The Chronicle of Higher Education had a good article last week on the importance of writing well, or at least less badly, in graduate school. Michael C. Munger, the author, starts by arguing that writing is the single most important factor in separating good students from mediocre ones in graduate school.
Many of the graduate students who were stars in the classroom during the first two years—the people everyone admired and looked up to—suddenly aren’t so stellar anymore. And a few of the marginal students—the ones who didn’t care that much about pleasing the professors by reading every page of every assignment—are suddenly sending their own papers off to journals, getting published, and transforming themselves into professional scholars.The difference is not complicated. It’s writing.
I’m not as convinced that good writing is the only factor separating good and mediocre students, but it certainly is an important one. The good news is that you can always learn to write better. Indeed, Munger’s whole point is that grad students need to keep working on their writing skills.
To that end, he offers the following advice:
- Writing is an exercise. Practice a lot.
- Set goals based on output, not input. Set your goals based on word/page count, not time spent.
- Find a voice; don’t just “get published. I think this one needs to be more of a both/and. No one can afford to ignore the question of whether your work will get published, but that can’t be the only consideration.
- Give yourself time. You do not do your best work at the last minute. No one does.
- Everyone’s unwritten work is brilliant. The one who actually writes something is doing the real work; coming up with “brilliant” ideas is the easy part.
- Pick a puzzle. Find a question worth wrestling with.
- Write, then squeeze other things in. This one is by far the hardest part for me. I’m too easily distracted by other things that I need (want) to do.
- Not all of your thoughts are profound. I’m sure this is true for most people.
- Your most profound thoughts are often wrong. Also probably true for most people.
- Edit your work, over and over. Please.
His reflections on each of these points was far more helpful than mine. Check it out.