• August 23, 2014

10 Tips on How to Write Less Badly

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

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 OK because they learned how to write.

It starts in graduate school. There is a real transformation, approaching an inversion, as people switch from taking courses to writing. Many of the graduate students who were stars in the classroom during the first two years—the people everyone admired and looked 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 journals, getting published, and transforming themselves into professional scholars.

The difference is not complicated. It's writing.

Rachel Toor and other writers on these pages have talked about how hard it is to write well, and of course that's true. Fortunately, the standards of writing in most disciplines are so low that you don't need to write well. What I have tried to produce below are 10 tips on scholarly nonfiction writing that might help people write less badly.

1. Writing is an exercise. You 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 26 miles cold? No, you would build up slowly, running most days. You might start on the flats and work up to more demanding and difficult terrain. To become a writer, write. Don't wait for that book manuscript or that monster external-review report to work on your writing.

2. Set goals based on output, not input. "I will work for three hours" is a delusion; "I will type three double-spaced pages" is a goal. After you write three pages, do something else. Prepare for class, teach, go to meetings, whatever. If later in the day you feel like writing some more, great. But if you don't, then at least you wrote something.

3. Find a voice; don't just "get published." James Buchanan won a Nobel in economics in 1986. One of the questions he asks job candidates is: "What are you writing that will be read 10 years from now? What about 100 years from now?" Someone once asked me that question, and it is pretty intimidating. And embarrassing, because most of us don't think that way. We focus on "getting published" as if it had nothing to do with writing about ideas or arguments. Paradoxically, if all you are trying to do is "get published," you may not publish very much. It's easier to write when you're interested in what you're writing about.

4. Give yourself time. Many smart people tell themselves pathetic lies like, "I do my best work at the last minute." Look: It's not true. No one works better under pressure. Sure, you are a smart person. But if you are writing about a profound problem, why would you think that you can make an important contribution off the top of your head in the middle of the night just before the conference?

Writers sit at their desks for hours, wrestling with ideas. They ask questions, talk with other smart people over drinks or dinner, go on long walks. And then write a whole bunch more. Don't worry that what you write is not very good and isn't immediately usable. You get ideas when you write; you don't just write down ideas.

The articles and books that will be read decades from now were written by men and women sitting at a desk and forcing themselves to translate profound ideas into words and then to let those words lead them to even more ideas. Writing can be magic, if you give yourself time, because you can produce in the mind of some other person, distant from you in space or even time, an image of the ideas that exist in only your mind at this one instant.

5. Everyone's unwritten work is brilliant. And the more unwritten it is, the more brilliant it is. We have all met those glib, intimidating graduate students or faculty members. They are at their most dangerous holding a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, in some bar or at an office party. They have all the answers. They can tell you just what they will write about, and how great it will be.

Years pass, and they still have the same pat, 200-word answer to "What are you working on?" It never changes, because they are not actually working on anything, except that one little act.

You, on the other hand, actually are working on something, and it keeps evolving. You don't like the section you just finished, and you are not sure what will happen next. When someone asks, "What are you working on?," you stumble, because it is hard to explain. The smug guy with the beer and the cigarette? He's a poseur and never actually writes anything. So he can practice his pat little answer endlessly, through hundreds of beers and thousands of cigarettes. Don't be fooled: You are the winner here. When you are actually writing, and working as hard as you should be if you want to succeed, you will feel inadequate, stupid, and tired. If you don't feel like that, then you aren't working hard enough.

6. Pick a puzzle. Portray, or even conceive, of your work as an answer to a puzzle. There are many interesting types of puzzles:

  • "X and Y start with same assumptions but reach opposing conclusions. How?"
  • "Here are three problems that all seem different. Surprisingly, all are the same problem, in disguise. I'll tell you why."
  • "Theory predicts [something]. But we observe [something else]. Is the theory wrong, or is there some other factor we have left out?"

