin%ing about these tips. "r.5. .ou need to get over a fear of criticism or re'ection. Michael C. 6our *ost pro)ound t&oug&ts are o)ten wrong. then you 'ust haven't written enough. though. >ave other people loo% at it. 10. and trying to follow them myself. because I still don't write well. . and we all %now the terrors of that blin%ing cursor on a blan% bac%ground.

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