Advice on Writing

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Via Arts and Letters Daily, I came across Michael C. Munger's list of "10 Tips on How to Write Less Badly." Munger specifically addresses writing (and thinking) as a skill needed to succeed in academia, but what he says applies to almost anyone who sees writing as either a long-range pursuit of its own or as otherwise integral to his life's work. What I like about his list is that Munger understands both the exploratory nature of intellectual pursuits and the frustrations attendant on communicating exactly where one is during the intellectual development that comes with the territory of such pursuits.

Munger starts off each paragraph with a bullet, which he then elaborates upon. His points, taken from these first sentences are below.

  1. Writing is an exercise.
  2. Set goals based on output, not input.
  3. Find a voice; don't just "get published."
  4. Give yourself time.
  5. Everyone's unwritten work is brilliant.
  6. Pick a puzzle.
  7. Write, then squeeze the other things in.
  8. Not all of your thoughts are profound.
  9. Your most profound thoughts are often wrong.
  10. Edit your work, over and over.
One thing I really appreciate is that Munger gives, with his advice, a way to overcome the frustrations inherent in an enterprise where progress can seem elusive or excruciatingly slow at times: remembering that writing is hard work, and reminding yourself that you are doing the work.
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.
If you are a writer -- or simply someone working on a long-range project, particularly if it is of a somewhat exploratory nature -- you should make time to read the whole thing. I'm glad I did, both for the advice and for the encouragement.

-- CAV


Paul Hsieh, MD said...

That is excellent advice. Thanks for linking to that Munger essay!

kelleyn said...

Noticing that the harder I work, the more inadequate, stupid and tired I feel (between success points) doesn't just make me wonder if I'm doing the wrong thing--it's an easy thing for naysayers to use against me to undermine my resolve, too. Thanks for the reality check.

Gus Van Horn said...

You're both quite welcome! It's clear that Munger has, as I suspected he would, hit a nerve -- in a very positive sense.

Snedcat said...

Indeed, that article is full of excellent advice. I'm getting back in the habit of regular academic writing myself; fortunately, I have a couple of professor friends who are happy to read what I write (since my research shows some serious promise for making a big splash or five). I'd just add that what you need to keep in mind when writing a thesis or dissertation is that it should be a masterpiece, but only in the original sense of the word--the piece of work an apprentice produced to show he should be admitted to the guild as a master. Alternatively, just think of it as the last hoop you have to jump through.

Reminds me too of a recent storyline at Piled Higher and Deeper, whose archives every prospective grad student should read...At least one of the characters in the strip (not the storyline in question though) is drawn from mine own life, I'm convinced, but I ain't tellin' which one.

Gus Van Horn said...


Love the comics, as well as the reminder of what "masterpiece" properly means in grad school.


Mo said...

Well this piece on comics is rather ugly

Gus Van Horn said...


That Sharon Lamb is getting lots of mileage these days!