Don't stick too closely to those formulas, but they are helpful in presenting your work to an audience, whether that audience is composed of listeners at a lecture or readers of an article.

7. Write, then squeeze the other things in. Put your writing ahead of your other work. I happen to be a "morning person," so I write early in the day. Then I spend the rest of my day teaching, having meetings, or doing paperwork. You may be a "night person" or something in between. Just make sure you get in the habit of reserving your most productive time for writing. Don't do it as an afterthought or tell yourself you will write when you get a big block of time. Squeeze the other things in; the writing comes first.

8. Not all of your thoughts are profound. Many people get frustrated because they can't get an analytical purchase on the big questions that interest them. Then they don't write at all. So start small. The wonderful thing is that you may find that you have traveled quite a long way up a mountain, just by keeping your head down and putting one writing foot ahead of the other for a long time. It is hard to refine your questions, define your terms precisely, or know just how your argument will work until you have actually written it all down.

9. Your most profound thoughts are often wrong. Or, at least, they are not completely correct. Precision in asking your question, or posing your puzzle, will not come easily if the question is hard.

I always laugh to myself when new graduate students think they know what they want to work on and what they will write about for their dissertations. Nearly all of the best scholars are profoundly changed by their experiences in doing research and writing about it. They learn by doing, and sometimes what they learn is that they were wrong.

10. Edit your work, over and over. Have other people look at it. One of the great advantages of academe is that we are mostly all in this together, and we all know the terrors of that blinking cursor on a blank background. Exchange papers with peers or a mentor, and when you are sick of your own writing, reciprocate by reading their work. You need to get over a fear of criticism or rejection. Nobody's first drafts are good. The difference between a successful scholar and a failure need not be better writing. It is often more editing.

If you have trouble writing, then you just haven't written enough. Writing lots of pages has always been pretty easy for me. I could never get a job being only a writer, though, because I still don't write well. But by thinking about these tips, and trying to follow them myself, I have gotten to the point where I can make writing work for me and my career.

Michael C. Munger is chairman of political science at Duke University, a position he has held since 2000.

Comments

1. kvtaylor - September 07, 2010 at 02:26 am

These tips seem to validate much of what I've noticed as a 12-month start-to-end dissertation writer and learned from Elbow and Bolker. On Friday 9/3 I told a small group of recent Ph.D. candidates, "If you ever start feeling too good about yourself, too confident, too smug, the diss. will give you a lesson in humility. You will feel stupid." They might have perceived it as condescension when in actuality I was giving advice, a warning, or an observation. I suspect I practice all but tips 7 and 2, and only partially 3 and 4. I look forward to incorporating these beginning into the new writing day.

2. theblondeassassin - September 07, 2010 at 06:34 am

Tip 11. Share what you've written with other people, and listen to their feedback.

Tip 12. If you are ever really discouraged, find the original version of a published paper that you admire, for example a working paper or a doctoral thesis, and see how long the journey is from one to the other.

3. jdbeatty - September 07, 2010 at 08:44 am

Writing is a lot like gunfighting: You have to be willing to shoot your original to pieces, rearrange paragraphs, argue with yourself, recast sentences, find now wasy to get words and ideas to match. But most of all, you have to see what you write as not an end, but a means to an end. It isn't art--its communications. If you make your prose sing and dance and someone else calls it art, so be it. Your sentences aren't children, your paragraphs aren't pets, your chapters are not your lovers, your essays are not bold canvases of glitering wit. They are a means of communicating your vision to your audience.

But writing is also a great deal like sex: first you do it for fun, then for a few freinds, and finally for money. It is the way we tell the outside world what we have discovered. It consists of thousands of seemingly random facts and observations strung together like pearls on floss; the biggest in the middle, matched for color and shape. You write a paragraph on this and pass it around. You write an essay on that and match it to the paragraph. Then you write another paragraph, and combine a few more into an essay. Remember what you wrote, pitch the lot, go to Disneyland, come back, rewrite. Pass this one to an editor of a magazine, even for free. Repeat. Write more. Pich more, think, rewrite, revisit, research, think, write. Now put the whole lot together and call it a thesis. Get your degree, your accolades, and recast it into a book. Unless you're a diamond-studded genius all of this should take about 10 years, but no less than five, somewhere in the vicintity of five drafts and at least as many rejections.

