The Craft of Writing Effectively

“Larry McEnerney, Director of the University of Chicago’s Writing Program, led this session in an effort to communicate helpful rules, skills, and resources that are available to graduate students interested in further developing their writing style.”

Here are some excerpts from this talk:

You are writing about a subject at which you have expert knowledge.

You are operating at the most sophisticated levels. When I work with faculty on this and other campus, I am working with people who are after all, on the frontiers of knowledge. They’re thinking stuff, nobody’s thought before.

You are using your writing to help yourself think.

If you don’t do this, for most people, you cannot think at the level you need to think. Quite different say, from a journalist who’s sitting down writing.

The journalist is not using the writing process to think up new ideas about the world. You are. This means you have a very different set of writing challenges than anybody else has.

This is a course about those challenges.

You actually generate the text while you are doing your thinking, but then you’re gonna send this text out to readers and the readers are gonna look through that text and if you’ve done your job, they’re gonna change the way they see the world.

Experts use language in one set of patterns to do their thinking. But those very same experts read with a different pattern.

You have used your text as you must use it to help yourself think, but you’re gonna use writing patterns and language patterns that interfere with the way your readers read, even when those readers are also other experts. So you are interfering with their reading process when you’re writing. What happens to readers when you do that?

The last thing they’re gonna do is they’re just gonna stop. What happens before then? What leads up to that stopping?

In the last week, you’ve read stuff that is not written in the way you are seeking to read. What’s the first thing to happen to you? You slow down. Second. You don’t understand. Third, you get aggravated. Then you’re done.

If they don’t need to read it, they don’t.

Were your teachers reading your texts to think about the world? That’s not what they’re paid to do.

You’ve learned to write in a system where your readers are paid to care about you. That will stop.

In the world beyond school, they will read because it is valuable to them.

More than anything else from now on, your writing needs to be valuable.

I’m talking to social scientists. Physical scientists don’t make this mistake.

The question is whether this particular community of readers values it, which is why it’s so much about readers and not about content.

Value lies in readers, right, not in the thing. And so how people can think about their writing without thinking about readers is probably the biggest challenge you face.

Here’s a shock, you think writing is conveying your ideas.

It’s not. Let me say that again. You think that writing is communicating your ideas to your readers. It is not.

What is professional writing? It’s not conveying your ideas to your readers.

It’s changing their ideas. Nobody cares what ideas you have.

This is way more radical than it sounds. I used to make the mistake of saying to students who came in, I teach argument a lot and I say to students who make an argument, why do you think that?

Nothing will be accepted as knowledge or understanding until it has been challenged by someone competent to challenge it.

That’s the rule.

Your readers have the professional function of challenging what you say. So explaining turns out only to happen inside of these two functions, you only explain inside of value having been generated and persuasion having begun.

It is an enormous mistake of PhD level writers that they try to explain first, and I know why you try to explain first, because in school they just wanted you to explain first because the whole thing was just about seeing what you know.

Start explaining line one. Classic thing, begin with the definition. Teachers love this. Begin with the definition because it tells the teachers what? You know the definition. Don’t begin with definition.

If you think that you’re here to do new original work, if you would find the synapse in your brain that is storing those words, kill it.

You are here to do valuable work. What’s the difference?

You think you’re here to create new knowledge? Well, you know how hard it is to create new knowledge?

And they said, “That’s right, it’s new and it’s original, but it is not knowledge.”

She was living in a positivistic world, where knowledge looks like this. In a positivistic world, knowledge is just built up over time, and anytime you find out something that people didn’t know, you get to just add up to this model, and knowledge just keeps on growing and everybody’s happy. And that is dead.

There are conversations moving through time and there’s a bunch of people and they get to say what knowledge is.

Why on earth would these people get to say what knowledge is?

But the point is that’s the way it works. You may not like it, but that’s the way it works.

The good news is this thing does move through time. The other good news is this boundary is permeable. Stuff comes in and stuff goes out. Academic conversations excrete as they go.

They go along for a while and they say, whoa, we were doing that! Don’t do that anymore.

It’s not this buildup model. This buildup model assumed that everything was right. We don’t think that. We think a lot of what we think right now is wrong.

