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4. Why Writing Well Is Key
Matt Mitchell, Research Fellow, Mercatus Center
Everyone writes. Most of us do it poorly. Lamentable though it may be, the fact is, writing is not just for the blogger, the op-ed author, and the novelist. It is also the absolutely indispensable tool of the fundraiser, the recruiter, and the manager.
No doubt you have written something in the last few days. Maybe it was a Facebook post. Maybe it was a thank-you note. Maybe it was a prequel to Atlas Shrugged (in which case, it may have taken you a few decades). Think for a second about your last writing. When the reader finished it, did she completely understand your meaning as well as if she were inside your head? Did she get your jokes if you had any? Did she feel like she learned something new? That her time was well-spent? That you weren’t insulting her intelligence or attempting in vain to peacock-strut your own IQ? It is either the very rare or the very cocky author who confidently answers “yes” to each of these questions. It is an odd paradox that most people don’t take writing seriously enough and that most people don’t have fun with it. These are not mutually exclusive goals, and you should aim for both.
In what follows, I hope to give a few helpful tips for those who plan to write professionally—which is everyone in a policy career. What qualifies me to dispense such advice? I am not widely published, and I am not a professional writing coach. I do, however, write a heck of a lot—mostly emails and memos, a few letters of recommendation, occasional op-eds, and an academic piece here and there. Like most, writing does not come naturally to me. But I work at it. And, as importantly, I enjoy it. In short, I am probably not unlike you, dear reader. And so I hope my advice is both helpful and relatable. If it isn’t, write me a note about it.
Writing Is Thinking
There is a common notion—reinforced through years of procrastination—that writing is the last step. The idea is that you should think, plan, research, gather data, mull it over, and then finally write. This is backward. As Deirdre McCloskey once put it, “The real problem is the premise that you can split content from style.” The fact of the matter is that for most people, the very act of writing helps shape their thoughts. This is because there is a mysterious connection between our brains and our hands. As we type—or better yet, handwrite— our brains are activated. You may have noticed when you were in school that if you read over a proof or a rearrangement of an equation in a math textbook, you retained some of the information. But if you took the time to actually write out the equation on your own, something miraculous happened: You comprehended and remembered the lesson much more easily. The same is true of writing. As McCloskey put it, “You do not learn the details of an argument until writing it in detail, and in writing the details you uncover the flaws in the fundamentals.” So don’t plan and think and ponder. Write.
And write early. Don’t wait until the last minute. Start building an outline as early as possible. This will help you understand where you need to do more work, gather more data, or rethink your premise. As James Buchanan used to tell his graduate students, the key to successful writing is to “apply ass to chair.” You can take breaks every so often (within reason). Try going for a walk or getting a cup of coffee. Psychologists have found that the brain actually works much better when people subconsciously process a question for some time (Smith). But return to the chair and write. As you do this more often, I promise that it will become less painful.
Writing Has Rules
Like it or not, there are certain rules to writing. These rules have emerged as a spontaneous order over centuries. In time, entrepreneurs have changed them. They have adapted the rules to accommodate new mediums such as email, cellphone texts, and Twitter feeds. And they have improved them, allowing obsolete phrases to die out and new and improved words and metaphors to abound (have you used “to Google” as a verb today?). But for those of you with a libertarian bent and who think that subjective value reigns and that style is a matter of taste, I have bad news: you risk being misunderstood if you do not follow the rules.
Remember, these rules emerged because they work.
I do not think it is useful for me to list all of the rules here. I can do no better than to simply direct you to what I believe to be the best source, William Strunck and E.B. White’s timeless The Elements of Style. You can find it in any bookstore. Read it. Keep it at your fingertips when you w rite. Then read it again every year or so.
Check your writing closely; little details like “dangling modifiers” and word choices can make a huge difference in meaning and clarity. Similar-sounding but differently spelled words can give even experienced writers trouble (if you don’t know what I am alluding to, maybe you have eluded this mistake). Sometimes, words have been misused for so long that few people even know their original meaning. Have you ever referred to the enormity of something? If you have, you were saying that the thing was monstrously wicked. Hopefully, that is what you intended to convey.
Here again, the best I can do is direct you to Strunck and White. They have a helpful chapter titled “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused.”
In addition to the formal rules of writing, there are a lot of practical suggestions, or rules of thumb, that will make your writing sparkle and cohere.
One suggestion is to read. The more you read good authors, the more you will pick up their habits. For this exercise, you should take your time and notice how each word connects with the others. See what you like and what you don’t like and try to learn from it. Bryan Caplan, Thomas Sowell, and Dave Barry are a few of my favorite nonfiction authors. Pick up some something that they have written and study their sentences.
Another trick is to vary the length of your sentences. A long and complicated sentence with many parenthetical clauses and modifiers can be exhausting for the re ader. So follow it with a short sentence. It gives the reader a break.
Another suggestion is to express parallel ideas in parallel form. Often, writers mistakenly think that they need to avoid repetition and that they should vary the form of their expressions. But this usually makes the piece harder to follow and less interesting to read. Has government repeatedly intruded on the marketplace? Then when you write about it, repeat some phrase and hit the point home. Consider these phrases:
“We were regulated. We were taxed. We were subsidized. We were poked and prodded and cajoled into doing what the politicians wanted us to do.”
In my mind, the phrasing above is significantly more interesting than:
“We were regulated. The government taxed us. They also subsidized us. Government poked, prodded and cajoled …”
One of the most common (and commonly ignored) suggestions is to use an “active” voice. What, exactly, does this mean? In short, it means that your verbs should describe the action of the sentence. Consider this sentence:
“I authored this piece.”
This is an active sentence. Grammatically, “authored” is the verb. It is also the action you are trying to describe: writing. Now consider this alternative sentence:
“The piece was authored by me.”
Most readers will get bored with a piece if it has too many passive sentences, such as the one above.
How can you avoid the passive voice? One way, of course, is to learn how to identify the subject and verb in each sentence (if you haven’t done this since third grade, i t can be surprisingly difficult). Make sure the subject of the sentence is performing the verb.
Another, exceedingly simple, trick is to read your work out loud. You will be amazed to find that phrases that seemed just fine in your head are in fact gangly and awkward.
You should also run your work by someone else—preferably someone who can give you honest feedback. If and when they do criticize the piece, don’t take it personally and don’t blame them. If they stumble over a phrase, it is your fault, not theirs.
My final suggestion is to keep your writing simple. Don’t embellish or draw things out. You will just waste the time of your reader and tick them off. And don’t use a $1,000 word when a $1 word will do—besides, studies show that people actually think less of you when you do that (Oppenheimer).
So get to it. Freedom is a wonderful thing to fight for, and if used properly, words can make powerful weapons.
Matt Mitchell is a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he researches and writes about economics and policy matters. He earned his Ph.D. and his M.A. in economics from George Mason University and earned degrees in economics and political science from Arizona State University. Mitchell’s research focuses on government spending and budgets, especially at the state and local level.This entry was posted in Resources. Bookmark the permalink. ← 5- What Degrees Do I Need? 3- Integrity →