But that's what you're here for.

4. annegjones - September 07, 2010 at 09:13 am

Well written, Professor Munger!

5. annmmc - September 07, 2010 at 09:24 am

Re: No. 10.
Getting a first draft down on paper is akin to plopping wet clay on the wheel for the first time It is simply the beginning of writing. Editing (or re-writing) IS writing, just as carving and re-shaping the frumpy pot on the wheel is still "making a pot."
When I hear students or colleagues say, "I've written it, now all I have to do it edit it," I cringe. The truest, deepest writing is in the rewriting.

6. cwgossett - September 07, 2010 at 11:17 am

In light of the lead story in this Chronicle issue about the importance (or relative unimportance) of teaching and assessing learning outcomes, it was interesting to read the following... "Put your writing ahead of your other work. ... Squeeze the other things in; the writing comes first." And then collapsing the following tasks in a catchall: "Then I spend the rest of my day teaching, having meetings, or doing paperwork." A great example of the mixed messages that faculty receive that leave them confused as to the priorities of the position of "professor."

7. annmmc - September 07, 2010 at 12:22 pm

You nailed it, cwgossett!

8. 11159995 - September 07, 2010 at 02:20 pm

Points #2 and 10 might work for many people, but not for me. I find that I write best after I have read a lot first and then sit down to write an article all at once, not episodically. And I rarely go beyond a first draft. The exception is when I write a letter-to-the-editor where the maximum length allowed is 200 words. That in itself is a good exercise, by the way, in learning how to write concisely. More academics should do it, and thereby bring their expertise to bear on matters of public debate.---Sandy Thatcher

9. arrive2__net - September 07, 2010 at 03:36 pm

An important point is that you shouldn't give up over a rejection. If a journal tells you they can't publish your article because... there's a good chance they will publish it if you can fix the "because...". I have seen people get that first rejection letter, and give up when in fact the rejection letter actually spelled out what (relatively minor) changes they had to make to get the article published.

I think the overall ideas here are excellent, however I too have a problem with #7 ... I usually have not had that luxury, at all. Also, I think that many of the tasks of teaching are a form of writing. You write the lecture (or other material) of course, and the tests. You can learn some writing skills, and even develop your writing 'voice' by developing your lecture and lessons. I think the article is assuming that you will 'squeeze in' your professorial and familial duties to an appropriate and ethical level. But there, no doubt, will be some priorities that have to be laid aside or rearranged so you can spend time alone, and tired ... writing. If you get to the stage where you have deadlines, that is even more so.

Bernard Schuster
Arrive2.net

10. shirley77 - September 07, 2010 at 04:23 pm

I'm surprisd the author didn't emphasize the necessity of reading widely and often, which is fundamental to good writing.

11. rferlic - September 07, 2010 at 06:26 pm

Professor Munger should purchase a grammar textbook, diagram his sentences, and rewrite the article. And like you know, man, like this is pretty much a lot of emblematic stuff of political science gettin close to the hood!!! My elementary English teacher would be apoplectic and fail me for violation of the basic rules.

Randolph M. Ferlic
Regent, University of Nebraska

12. gadget - September 07, 2010 at 07:39 pm

I teach college writing (gasp). Luckily for students attending college now, the teaching of freshman composition is much more focused on how to write a competent research paper or critical analysis, using authoritative sources, citations, and so forth. Research on the iterative process that good writers use has informed the curriculum and instruction as well.

Unfortunately, I attended college when the old school held sway--we wrote about our feelings, personal incidents, and opinions in English class, and then had to teach ourselves how to write for all the papers and essay questions in our other classes. Those professors didn't give a tinker's damn about our precious opinions. I taught myself the rudiments after the first academic paper I turned in was returned with a note from the TA: "You clearly did a lot of research, but you will flunk out of college if you don't learn how to write." It was a wake up call and I heard the message. But I didn't get good at it until grad school.

Thanks for the advice.

13. sak10 - September 07, 2010 at 09:54 pm

To follow up on cwgossett about the disconnect between this week's lead article and Munger's advice: we don't all have the luxury of a Duke teaching and service load.

I was trained at a top research institution, and I am trying gamely to continue my own research in my discipline. At my teaching-oriented institution, my reduced load as department chair is three courses per semester (usually 3 preparations, with perhaps only one a year in or near my research area). I also do a significant amount of advising, and I serve on a faculty committee that demands three to six hours of work a week.

My research is important to me, but daily writing at my most productive hours is not a reasonable option within the constraints of my schedule, nor would it be particularly rewarded by my institution (especially if it led to decreases in the quality or quantity of my teaching or service).

14. walterchronic - September 07, 2010 at 11:14 pm

@jdbeatty: I follow that in writing you have to be willing to shoot your original to pieces, but what part of gunfighting involves the rearranging of paragraphs, arguing with yourself or recasting sentences.

Also, regarding sex: for the past 25 years I've been having sex for fun. If I don't move along to having sex for a few of my friend and eventually for money, am I failing to grow as a person? Or am I failing to grow as a writer? Please clarify.

15. sdgsn - September 08, 2010 at 01:30 am

I find this article an odd mix. On the one hand, it has some very good insights. And it gets me fired up to do some more quality writing and make some contributions that will be read 100 years from now.

On the other hand, it makes me question the kind of people who populate academia. How flawed is the system if even a full professor and chair at Duke is a self-described mediocre talent who got by because he learned how to write?

And then he makes the following very questionable observations:

"most of us...focus on 'getting published' as if it had nothing to do with writing about ideas or arguments."

//Really? Most of us do that? If this is true, it's an abomination. Shame on all of you who meet this description.

"When you are actually writing, and working as hard as you should be if you want to succeed, you will feel inadequate, stupid, and tired. If you don't feel like that, then you aren't working hard enough."

//Is this false humility? Because in my opinion, anyone who commonly feels inadequate and stupid when writing is in danger of triggering a self-fulfilling prophecy, and should probably find another profession. Writing should be empowering, done from a position of confidence and power by those who know they have something important to say and are itching to say it (or in this case, write it).

Again, I like a lot of this article, but I just disagree strongly with these latter points.

16. jdbeatty - September 08, 2010 at 08:08 am

For Walterchronic

In writing, as in gunfighting, you have to face the consequences of what you do. "Shooting" the original, as shooting your targets, all require cleaning up afterwards, facing recriminations, rearranging one's life, and the like.

As in sex, for the most of the human race that will admit to it, it often becomes drudgery, if only for a while. And many of us often do it just for the security of having it later, a form of payment if you wish. If you wish to see that as a failure to progress on your part, that's OK, but what are you intending to "grow" into? What role does this "growth" or "progress" have in relation to anything or anyone else whatsoever? What scale would you measure this "growth" against? And finally, is it "growth" or simple change?

17. dsprogis - September 08, 2010 at 10:48 am

Have we lowered the quality bar so far that we are willing to accept "less bad"?!

I am often frustrated by the lack of quality writing in everyday communication and I feel it is a sign of ignorance and lack of respect for the audience. One writes for an audience and should scale the language, detail and refinement to the audience and to the purpose of the communication.

Point four, "voice", does not seem appropriate to writing less badly. As a reader, I would prefer the author get to their point clearly and quickly. Elegance is appreciated; voice is a lovely veneer. However, neither elegance nor voice should appear in a top-10 list of writing less badly.

