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“Write No Matter What” . . . about what?

Scott Jaschik interviews Joli Jensen (link from Tyler Cowen), a professor of communication who wrote a new book called “Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics.”

Her advice might well be reasonable—it’s hard for me to judge; as someone who blogs a few hundred times a year, I’m not really part of Jensen’s target audience. She offers “a variety of techniques to help . . . reduce writing anxiety; secure writing time, space and energy; recognize and overcome writing myths; and maintain writing momentum.” She recommends “spending at least 15 minutes a day in contact with your writing project . . . writing groups, focusing on accountability (not content critiques), are great ways to maintain weekly writing time commitments.”

Writing is non-algorithmic, and I’ve pushed hard against advice-givers who don’t seem to get that. So, based on this quick interview, my impression is that Jensen’s on the right track.

I’d just like to add one thing: If you want to write, it helps to have something to write about. Even when I have something I really want to say, writing can be hard. I can only imagine how hard it would be if I was just trying to write, to produce, without something I felt it was important to share with the world.

So, when writing, imagine your audience, and ask yourself why they should care. Tell ’em what they don’t know.

Also, when you’re writing, be aware of your audience’s expectations. You can satisfy their expectations or confound their expectations, but it’s good to have a sense of what you’re doing.

And here’s some specific advice about academic writing, from a few years ago.

P.S. In that same post, Cowen also links to a bizarre book review by Edward Luttwak who, among other things, refers to “George Pataki of New York, whose own executive experience as the State governor ranged from the supervision of the New York City subways to the discretionary command of considerable army, air force and naval national guard forces.” The New York Air National Guard, huh? I hate to see the Times Literary Supplement fall for this sort of pontificating. I guess that there will always be a market for authoritative-sounding pundits. But Tyler Cowen should know better. Maybe it was the New York thing that faked him out. If Luttwak had been singing the strategic praises of the New Jersey Air National Guard, that might’ve set off Cowen’s B.S. meter.


  1. Dale Lehman says:

    When I was a young academic long ago, a colleague with a much better publication record than mine gave me the following advice for getting published regularly: “don’t read too much.” This was in response to my comments on an article of his that there were a series of articles on the same subject (with more insight) that he didn’t reference at all. Of course, he hadn’t read them. So, I think there is truth in his quite sad (even pathetic) advice. I’m not advocating it, but it does go to the heart of the publication game. The more subtle and skeptical (and accurate?) view would be “don’t read more than what is necessary to please the referees and editors, and by all means, don’t read stuff outside of your discipline.”

    • Andrew says:


      There is a positive aspect to the advice not to read.

      From “The Art of Scientific Investigation” by W. I. B. Beveridge:

      There are even some grounds for discouraging an excessive amount of reading in the general field of science in which one is going to work. Charles Kettering, who was associated with the discovery of tetraethyl lead as an anti-knock agent in motor fuels and the development of diesel engines usable in trucks and buses, said that from studying conventional text-books we
      fall into a rut and to escape from this takes as much effort as to solve the problem. Many successful investigators were not trained in the branch of science in which they made their most brilliant discoveries : Pasteur, Metchnikoff and Galvani are well-known examples. A sheepman named J. H. W. Mules, who had no scientific training, discovered a means of preventing blowfly attack in sheep in Australia when many scientists had failed. Bessemer, the discoverer of the method of producing cheap steel, said :

      I had an immense advantage over many others dealing with the problem inasmuch as I had no fixed ideas derived from long established practice to control and bias my mind, and did not suffer from the general belief that whatever is, is right.

      But in his case, as with many such “outsiders”, ignorance and freedom from established patterns of thought in one field were joined with knowledge and training in other fields. [This reminds me of the “insider-outsider perspective” of Seth Roberts which perhaps led Seth to come up with some interesting ideas, even while running down a number of blind alleys. — ed.] In the same vein is the remark by Bernard that “it is that which we do know which is the great hindrance to our learning not that which we do not know.” The same dilemma faces all creative workers. Byron wrote :

      To be perfectly original one should think much and read little, and this is impossible, for one must have read before one has learnt to think.

      Shaw’s quip “reading rots the mind” is, characteristically, not quite so ridiculous as it appears at first.

      The explanation of this phenomenon seems to be as follows. When a mind loaded with a wealth of information contemplates a problem, the relevant information comes to the focal point of thinking, and if that information is sufficient for the particular problem, a solution may be obtained. But if that information is not sufficient — and this is usually so in research — then that mass of information makes it more difficult for the mind to conjure up original ideas, for reasons which will be discussed later. Further, some of that information may be actually false, in which case it presents an even more serious barrier to new and productive ideas.

      Personally, I find reading to be useful as well as pleasurable, but I’ve heard the “Don’t read too much” advice offered in sincerity, based on the idea that if you immerse yourself in the literature—especially the recent literature—you can get trapped in your thinking.

      • Keith O'Rourke says:

        A mitigation strategy is to write first and then read after but before finalizing.

