Scholars Talk Writing: Michael C. Munger

June 22, 2017
Way back in 2010, Michael C. Munger, a political scientist at Duke University, wrote a terrifically helpful essay called “10 Tips on How to Write Less Badly.” Those tips are still plenty useful, and things haven’t gotten much better on the scholarly writing front.Munger has published books with Oxford, Cambridge, and Norton (among others), and put out about a zillion scholarly articles. He’s won teaching awards and chaired his department. He’s done podcasts and rap videos about economics, written blog posts and columns, and even ran for governor of North Carolina. In short, he was a perfect candidate for the Scholars Talk Writing series.

You’ve given a lot of thought to what makes academic writing better. What’s your most important tip?

Munger: The main thing is to write like you exercise: at least a little bit, most days. It’s tempting to think you can research first, and then write. That may work (sort of) in the “hard” sciences, but even there, early writing can be helpful because writing reveals the holes in your arguments. At worst, you have a head start on the writing you are going to have to do anyway, when the data collection and analysis are finished.

Furthermore, writing makes you a more focused and attentive reader of other works. When you are writing, you read to interrogate that author about a particular point.

What kinds of things do you see graduate students and junior faculty members struggle with?

Munger: Starting. And finishing. Many people have trouble with introductions because they can’t say what their paper or book is “really about.” And as journals reject more papers — often without even sending them out for review — a good introduction is more important than ever.

But junior scholars rush through introductions or make them too terse. The key is to work first on the shorter, easier sections in the middle of the paper. Once you have a few thousand words, it doesn’t seem so implausible that you are writing a paper. If all you have is a blank screen and a blinking cursor, the machine seems to be saying, “You? No way. … You? No way. …” If you write the introduction last you can finesse a lot of the “I can’t get started” problem.

Even harder than starting is finishing. So many people revise and add things and cut things — often to the point where they aren’t even improving the paper any more. Reviewers will be sure to point out the problems that authors can no longer see. Look, taking criticism is hard, and journal referees can be pretty mean critics.

That’s why I suggest that we change the way we think about criticism. We are used to seeking praise, so journal reviewers can seem like angry trolls, blocking the bridge to publication. Rather than view criticism as insulting, see it as free assistance. And think of the referees as cogs in a machine. When analysts write code, they don’t stare at it to try and figure out if it will run. They send it out to the computer, and they get back error messages, connected to particular parts of the code: “Mistake here. Syntax error here. Incorrect array definition here.”

Think of your writing that way: Send it out! You can do other things while it’s being evaluated, and you’ll get back referee reports that specify which sections need more work. If you picture reviewers as soulless automatons, it robs critiques of their sting. It’s actually great: Smart people are reading your paper and thinking of ways to make it better.

One caveat, which is probably obvious but still worth noting. Rely on advice from colleagues: If people you trust think the paper is ready to send out, don’t sit on it any longer, even if you worry it’s not ready. But you can’t expect referees to finish a half-formed paper.

While working with students and colleagues on papers, what comments do you find yourself making over and over?

Munger: I have a stamp that says “WTF?” — for “What’s This For?” — to mark areas that have nothing to do with the paper. The sections that get you in trouble with reviewers are often the ones you like but that don’t really belong. The erudite aside and the witty skewering of obscure arguments are the things that reviewers end up complaining about. Cut superfluous passages, and then look for more. Your paper will be shorter and clearer.

You ran as a Libertarian candidate for governor of North Carolina in 2008. What did you learn about writing and/or speaking on the campaign trail, other than fear and loathing?

Munger: I learned you have 20 seconds of attention from your audience. Professors think people care about what we say, but they don’t. Students only appear to care, because it might be on the final exam.

Real people — including journal editors — are not like that. If after about 20 seconds you have not given them some reason to care or be interested, they are just going to come up with reasons to reject you.

So does that affect how you think about your opening sentences?

Munger: Yes! I got that from a Nobel Prize winner, James Buchanan. His rule was that titles, and first sentences, should be felicitous. Not cute, but not boring. Felicitous. It’s worth the extra 10 minutes: Go for a walk and hone that first sentence in your mind.

In doing this interview via email, you have gotten back to me immediately, responded to every query and request for elaboration, and thrown out and completely rewritten some of your answers. It’s made working with you a pleasure. Do you have advice for dealing with editors?

Munger: Writers should adopt a simple policy: Forget who’s right, just rewrite. If the editor says something is unclear, she is right. Rewrite it. And if she misunderstands something you say, and gets your message wrong, she’s right because she’s wrong! If a sympathetic editor misunderstands your piece, the casual reader will certainly get it wrong. Just shut up and rewrite it. Even though it may not seem like it, the editor is your best friend because she is brave enough to tell you when a section or an idea doesn’t work.

You’ve written about scholarly productivity. What are some practical strategies?

Munger: Get used to writing things you know you are going to throw away. I use in-class writing assignments to start a discussion. Students get the practice of writing, even though no one else is going to look at it, and then they’re happy to speak because they have actually thought about the prompt.

That idea — that writing organizes your thoughts, and needs no other purpose — transfers to scholarly settings. I throw away sections, or drafts of entire papers, because after writing them I finally understand what I should have said. Knowing you’ll trash the draft allows you to speed along, not worrying about the right word or reference.

Pick your most productive time of the day and reserve that for writing. For me, that was always first thing in the morning — as early as 4:30 a.m., before my two sons got up. My wife is a full-time (and then some!) attorney. That meant that I drove the boys to school, at 8 a.m. At work, I had an administrative job and was swamped with teaching and meetings. I scheduled my teaching for late afternoons, when I was usually tired and lethargic. Teaching naturally picks you up and gets the adrenaline flowing. Of course, after I taught I was exhausted. But since I had already done my writing for the day, I could play with my sons in the evening without fretting about taking time away from scholarship.

What do you wish you’d been told when you were starting your career?

Munger: We train people in methods, and theory, but we don’t tell them that writing is something you have to practice. You need to develop your own voice, and work on questions that are important, or at least important to you. Will someone want to read your work 10 years, or maybe 100, from now? If the answer is “no,” you aren’t giving yourself enough credit.

In academe, your “voice” is partly a style, and partly a substantive contribution. It’s your brand — what you will be known for as a scholar — and it’s something you have to work to develop. Don’t just write what you think you can easily publish, and don’t adopt a style that doesn’t suit you. Be intentional in the way you express your ideas. I happen to use a mental reminder for this — telling myself “Hemingway! Not Faulkner!” when it comes to style — but that’s just me.

Finally: Develop a sense of urgency, but reward yourself with affirmation. Finish that article, send it out, and move on to something else. And if it gets accepted, great: Have a nice glass of wine and watch the sunset. There is not enough affirmation in this business. So affirm yourself. When that book comes out, celebrate. You’re immortal.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com.

 JUNE 18, 2017