Points eight and nine seem irrelevant to quality writing, most communication is unprofound. One can write very unprofound points less badly. In fact, one can write very unprofound points with elegance and voice.

18. raymond_j_ritchie - September 09, 2010 at 12:10 am

Yes the only way to learn to write is to do it.

A scientist is no use to anyone, including themselves, if they cannot write. Many undergraduates and graduates look good on paper but turn out to be utterly unsuitable for a science career. From my experience, inability to write original material is the major reason for this common observation.

#10 In the age of word processing there is a real problem of over-editing material into an unreadable mash. The more you edit something, the less likely you are to pick up your own fundamental errors. Co-authors are less useful than you would imagine they were in preventing your work becoming an unreadable mess.

Then there are the people who are so indecisive and insecure that they fiddle with papers until they become obsolete or they retire or die. A lot of knowledge is lost that way.

I deliberately abandon manuscript and let then incubate or fester for a while. I know I get to the stage where I cannot find problems with a text any more. Even finding simple errors in figures and tables becomes almost impossible. The only way I can find problems in my own work is to completely ignore a paper for a while and then read it printed out on the bus or watching TV.

I am often appalled at my own manuscripts when they come back from a journal simply because I have not read them for a while.

19. andrew_orr - September 09, 2010 at 01:32 pm

It's amazing what writing a little each day can do. I recently set a goal of writing 250 words everyday (it only ends up taking 5 to 10 minutes). The idea is to improve my writing - to make it more clear, smooth, and concrete - and also to enjoy the satisfaction to be had from composition.

All the workplace writing I do during the week squelches mt drive to write for pleasure, so I set up the 250 word / day experiment as a way to kickstart my motor. I figured if I do this exercise every day for a year, I'll write about 100,000 words. And that's just free-writing, mundance, unstructured free-writing, but free-writing carried out under the assumption that I might stumble upon a good idea along the way.

Thanks for this simple reminder to write as often as we can.

20. francishamit - September 09, 2010 at 02:16 pm

As sdome one who has made money as a writer for 45 years (and counting) let me add a few other hints. 1.) The charm of the the simple declarative sentence cannot be overstated. Keep your prose simple and direct. Elaborate sentence structure for "style" is self defeating because it obscures what you are saying. (2). Don't fiddle. Write the piece from beginning to end, then go back and fix your mistakes. Everyone does this and no one writes a perfect first draft. If you allow yourself to get bogged down in the fine details of puncuation and grammar, then you may never get to the end. (3) Spellcheckers are a trap. And often wrong. Look at the context of what you are saying and override when necessary. (4). Choose your readers carefully during the editing process. Make sure they are in accord with where you are and to what end you are writing. Otherwise you waste time with people who line edit without grasping your content and its goals. (5) Think before you write. Know where you are going to end before you start. (6) If you have dyslexia, hire an editor. This is what I do. It got me through graduate school.

21. francishamit - September 09, 2010 at 02:17 pm

as someone.

22. nyhist - September 09, 2010 at 04:25 pm

my mentor once gave me a great insight: when you first finish a piece of prose, you are likely to think it wonderful and brilliant, the best ever. Two or three days later, when you look at it again for the first time, you think: WHY did I ever think this was any good? it stinks! But don't throw it out, because another few days later you realize that it has possibilities, and THEN you start to work on it through careful editing. Moral: after you finish something (an additional tip) always let it sit for whatever time you can afford--a few weeks or days, or at least a few hours--before you tackle serious revisions.

23. andrew_orr - September 09, 2010 at 05:10 pm

Better yet. It was Horace, I believe, who said a writer should store a piece of writing away in your drawer for 9 years before ever looking at it again.

24. 12052592 - September 09, 2010 at 06:04 pm

The characters in Tip #5 are EVERYWHERE!

