How to Write Less Badly

The Chronicle of Higher Education published Michael Munger’s “10 Tips on How To Write Less Badly” back in September 2010, and more than 6 months later, it’s still one of the top most viewed article online. It’s no surprise, given how many of us struggle with all aspects writing, on a daily basis. Here’s the gist of the 10 tips. For more details, read the original article.

1. Writing is an exercise. You get better and faster with practice.

2. Set goals based on output, not input. “I will work for three hours” is a delusion; “I will type three double-spaced pages” is a goal.

3. Find a voice; don’t just “get published.” If all you are trying to do is “get published,” you may not publish very much. It’s easier to write when you’re interested in what you’re writing about.

4. Give yourself time. Don’t procrastinate, and keep working.

5. Everyone’s unwritten work is brilliant. And the more unwritten it is, the more brilliant it is. 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.

6. Pick a puzzle. Portray, or even conceive, of your work as an answer to a puzzle. There are many interesting types of puzzles:

  • “X and Y start with same assumptions but reach opposing conclusions. How?”
  • “Here are three problems that all seem different. Surprisingly, all are the same problem, in disguise. I’ll tell you why.”
  • “Theory predicts [something]. But we observe [something else]. Is the theory wrong, or is there some other factor we have left out?”
  • Don’t stick too closely to those formulas, but they are helpful in presenting your work to an audience, whether that audience is composed of listeners at a lecture or readers of an article.

7. Write, then squeeze the other things in. Put your writing ahead of your other work. Don’t do it as an afterthought or tell yourself you will write when you get a big block of time. Squeeze the other things in; the writing comes first.

8. Start small. 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 all down.

9. Your most profound thoughts are often wrong. Or, at least, they are not completely correct. Precision in asking your question, or posing your puzzle, will not come easily if the question is hard.

10. Edit your work, over and over. Have other people look at it. The difference between a successful scholar and a failure need not be better writing. It is often more editing.