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Letter to a College Writer by Doug Dalenburg

January 27, 2014

Dear Paul,

I am glad to hear that college is going well. Yes, I agree, writing papers is hard. I have always enjoyed reading and especially reading about how people work. I read somewhere that Hemingway used to stop his writing sessions in mid-sentence so that when he started up again the next day it would be easy to get going; I have never been able to get that trick to work. Robert Boice writes about the importance of working regularly in small pieces rather than trying to wait until you have a big chunk of time. I think he is correct; there is nothing like having to pull an all-nighter to make you hate writing, but if I can write a little bit here and there I seem to gain momentum. However, this doesn’t work for everyone. Many of the big picture thinkers I know need a big chunk of time. It often takes them thirty minutes just to get going. So try out working in small pieces before you embrace it. Some people love outlining while others like word webs. I prefer word webs, but I have found outlining very helpful after I have written a first draft of a paper; it helps me see my logic more clearly and where I have holes. I fondly recall a former colleague of mine in the office next door reading drafts of his journal articles out loud and this can be very valuable. I used to be devastated when people made suggestions about my writing. I seem to have grown out of that and now I welcome suggestions regarding my writing (but not so much in other areas of my life). However, I think the most important tip deals with outlook.

In the past we have had discussions about flow and motivations. You have mentioned to me the difference between feeling the music and performing when you play trombone and you said you always play better when you are just feeling the music. The same holds for writing. When you write to get a grade or just to get finished, it feels like you are writing to be judged. Rather it is best to remember that we write to learn. If I can keep that perspective, it really helps me. When writing is hard I know it means that my understanding is incomplete, not that I have failed in some way. When writing is hard, I know I need to read more, think more, and write more. Writing to learn is like feeling the music, writing for a grade is like trying to perform. In life and writing it is more important to feel the music.

Best of luck with your term,

Doug Dalenburg is a Professor in Economics.

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