We just dunno what the wrong is and we don’t know what better is. We wanna know, we do, we wanna get better at it, but in order for us to do that, you have to be dealing with the stuff we say is knowledge.

What’s the first word you see that makes it valuable? Nonetheless. Next: Widely accepted. Next: However. Next: Although. Next: Inconsistent. Next: Reported. Next: Anomaly. Next: Reported.

Here’s my first piece of advice to you that you can do to make your writing better
starting this afternoon, is spend 15 minutes a week for the rest of this year,
taking articles in your field, print ’em out so you have a hard copy. Go through and circle every word in the writing that is creating value to the readers.

If you see an article that you think doesn’t have any of those words, send it to me. I’ll give you my email. Send me your email and say, “Larry, I found an article that doesn’t do it.”

Here’s what I bet, you will see none, I will see 10.

How come you don’t see ’em and I see five or 10? You missed them here.

I see ’em, I know the code. Every community has its own codes.

The communities you’re entering have their own codes, a set of words that communicates value.

You must know the codes of the communities you’re working in and they are particular to communities.

Some codes are shared among a bunch of communities, some aren’t. You’ve got to know.

If you spend 15 minutes a week for the rest of this year, you’ll be doing two things. One, you’ll be training yourself to look for the code of creating value. The other thing you’ll be doing if you’re smart, is you’ll be writing down each of those words and you’ll be creating an invaluable word list, so that when it’s a week before something is done and you’re doing one of your revisions, you’re gonna do what? You’re gonna do the same thing on your own work.

And if you can’t underline 10 words in the first two paragraphs, you’re gonna do what? You’re gonna go to the word list and you’re gonna jump ’em in, right? Sometimes, it’s that simple.

Sometimes we take articles that wouldn’t get published [and] in an hour we do things and they get published.

As I say to undergraduates who look at me and they say, why does it take six years or five years or even four years to get a PhD? Aren’t they just learning more stuff? No, half their time is spent learning more stuff.

The other half is learning their readers. I will say this again, if you do not know your readers, the particular people in a community, you are very unlikely to create value and you are very unlikely to be persuasive because persuasion depends on what they doubt. If you don’t know what they doubt, how on earth you’re gonna overcome those doubts? You must know them.

Which words have to do with the community? – Widely. – Widely. – Accepted. – Accepted. – Reported. – Reported. Those are words that cued that there was a community of people who want to understand this.

You don’t have those words, you’re not signaling any community.

Imagine if you go to your readers and say, hey readers, hey community, I’ve read your stuff. I’ve thought about what you think and I have something to say.

Hey readers, I’ve read your stuff. I know what you think, but you’re wrong. Which one are they gonna pay attention to?

He can name a journal. We will go to the every edition of that journal in the last 20 years and every paper will say that somebody’s wrong. Everyone.

You have to know the code. If you say to the people who are the dominant figures in your field, “You know what, I’ve read all your stuff and you’re idiots.” Not gonna go well.

The code is, wow, are you smart!

You are so smart and you’ve contributed and you’ve advanced this, you’ve advanced this community through in fabulous ways, but there’s this little thing you got here that’s wrong. And now they say, oh yeah, well thank you for appreciating that. What do you think we have wrong? And then you better have an argument, not an explanation.

Do not explain, argue. You’re talking to people who like, wrote this stuff. You don’t have to explain it to ’em.

You have to predict what they’re gonna doubt when you say they’re wrong. So you say to them, “You’re wrong about this,” and they say, “Why should I agree that I’m wrong,” and you say, “Well, here’s why.”

That’s what introductions do. They give a quick version of why these people should think that they’re wrong. And they say, “Well, okay, preliminarily. I’ve read your first two pages. Now I’ll start reading the rest of it.” Why? Because you’ve caused them to think that your work might be valuable for them.

The University of Chicago writing program is not real popular in the world of writing programs and you can see why. A lot of people think we’re fascists.

Here’s what we teach people to do. We say, identify the people with power in your community and give them what they want. Lots of people have said to us in some version or another, you’re supposed to teach people to challenge the existing community. Well, actually, I just did, right? But notice that I did it inside the terms of the community.

