The Singular Importance of Good Writing

“The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction.  By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.” ~Mark Twain

It is a bit intimidating to try to write a piece on the importance of good writing.  I feel self-conscious about my writing as I write about good writing.  After all, a post on good writing should be written especially well. Then again, maybe a poorly written post will do even more to illustrate the importance of good writing. I will have to leave that up to you, the reader.

I have been teaching graduate and undergraduate students for over twenty years now. I have read and graded thousands of papers and essays during that time. I can count on two hands the number that were exceptionally well written.  In each case, I sought out the students to compliment their writing, and to encourage them to keep honing their writing skills.

I doubt my words of encouragement had much effect.  This, I know from personal experience.

Years ago, in my third year of graduate school, I got a paper back from a professor with the words “You write well” written in the margin.  I was crushed.  I had worked so hard on that paper: reviewing the existing literature, developing the research design, and trying to make a substantive contribution to my field.  I yearned to hear something tangible about the quality of the research, the cleverness of the method, or the importance of the findings.  Instead, I got “you write well.” I honestly thought that the professor had said that because he couldn’t think of anything positive to say about the content of the paper.

Years later, something happened that made me realize how wrong I was.  I had taken a teaching job at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, even though I had yet to defend my doctoral thesis; it’s called “ABD,” or “all but

Merton Miller

dissertation.”  I had traveled to Chicago to meet with Merton Miller, my thesis chairman, about polishing up my dissertation and scheduling the defense.  As I waited outside his office door, I couldn’t help but notice how distracted Professor Miller seemed. He had always stood at a tall wooden lectern to write, but this day he paced to and from that lectern, rubbing his head, adjusting his shirt sleeves, writing, erasing, then erasing some more.

He was at the lectern when I entered his office for our meeting. I congratulated him again for winning the first Nobel Prize in financial economics and asked him about the upcoming trip to Stockholm.  He was taking his wife and daughters on the trip, who were very excited. He, on the other hand, was not ready for the trip.  He was worried, he said, because he was not going to have sufficient time to revise his acceptance speech.   He had only edited it seven times thus far, and his magic number was eight.  Not six, not seven, but eight rewrites were what he needed to be satisfied with his writing.

Professor Miller was known as one of the most gifted writers in all of economics.  His writing was disarmingly simple and clear. It flowed like a piece of music. It seemed effortless.  Everyone, myself included, assumed that he was just a naturally talented writer, lucky to have been blessed with that skill. Everyone was wrong.  I learned that day that Professor Miller worked hard at writing well.  He was well into his 60’s, had written hundreds of articles and had won the Nobel Prize, but he was still working at writing well.

Then I remembered the comment that a teacher had written in the margin of my paper years earlier. The teacher was Merton Miller.  And now I knew how much it really meant, coming from him.   So now when I see the rare student who writes really well, I make it a point to tell them.  Not that it means as much coming from me as it did coming from Professor Miller.  But it still means something, because good writing is very important, and it’s worth working for.

By Sherry Jarrell

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