I get to write a lot. Fortunately, I like it because it is an important part of my job. I also find that writing helps me organize jumbled messes of thought. Here are notes on writing, which you should do daily no matter your occupation.
1. “Writing is research” (James Buchanan). This is the wisdom of 1986 Nobel Laureate James Buchanan, one of the most prolific and original economists of the twentieth century. Buchanan pointed out that getting something on paper helps you clarify your thinking. As Duke University political scientist Michael Munger has said, everyone’s unwritten ideas are brilliant. Taking the time to try to communicate them to an audience, or to yourself, can help you identify your ideas that really are brilliant, those that need some work, and those that need a visit from the delete key.
2. “Fluency can be achieved through grit” (Deirdre McCloskey). Some people have a real way with words, but readable, influential, clear prose is not something that comes naturally even to the best writers among us. Writing something that is readable takes a lot of time, effort, and revision. And this is the really hard part. It’s easy to hammer out rough drafts, but to turn those rough drafts into something readable and useful is another matter entirely.
3. “Put a stamp on it” (various). That said, don’t obsess endlessly over your work. There are a lot of brilliant people who were denied tenure or advancement because they didn’t have enough scholarly output. Here’s Buchanan again: “don’t get it right, get it written.”
This is not to say that you should be sloppy in your work–far from it. I have several projects that have been awaiting careful revision, but I’ve put it off while I’ve worked on other things. Nonetheless, it is important to realize that unless you are exceptionally brilliant you are very unlikely to develop a Grand Unification Theory of the physical sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. As a grad school friend once put it, “grad students shouldn’t write unification papers.” Be ambitious, but think about the intermediate steps needed for long-run success. Here is Buchanan again: what are you working on that people will be reading in 100 years? Have that as an end in mind with respect to the projects you undertake.
4. Invest your time wisely. At a conference at the Foundation for Economic Education in 2003, Peter J. Boettke advised a room full of graduate students not to write about methodology, suggesting that we should first do economics and then write about it. I was working for 1993 Nobel Laureate Douglass C. North at the time, and I realized that people cared about what he had to say about methodology. He had a distinguished career and a Nobel Prize. I had just finished my second year of graduate school. North has a claim on people’s attention if he wants to write about the methodology of economics. I didn’t then and don’t now. Concentrate on areas where you can make a contribution, do so, and then build on your success.
5. Do not be afraid. I blogged for a while in graduate school and then stopped writing for the public for a while. This was a very poor strategy: while I didn’t want to be branded a firebrand or an ideologue while I was on the job market, I wasted a lot of time because I closed off an outlet for something I really enjoyed doing and which is a complement to rather than a substitute for my teaching and research. Both suffered as a result of the fact that I didn’t write or publish as much as I should have. I accumulated a lot of drafts, but they mostly collected dust until I finally revised them and sent them out in June.
I was ultimately convinced to re-join the blogosphere by a podcast featuring George Mason University’s Tyler Cowen, who is one of the co-founders of marginalrevolution.com. He argued that every economist should blog, and I now agree. It is a way to extend the conversation, to refine teaching and communication skills, and to share research ideas. I find that my professional writing has improved dramatically since I started blogging and writing op-eds again.
6. Know when to end it. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit, and it is much harder to write a good 800 word article than it is to write a bad 1500 word article. Your readers’ time is very valuable, so they don’t have time to read long digressions or poorly organized, meandering prose.
Good writing encourages clear thinking, and good writing comes with a lot of practice. The benefits, though, are enormous. So get to it!