I get the moral and ethical pressure to teach people to have their individual voices.
But when I sit with somebody up in my office, who’s worried about their career not going anywhere, it can’t be about their individual voice. It’s about what’s gonna make it valuable to their readers.

You want me to go to this really important person, the editors of this journal and tell ’em they’re wrong? Yeah, I do. I need you to do it under the code. You wanna do it under the code. There’s polite ways to do it. There’s insulting ways to do it.

Here are some highlights from this 2022 book by Rony Guldmann – The Star Chamber of Stanford: On the Secret Trial and Invisible Persecution of a Stanford Law Fellow:

* “Intellectuals who write with vigor and clarity are as scarce as low rents in New York or San Francisco. Raised in city streets and cafes before the age of massive universities, “last” generation intellectuals wrote for the educated reader. They have been supplanted by high-tech intellectuals, consultants and professors—anonymous souls who may be competent, and more than competent, but who do not enrich public life.” (Russell Jacoby)

* The relationship between a faculty adviser and an academic job seeker is akin to that between a great power and a small client state. It is the academic job seeker who derives tangible material benefits from the alliance—a tenure-track job—since it’s the faculty adviser’s phone calls to colleagues at other schools that separate a résumé from a stack of hundreds. The faculty adviser has an interest in expending these efforts because the empowerment of the client state redounds to the prestige and prominence of the great power. The more Stanford Law graduates are teaching at law schools, and especially illustrious ones, the stronger becomes Stanford’s standing in the competition with other great powers—Yale, Harvard, Chicago, and others. When Stanford wins, so does its faculty.

* [Barbara Fried] distilled my driving intuition as the sense that “there is something indeterminate to liberalism,” meaning that what liberals presume is the only valid application of their principles may simply be a parochial cultural preference, with another equally defensible interpretation inuring to the conservative cause. The key to the project, she advised, was to explain just why conservative claims of cultural oppression amount to more than hollow ad hominems against the banal human foibles of liberals. Another crucial question, she stressed, was why liberals seem less agitated than conservatives by difference and dissent. Liberals appear unconcerned with how their next-door neighbors go about their lives, whereas conservatives can feel threatened by this, perceiving phantasmal assaults on order and decency everywhere. Is this ostensible asymmetry reality or a social illusion? Like Joe, Barbara was at once incredulous of and fascinated by conservative claims of cultural oppression. Her instinct was to discount conservatives as benighted authoritarians, but she was receptive to my still-inchoate sense that the liberal consensus was one-sided and simplistic and hoped I could explain her unease to her.

* The sociologist Alvin Gouldner observes that the cosmopolitan New Class of well-schooled, left-leaning knowledge workers is predisposed “toward an unhealthy self-consciousness, toward stilted convoluted speech, an inhibition of play, imagination and passion, and continual pressure for expressive discipline.”19 That continual pressure is most fundamentally the secularization of an age-old religious drive, an intellectualized variant of the traditional spiritual aspiration to rise above animal impulse toward a purified state of heightened self-possession and self-control.

* Hence, my claim in the introduction that scholarliness is no less a hero-system than the cruder and more transparent ideologies of the Right. The elites despise the vulgar traditionalism of social conservatives. But their own, more rarefied, traditionalism leaves them implacably hostile to the unregulated freedom of the tacit dimension, whose indeterminate and inarticulate nature occupies a place analogous to the sexual libertinism that offends the Right. The tacit dimension is a libertinism of the intellect, a realm of uninhibited personal impulse unfettered by the exogenous strictures of academic professionalism, whose renunciatory impulses are what dictate “a totally anonymous style and choice of topics as a matter of professional honor,” as Midgley says. This aspiration to impersonality harbors a religious meaning, promising redemption from the original sin of intellectual idiosyncrasy as expressed in the solitary intimations of the tacit dimension.

* [Mary] Midgely observes: “Officially, we can enquire about anything. In fact, in any academic area, current traditions ensure that only certain quite limited limited tropes and methods will be accepted. Officially, the reasons for these limitations are impersonal, rational, clearly statable, and ready to be changed at any time if good reason is given. Actually, they have all kinds of other sources as well as these acknowledged ones—a background web of obscure and complex historical causes, involving notably clashes of personality and feuds with neighbouring studies. They are very resistant to deliberate attempts to change. Much of this rigidity, too, is certainly not impersonal because it results from the individual temperaments of the people involved. … Much academic conceptual apparatus is designed to insulate specialties from outside interference.”

* My driving intuition was that the liberal culture’s official facade of outward tolerance is informally circumscribed by a subterranean background of clandestine coercions, threats, and stigmas that cumulatively enshrine certain parochial mores as bedrock reality. But giving real life to these words required deprogramming myself from that culture, as I couldn’t expose that in which I was myself implicated. The covert sectarianism of the liberal elites would be visible only from the outside, and I wasn’t yet standing there.

* Russell Jacoby: “Universities encourage a definite intellectual form. They do not shoot, they simply do not hire those who are unable or unwilling to fit in. Even Henry Luce of the Time magazine empire, often denounced as a master propagandist, employed and even liked mavericks and dissenters. Universities, on the other hand, hire by committee: one needs degrees, references, the proper deference, a pleasant demeanor. To win over a committee that recommends to a department which counsels a chairman who advises a dean who suggests to a college president takes a talent very different from gaining the assent of a single individual.”

* Colleges and universities are the “finishing schools” of the New Class.

* David Brooks wrote that intellectuals “compete to gain a monopoly over the power to consecrate”: “Certain people and institutions at the top of each specialty have the power to confer prestige and honor on favored individuals, subjects, and styles of discourse. Those who hold this power of consecration influence taste, favor certain methodologies, and define the boundary of their discipline. To be the chief consecrator is the intellectual’s dream.”

* [Alvin Goudner:] “The New Class, then, is prepared to be egalitarian so far as the privileges of the old class are concerned. That is, under certain conditions it is prepared to remove or restrict the special incomes of the old class: profits, rents, interest. The New Class is anti-egalitarian, however, in that it seeks special guild advantages—political powers and incomes—on the basis of its possession of cultural capital.”

* The elites are willing to attack existing distributions of economic and political power in the name of greater equality and general human welfare. But, as a cultural bourgeoisie, they treat unequal divisions of cultural capital as sacrosanct and will repress any who would attempt to accrue it in disregard of the distributive status quo. Discourse that respects that status quo—by acquiescing to the lingos, conceptualizations, and lines of inquiry that define “the field”—is serious. Discourse that slights it by proceeding from a different set of starting points and perplexities is not.

* [Russell] Jacoby observes: “Like any quantitative study of reputation, the [citation] index is circular. It measures not the quality of work but clout and connections. If used to evaluate careers, however, the lessons for the striving professor are clear: cast a wide net, establish as many mutual relations as possible, do not isolate yourself from the mainstream. It pays not simply to footnote but to design research to mesh smoothly with the contributions of others: they refer to you as you refer to them. Everyone prospers from the saccharine scholarship.”

* Dissecting the core values of Homo academicus, [French sociologist Pierre] Bourdieu highlights the sublimated and intellectualized conservatism of academia’s gatekeepers, the liberal elites: “There is no acknowledged master who does not recognize a master and, through him, the intellectual magistrature of the sacred collegeof masters who acknowledge him. In short, there is no master who does not recognize the value of the institution and institutional values which are all rooted in the institutionalized refusal of any non-institutional thought, in the exaltation of academic “reliability,” that instrument of normalization which has all appearances on its side, those of learning and those of morality, although it is often only the instrument of the transformation of individual and collective limits into the choice of scientific virtuousness.”

In discerning my potential to become an eminent legal scholar, Joe was holding out the prospect that I might eventually ascend to the rank of “acknowledged master.” But in insisting that my research first be tied in with that of colleagues, he was also reminding me, with Bourdieu, that “there is no acknowledged master who does not recognize a master and, through him, the intellectual magistrature of the sacred college of masters who acknowledge him.” The knockout email was the culmination of my repeated refusals to bow before this magistrature. Joe’s and Barbara’s guidance had always been advice for doing so, for exhibiting “academic ‘reliability.’” If their respect-cum-fascination had now deteriorated into suspicion and ire, this was owing to the ingratitude with which I had discounted their Janus-faced counsels. What would heeding them have required of me? Barbara’s reaction to the Overview would have been rather more sanguine had my summaries read something like this:

“Professor X has recently introduced a fascinating new framework through which to address Problem A in an effort to replace the approach that has been most famously defended by Professor Y, arguing that this not only provides fresh, multidisciplinary insight into Problem A but also sheds a new and intriguing light on Problem B, which Professor Z first brought to our attention in his rigorously argued and thoroughly researched book C. But Professor Z’s book, C, in fact anticipated, and raised serious reservations about, the approach now being defended by Professor X in response to Professor Y. This article argues that while Professor Z’s reservations have substantial merit, the force of those concerns is attenuated to the extent we (plausibly) interpret Professor X as supplementing rather than supplanting the analysis of Professor Y. Thus conceived, the questions introduced by Professor X promise not only to enrich our understanding of Problem A but also to open up new avenues of interdisciplinary research into Problem B that build on those painstakingly developed by Professor Z, because Problem B, properly understood, is just another facet of Problem A.”

In pleading with me to acknowledge the intellectual magistrature of the sacred college of masters, Joe was saying that I could eventually become Professor X but only if I first attended to him in this genteelly interstitial manner, because that was how he got to where he was.

* Moving on to campus life, we were advised that fellows should limit themselves to raising one question every three faculty luncheons. Untenured faculty should limit themselves to every other luncheon. Only tenured faculty had license to speak up weekly.

* The importance of watching one’s words was stressed repeatedly. A workshop organizer related that she had nearly lost out on a job after scorning the dog of Cass Sunstein, a famous legal scholar then at the University of Chicago. This bespoke an ingrained disdain for all canines, not a particularized antipathy for Sunstein’s pooch specifically, she explained, but the distinction was initially lost on Sunstein, who had been wounded. They’re on good terms now—I think—but perhaps not as good as they’d be if she loved dogs in general and Fido in particular.

* Pierre Bourdieu: “The whole trick of pedagogical reason lies precisely in the way it extorts the essential while seeming to demand the insignificant: in obtaining the respect for forms and forms of respect which constitute the most visible and at the same time the best-hidden (because most “natural”) manifestations of submission to the established order, the incorporation of the arbitrary abolishes what Raymond Ruyer calls “lateral possibilities,” that is, all the eccentricities and deviations which are the small changes of madness. The concessions of politeness always contain political concessions.”

* Joe and Barbara imagined they were demanding only “the concessions of politeness.” They had taken me under their wings, enabling me to pursue my passion and sparing me the travails of sweatshop hours in a big law firm. In exchange they were hoping for a modicum of deference to their superior experience, wisdom, and expertise. And I had indeed withheld that modicum. But for cause, I submit, because tendering it would have involved a “political concession” to the cultural pathologies of liberalism and academia. Penning a book review or attending a seminar weren’t necessarily all that laborious. But cumulatively such endeavors would have acculturated me to the New Class ethos and its “respect for forms,” instilling me with the “expressive discipline” and scholarly gravitas that the still-subconscious telos of my research agenda called on me to subvert. The road not taken might have yielded a cleaner and timelier job-talk paper. But the truth of conservative claims of cultural oppression would then have adhered to me only, as Schopenhauer says, “as an artificial limb, a false tooth, a wax nose does,” not as a natural appendage that could truly interface with the world.

* As Jacoby observes, “Universities encourage a definite intellectual form.” The naturally obeisant thrive, provided the other desiderata of academic flourishing—smarts, work ethic, and luck—are in place.

* I could no more internalize the New Class ethos of expressive discipline than a naturally effeminate gay man could be expected to start vocalizing like John Wayne.

* Liam Gillespie delineates the nature of this domination: The habitus therefore not only confers unfair levels of sociocultural privilege upon certain individuals (through the bestowal of cultural capital), it also invisibilises this privilege. As a result, the struggle to change the socio-cultural conditions of the habitus is inherently difficult. This is because dominant subjects are able to exercise their dominance merely by conforming to the status quo and by “being themselves,” while those who are dominated must effect a rupture of the habitus from within the habitus itself. Put differently, within the habitus, the dominance of dominant subjects appears “objective.” The dominant can just “be,” while the dominated must first “clear the way” before they can “be.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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