What I’ve been reading, on writing

As an academic, I’m only as good as my writing. This year I decided to hone my skill. It’s just one of the rationales for beginning a blog; there’s nothing that prods you to compose faster and more concisely than having to write in the public eye every day.

I started with an obligatory re-read of The Elements of Style. I progressed to On Writing Well, which in my eye ranks a close second to Strunk and White’s masterpiece. Writing Tools trails behind, but offers some original points.

Finally I returned to my bookshelf’s dusty, unopened copy of Deidre McCloskey’s Economical Writing, and found it among the best of the bunch.

Not all the books were winners. Recently my wife’s colleague gave her Stephen King’s memoir and craft book, On Writing, and it sits unfinished beside my bed. It wasn’t very insightful. Perhaps that I could have predicted.

Most of all, I was delighted to find an Atlantic article, dated 1978, by John Kenneth Galbraith. Although it’s unfashionable to say so, he remains an idol of mine. (After all, we Canuck economists with a liberal policy bent need to stick together.)

In it, J.K. reveals his secret to the craft:

Six or seven years ago, when I was spending a couple of terms at Trinity College, Cambridge, I received a proposal of more than usual interest from the University of California. It was that I resign from Harvard and accept a chair in English. More precisely, it was to be the chair in rhetoric; they assured me that rhetoric was a traditional and not, as one would naturally suppose, a pejorative title. My task would be to hold seminars with the young on what I had learned about writing in general and on technical matters in particular.

…as I reflected, among my qualifications was the amount of my life that I have spent at a typewriter. Nominally, I have been a teacher. In practice I have been a writer—as generations of Harvard students have suspected. Faced with the choice of spending time on the unpublished scholarship of a graduate student or the unpublished work of Galbraith, I have rarely hesitated. Superficially, at least, I was well qualified for that California chair.

There was, however, a major difficulty. It was that I could tell everything I knew about writing in approximately half an hour. For the rest of the term I would have nothing to say except as I could invite discussion, this being the last resort of the empty academic mind.

I have spent the day on the unpublished work of Blattman, specifically a first draft of a clunky new manuscript–one of those papers that you know is too long and unwieldy before you have even begun. Galbraith’s advice is a soothing salve:

all first drafts are deeply flawed by the need to combine composition with thought. Each later draft is less demanding in this regard. Hence the writing can be better. There does come a time when revision is for the sake of change—when one has become so bored with the words that anything that is different looks better. But even then it may be better.

18 thoughts on “What I’ve been reading, on writing

  1. Still, one might read Joseph Williams' Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Unlike Strunk & White, Zinsser, et al., Williams can teach one how to revise.

  2. Thanks for the link to the JKG. I am an econ grad student and have read McCloskey’s ‘Economical Writing’, but intend to read the other two before hitting 3rd year. I wish more people would write about the process of writing in economics, politics and development and the dynamics it involves – it’s an area to which not enough attention is paid.

  3. Another very fine book on writing in economics is William Thomson’s “A Guide for the Young Economist: Writing and Speaking Effectively about Economics”.

  4. J.K. Galbraith may have been an influential writer, but hardly anything he wrote has gotten much vindication from history, and his influence in the economics profession is pretty much nil. Writing well should be a means to conveying truth, not just getting publicity. I wouldn’t put Galbraith up there as someone to emulate.

  5. That’s a weird thing to say — Galbraith has been relentlessly vindicated by history, even as his influence has been minor at best. The man who coined the term “Conventional Wisdom” was, unsurprisingly, not well incorporated into it. But that is more of an indictment of the economics profession than Galbraith. Do you really think Galbraith would have missed the Housing Bust?

  6. I second the Williams’ recommendation. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace is excellent. David Labaree (Stanford) teaches a class on writing for social scientists; the syllabus is available on his website and includes excellent references/sources.

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  14. The minor thing about “On Writing” – like most bio’s – you skip / skim the front part — until that moment (selling Carrie in King’s life) when they become the person we are familiar with.

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