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.
Setgoals basedon output,not input."Iwillworkforthreehours"isadelusion;"Iwill 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 writingsomemore,great.Butifyoudon't,thenatleastyouwrotesomething.
Findavoice;don'tjust"getpublished."JamesBuchananwonaNobelineconomics in1986.Oneofthequestionsheasksjobcandidatesis:"Whatareyouwritingthatwillbe read10yearsfromnow?Whatabout100yearsfromnow?"Someoneonceaskedmethat question,anditisprettyintimidating.Andembarrassing,becausemostofusdon'tthink 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 notpublishverymuch.It'seasiertowritewhenyou'reinterestedinwhatyou'rewriting about.
Give yourself time.Manysmartpeopletellthemselvespatheticlieslike,"Idomybest work at the last minute." Look: It's not true. No one works better under pressure. Sure, youareasmartperson.Butifyouarewritingaboutaprofoundproblem,whywouldyou think that you can make an important contribution off the top of your head in the middle of the night just before theconference?
Writerssitattheirdesksforhours,wrestlingwithideas.Theyaskquestions,talkwith other smart people over drinks or dinner, go on long walks. And then write a whole bunchmore.Don'tworrythatwhatyouwriteisnotverygoodandisn'timmediately usable. You get ideaswhenyouwrite;youdon'tjustwritedownideas.
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 fromyouinspaceoreventime,animageoftheideasthatexistinonlyyourmindatthis oneinstant.
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.
Yearspass,andtheystillhavethesamepat,200-wordanswerto"Whatareyouworking on?" It never changes, because they are not actually working on anything, except that one littleact.
You,ontheotherhand,actuallyareworkingonsomething,anditkeepsevolving.You don'tlikethesectionyoujustﬁnished,andyouarenotsurewhatwillhappennext. When someone asks, "What are you working on?," you stumble, because it is hard to explain.Thesmugguywiththebeerandthecigarette?He'saposeurandneveractually writesanything.Sohecanpracticehispatlittleanswerendlessly,throughhundredsof 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 willfeelinadequate,stupid,andtired.Ifyoudon'tfeellikethat,thenyouaren'tworking hardenough.
Pick a puzzle. Portray, or even conceive, of your work as an answer to a puzzle. There are many interesting types of puzzles:
Write, then squeeze the other things in.Putyourwritingaheadofyourotherwork.I happentobea"morningperson,"soIwriteearlyintheday.ThenIspendtherestofmy 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 productivetimeforwriting.Don'tdoitasanafterthoughtortellyourselfyouwillwrite whenyougetabigblockoftime.Squeezetheotherthingsin;thewritingcomesﬁrst.
Not all of your thoughts are profound.Manypeoplegetfrustratedbecausetheycan't getananalyticalpurchaseonthebigquestionsthatinterestthem.Thentheydon'twrite at all. So start small. The wonderful thing is that you may ﬁnd that you have traveled quitealongwayupamountain,justbykeepingyourheaddownandputtingonewriting 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 alldown.
Your most profound thoughts are often wrong.Or,atleast,theyarenotcompletely correct.Precisioninaskingyourquestion,orposingyourpuzzle,willnotcomeeasilyif the question ishard.
Ialwayslaughtomyselfwhennewgraduatestudentsthinktheyknowwhattheywantto 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 aboutit.Theylearnbydoing,andsometimeswhattheylearnisthattheywerewrong.
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 terrorsofthatblinkingcursoronablankbackground.Exchangepaperswithpeersora mentor,andwhenyouaresickofyourownwriting,reciprocatebyreadingtheirwork. Youneedtogetoverafearofcriticismorrejection.Nobody'sﬁrstdraftsaregood.The difference between a successful scholar and a failure need not be better writing. It is often moreediting.
Ifyouhavetroublewriting,thenyoujusthaven'twrittenenough.Writinglotsofpages hasalwaysbeenprettyeasyforme.Icouldnevergetajobbeingonlyawriter,though, because I still don't write well. But by thinking about these tips, and trying to follow themmyself,IhavegottentothepointwhereIcanmakewritingworkformeandmy career.