25. susanekg1 - September 09, 2010 at 07:29 pm

These tips would be wonderful were it not for the ways that academic training and employment actively promote bad writing. Since we are generally pressured to "just get published," and we pass through tenure review mainly by producing work that will only be read by a handful of scholars, it's hardly surprising that we face a constant flood of poorly written books and articles. As someone who has struggled hard to write original and rigorous scholarship for a relatively broad audience, the primary obstacle that I've had to overcome is the view expressed by one of my grad school advisors, who snapped in response to my naive approach to publication, "Nobody writes for undergraduates!" Likewise, when I submitted an article to a journal a few years ago, the editor summed up the common thread among the reviewers' comments by remarking that he would be willing to publish the piece if I could "make it a bit more obscure."

In view of this fairly entrenched attitude, there's not much reason to expect most academics to write less badly any time soon.

26. landrumkelly - September 09, 2010 at 11:29 pm

"Writing is rewriting."

"We write in order to think, to be surprised by what appears on the page."

I might not have the two separate quotes precisely right, but I understand the point of each. I cannot imagine writing simply to get published--much less to impress my peers. I write the same way I do photography: to please myself. One wants to be read, of course, and that requires publication, but not according to anyone else's schedule or agenda.

27. shirley77 - September 10, 2010 at 05:10 pm

Once had a classics professor who said that before he did any expository writing, he would first read 30 minutes of William Thackery.

If academics read more literature where the written word is at its best, they would be better writers.

28. really_ - September 11, 2010 at 07:00 am

Both the title and the first sentence are examples of poor writing. Was that intentional? I'm not good at subtleties. They certainly made me doubt that the rest of the article could have much to offer in the way of good advice!

29. tupac - September 11, 2010 at 11:20 am

Munger's title, "10 Tips on How to Write Less Badly," is wordy. Revise please.

30. sciencetype - September 13, 2010 at 02:19 pm

"The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
OR
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."

31. rambo - September 13, 2010 at 09:16 pm

what about the have/has/had to be verb?

32. lhbphd - September 14, 2010 at 02:02 am

The most helpful advice I ever received was "Write so that you can't possibly be misunderstood."

33. demery1 - September 14, 2010 at 11:11 am

The title is an example of periphrases. Get some style, Tupac!

34. laoshi - September 14, 2010 at 11:49 pm

"When you are actually writing, and working as hard as you should be if you want to succeed, you will feel inadequate, stupid, and tired. If you don't feel like that, then you aren't working hard enough."

Some students don't want to succeed, being perfectly satisfied to write "less badly" enough to earn a passing mark.

The gunfighting analogy can be more clear by visualizing writing as a community act. Hopefully, our students will continue through academe, where they will ultimately have to defend dissertations. First-year composition students needed to be toughened to blunt, no-BS criticism from instructors, peers, and tutors. They also need emotional support. In many ways, learning to write is like fighting. But perhaps not a gunfight, but more like a barroom brawl.

Each one of us has developed writing processes, that may or may not incluse revisions. Munger has shared some of his best practices, of which I mostly agree. Certainly this is good discussion material, which I look forward to using in the classroom very soon.

35. llohr - September 15, 2010 at 11:19 am

I thought most of the advice given was sound, but some is not particularly relevant for single parent-profs or primary caregiver-profs. Raise your hands out there, any academic who doesn't have a spouse or nanny to handle the day-to-day of caregiving for the tykes, so that you can prioritize your writing and put your career ahead of everything else...

36. gahnett - September 15, 2010 at 06:24 pm

This is the least badly written article...ever!

37. alistair - September 15, 2010 at 10:41 pm

I have always advised my students (and those of anyone else I could find who would listen) to write as though they were expecting their manuscript to be accidentally left on the top deck of the proverbial London omnibus and then found by the proverbial average layperson (a person of reasonable inteligence and reasonable education). If that average layperson would be able to understand their argument, the chances were that they had written well.

38. schramm - September 18, 2010 at 06:57 pm

This line:

Fortunately, the standards of writing in most disciplines are so low that you don't need to write well.

hurts.

Made me ask what can I do today to raise the bar for me and my students?

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