        In reviewing other’s work (in a more serious sense than to simply give acceptance/rejection advice to a journal editor) that does seem to work well.

        Now in an MBA course assignment, where I had access to the solution manual for tutoring in another course, I did the assignment, then read the solution manual, waited a day and finalized my report. Got the lowest mark on that assignment than any other.

      • Dale Lehman says:

        Andrew – I find this even more depressing. It is certainly true that our experiences often blind us to innovative ways to approach problems (“if you give someone a hammer, everything will look like a nail”). But to read less is a poor solution to that problem – it reveals a deeper problem about how we learn things to begin with. I like Keith’s idea about reading after an initial draft. But the reading should be an essential part of the process – without it, it is an invitation to padding the resume while contributing little. And, if learning what others have done prevents us from examining novel ways to do things, that is a statement that we didn’t really “learn” much to begin with. At it’s essence, isn’t the philosophy of Bayesian reasoning to build upon past evidence, not to ignore it?

        • My sister put it well a few months ago when I was talking to her “It’s shocking how little imagination people seem to have”. She was referring specifically to people’s unwillingness to take their health seriously until after they’ve gotten sick, but I think the phenomenon applies pretty broadly. Often people simply can not step outside what they’ve been told to think things through from basic principles.

    • I really think this is a big part of academia today. If you actually know what you’re talking about, it’s much harder to blather on about stuff you just rediscovered… The words “Tai’s Mathematical Model for the Determination of Total Area Under Glucose Tolerance and Other Metabolic Curves” comes to mind as a super-glaring example. But the general phenomenon is pretty broadly applicable.

      • Bob says:

        Used the link. Read the abstract. Would not have believed it if you had told me about the paper.

        I did not spend the $35 necessary to see the paper—you can get the basic idea from the abstract.


      • Marcus says:

        Thanks for the laugh. And that author was employed at NYU.

        • anon says:

          Tai, NYU etc. is just the tip of the iceberg. Have a look at the 250 citations. I wondered how they were citing the paper. Citing it for some other reason? Seems not. The first one I could read is by Richard Legro et al & says “determined according to the formula of Tai et al”.
          Google tells me “Dr Legro is a Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Penn State University College of Medicine”.

          Haven’t looked at the others yet. May not be able to open them.

        • anon says:

          Another citing paper has this in the abstract:

          “Recently, several articles appearing in the diabetes literature have suggested that many investigators are unclear about a number of issues involving the use of areas under the curve (AUCs). This prompted us to reconsider issues in the calculation, use, meaning, and presentation of AUCs. We discuss five issues: 1) What is a curve and an area? 2) How should one graphically present a group’s curve? 3) How should one calculate AUCs?”

          Authors were 2 PhDs and 2 MDs at St. Luke’s/Roosevelt Hospital, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons

          Is it expecting too much to expect medical PhDs and doctors to know “what is a curve and an area”???

          • anon says:

            To be clear: this paper does not indicate its AUTHORS are ignorant. It indicates its authors believe their COLLEAGUES are ignorant and need “what is a curve and an area?” explained to them in a journal paper.

            • Martha (Smith) says:

              Sadly, it may be that the colleagues indeed are that ignorant. For example, I recall reading (I think in a paper by Gigerenzer?) that in a study of physicians’ understanding of probability, it turned out that a vast number (I think in fact a majority) of physicians in the study said a probability was 50/50 if there were just two alternatives and they didn’t know which one was true.

      • Thanatos Savehn says:

        I saw that on Twitter this morning but thought it was a joke. Somewhere Archimedes is shaking his head and asking some other contemporary souls: “How is it that we made more progress in the 200-300 years before we died than did all the mathematicians who lived in the 2200 years that followed?”

      • Guive says:

        Oh I love that paper, what a classic. The best thing about it was she reininvented integration and then checked her work empirically using statistical tests that are only possible because integration had already been invented.

  2. Terry says:

    I didn’t understand the P.S. How many aircraft/personnel does the New York Air National Guard have? How many are needed to justify the adjective “considerable”?

    Also, Luttwak called the *combined* “army, air force and naval national guard forces” “considerable”. How big are the combined New York army, air force and naval national guard forces? I couldn’t find a number for just New York, but the US National Guard has about 350,000 personnel nationwide, so New York should have about 20,000. Is 20,000 considerable?

    Some relevant links:

    • Andrew says:


      Luttwak had some interesting points in his article, but in the particular paragraph I was quoting he just seemed to be playing a journalistic game, somewhat reminiscent of high-school essays where the goal is to marshal adjectives to make one’s point, without it making any real sense. Here’s Luttwak:

      the respected centrist John Kasich . . . Jeb Bush of Florida, both affable and competent . . . the energetic Chris Christie . . . the Bible-belt favourite Mike Huckabee . . . the highly respectable Jim Gilmore . . . the extremely effective Rick Perry . . . the hero of the anti-union Right . . . the very able Bobby Jindal of Louisiana . . .

