How to Become a Good Academic Writer

One piece of advice—one that I haven’t seen mentioned—immediately follows from this: The way to improve your writing is to practice writing. Serious prose writers write every day. Academic social scientists who want to write well should do the same, and this especially holds when carrying heavy teaching, administering, and research loads. Because no one generates enough primary research to fill a solid hour of writing every day, it means writing for other audiences. Book reviews, referee reports, recommendation letters, blog posts, it probably doesn’t really matter, so long as the focus is on the act of writing.

That’s Cornell’s Tom Pepinsky, adding his grain of salt to a discussion of academic writing that was sparked by Stephen Walt in a post for Foreign Policy.

I agree with Tom. If you are an academic and you care about more than just painting by numbers — that is, if you care about more than just getting tenure and making a comfortable living — you should aim to have an impact.

If your writing sucks, you might have one of the best contributions ever made to your field, but no one’s going to read it, it will not get cited, and you will not have had any impact.

The solution, as Tom points out, is to start thinking of yourself as a writer. And what do writers do? That’s right: Writers write. Every single occasion you have to write is an occasion to polish and improve your writing. There is no reason why every email, letter of recommendation, referee report, grant proposal, journal article, etc. cannot be an occasion to improve as a writer. All those activities can contribute to making you a better writer — if you let them.

But what is the mark of a good writer, you might ask? A good writer is one who is actually read by his would-be readers. As I always tell my students: If I start thinking of other things I’d rather be doing midway through your essay and you lose my attention, you have failed as a writer.

To see this, pick up any copy of The New Yorker. Their writers write so well that they can get you to read 5,000 words on just about any topic in which you might have had zero prior interest. If you can manage to do this with your academic writing, your academic writings can only get published in better journals and by better presses. Just like no seminar audience will ever fault you for being too clear, no reviewer will ever fault you for writing too well.

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  1. Emilia

    I like the idea of writing more to write better. A good excuse to start a blog, perhaps?

    Another suggestion in the Foreign Policy piece involves emulating great writers. Can you recommend any great writing by empirical economists? I’m sure it exists, but I haven’t been reading with it in mind.

  2. Geoff D

    Well said Marc. Couldn’t agree more. I would add that for those interested in having others read the work, particularly outside immediate academic colleagues, one must practice different forms of writing. As someone who spends a lot of time trying to build bridges between scholarship and policy, that means a different form for the same substance. Actually wrote it down a couple years ago

  3. Marc F. Bellemare

    Emilia, becoming a better is exactly the reason why I started blogging. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any great writing by empirical economists. I’ll be in Davis working with Michael, Ghada, and Tara around mid-March. Will you be there then?

  4. Pingback: Improving your academic writing: My top 10 tips – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD