Writing Advice

  • Outline your paper before you start to write. A handful of writers can just sit down and write well from a blank page, but this technique works for very few. If you start typing stream-of-consciousness thoughts, your paper will read as though you typed stream-of-consciousness thoughts. This is not good.
  • If you get “blank page syndrome” when putting together an outline, consider the following technique to get yourself started. Open up a blank file and just begin writing about your idea. I know I just said not to do this, but hear me out. Let all your thoughts flow out. Don’t stop to rephrase, edit, or even rethink something that you realized doesn’t make sense. You’ll do this all later. When you feel that all your big ideas, no matter how rough, have made their way to the page, stop. Take a break. Do something else for a while. Then sit down and read the stuff you just rambled out. Now, put an outline together. Think about how to organize your ideas. Marshal your evidence and reasons. Once you have an outline that works, begin writing your paper.
  • I sometimes have trouble beginning even the ramble. To overcome this, I start by typing something like, “I have no idea what I’m going to say about foreign aid. I chose to write about this topic because I’m interested in …” By this point, I’m already started and the ideas come on their own. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s worth a shot.
  • State your thesis and outline your argument up front. Academic writing is not joke-telling or novel writing. In a joke, you lead people on a fun ride to a surprise ending. The only thing that should surprise readers of an academic paper is just how clearly you supported the thesis you told them about in your first paragraph. Though less focused on evidence, newspaper articles are a good model. The gist of a well-written article should be clear to the reader after reading two sentences; the rest is details. For you mathematicians, think about writing a proof. State your theorem and then prove it step-by-step with no extraneous lemmas or digressions.
  • Do not take your readers on a guided tour of your path to epiphany. You may have seen the truth revealed while watching a hot dog vendor in the Commons. We don’t need (or want) to know this.
  • Print out your paper and read it through at least once before turning it in. I’m reluctant to encourage you to kill another tree, but I know of no one who is as good at catching typos or convoluted logic on the computer screen as on the printed page.
  • Use other writing resources. Take one of your short papers for this class or another to the Writing Center and get some specific advice. Buy a good style guide and use it. I like Diana Hacker’s A Pocket Style Manual. Some people swear by her A Writer’s Reference. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is a standard, but it may induce high school flashbacks. Whichever you pick, you’ll be surprised by how much proper punctuation, grammar and mechanics can improve the readability of your work.
  • Thinking longer term, take a writing class or buy and read a good book about writing well. For economists, McCloskey’s Economical Writing is a good option.
  • Whatever you choose to do with your life, you will do it better if you can communicate well.

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