      This is the kind of thing you’ll see in sports reporting at the beginning of the new season, explaining why the home team has a chance at the World Series this year: they’ve got a second baseman who can steal bases, a third basemen who hit 90 RBI once, a center fielder who’s a fan favorite, etc. You can come up with a positive adjective or two about any politician alive; to do so adds no content to a political analysis, and it just demonstrates that Luttwak is trying to use clever writing, rather than substance, to make an argument. Again, I don’t say that his whole article is empty, just that this paragraph represents to me an empty, debate-club form of argument.

      Regarding the Pataki line in general, I don’t see how “the supervision of the New York City subways to the discretionary command of considerable army, air force and naval national guard forces, in addition to all the usual administrative categories” represents any sort of qualification for the White House. Command of the state National Guard seems so different from command of the U.S. armed forces as to be essentially irrelevant. If Luttwak wanted to argue the relevance of executive experience as governor, or the relevance of the political skills of negotiation, forming a budget, etc., or the political skills required to win elections—sure, I’d accept all of these as qualifications. But the National Guard? I don’t see it. Nor do I see anything added by words such as “discretionary” and “considerable” except that they kinda sound official and important. Again, these are rhetorical devices that I don’t like.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        The quotes kinda sound like how society pages always comment on what the person was wearing.

      • Terry says:

        That makes more sense. The governor doesn’t “command” in any real sense the national guard. He just tells the head of the national guard broadly what to do. He doesn’t work out flight plans or target objectives.

        I have also noted that cheap political writing often makes its argument in the adjectives, en passant in a sense. One particularly irksome trope is to dispose of someone’s argument by tagging them with the epithet “disgraced” or “discredited” rather than refuting their ideas.

      • Dzhaughn says:

        Are you saying Pataki was no more qualified, based on experience, than… Trump?

  3. Terry says:


    Personally, I’ve found the “write no matter what” rule helpful. There is something in the brain (or my brain at least) that needs to be switched on to write, and the only way to switch it on is to write. It takes a day or two, but once switched on, I get “in the zone” and the words flow much more smoothly. Perhaps people whose brains are always switched on don’t have this problem.

    Also, the ideas just come once I start (usually anyway, or at least often). On a good day, the ideas come about as fast as they can be put down on the page. Once the words are on the page, they can be corralled and organized and ruthlessly deleted as needed. The secret for me is to just start. If you just look at a paragraph you’ve written, improvements just jump out at you. Of course, sometimes the ideas are garbage and need to be tossed. That can be very hard.

    • Andrew says:


      Yes, I agree that it can often be easier to write and then rewrite, than to sit staring at the blank page (or screen) waiting for the perfect words to come out.

      • bxg says:

        I have frequently found it very useful in (admittedly, not so empirical) research writing. I may have an idea, but I’m a bit stuck on developing it and am mentally thrashing as to how to push things further. I feel there’s ‘something there’ (well, perhaps my feeling a bit more concretely positive than that), but bottom line is that I know I’m not getting it fully right or complete.

        So I can start writing about where I am as if it were to be a paper. That’s really hard! I’m not even remotely “ready” yet; in a couple more days I might be. But nevertheless, a good trick is just forcing myself to write about where I am no matter how uncomfortable that feels – as if I’m starting the paper and describe the result I (still a bit vaguely) see as my target. (But I _know_ I don’t have anything yet, there might not be anything there anyway, it’s way too early … But: today, just Write!)

        Often a waste of time, but: sometime obstacles resolve (I see I can’t possibly describe what has got me stuck without being very clear about preliminary steps X, Y, and Z, and in make myself identify these steps and write them down/justify them clearly I address mental obstacles I hadn’t noticed.) Or, subconsciously, I’m queasy about step X and this concern is undermining my thinking – write it down as if for someone else, and if I am lucky you can now accept X and put the concern behind me. A number of times is like this: I find out I somehow just can’t explain or justify some precursor X clearly in writing, but the whole reason I thought I was onto something was that I just assumed ‘X’ was easy. So abandon my original idea, but perhaps examining my error about X will lead to some unexpected insight.

        I guess that all can be summarized as: writing about some issue as if for another audience, even if feels ridiculously early, can crystallize and create ideas that (some of us) won’t find so easily while we are stuck in our heads and can/will avoid needed clarity.

  4. Jeff says:

    I love this. I minored in journalism in college, and the chair of the department (who was the entire department) actively resisted turning journalism into a major. He would say, “I’m helping you improve your writing. Go and major in something else so you have something to write about.”

  5. JG says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t suggest that she fit a multilevel model.

  6. Allan C says:

    This may be of interest to some: (skip to 1:30 in if you are pressed for time)

  7. Ethan Bolker says:

    Shameless commerce division – feel free to ignore or (Andrew) delete.

    My wife Joan Bolker is the author of the best-selling “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day”.

    Of course not just fifteen minutes a day, but do write every day. No prescriptions about how or what to write, but strategies to help you discover what writing strategies work for you.

    If you want to look further it’s easy to find links to the book and to reviews. I think it would be too tacky to provide them here.

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