Faculty Corner: Prof. Christopher Carroll
Many graduate students--both native and nonnative speakers of English--wonder what it takes to produce good writing. We asked Professor Christopher Carroll. Here are his words, telling it exactly like it is.
Advice for starting economics graduate students
When you eventually produce a job market paper, readers are far more likely to be persuaded by it (and to give you a job!) if the paper is written clearly than if they find every sentence to be a struggle.
Writing well is hard -- even for native speakers, even (believe it or not) for people who are naturally talented. (One famous writer described his work as "heavy lifting from a seated position.") The good news is that, whether you are a native speaker of English or not, the most important contributor to becoming a successful writer seems to be be the belief that (a) writing is hard work but (b) hard work will be rewarded (not swiftly, but surely). Greg Mankiw, for instance, claims that his much-admired style is more the result of hard work than of natural-born gifts.
Attitude is the main difference between students who fail and those who succeed in improving their writing during graduate school. Wise students take every opportunity to improve their skills -- even going so far as to activate the annoying grammar correction, spelling, and other tools that are ubiquitously available today (even in gmail!). A diligent non-native speaker may also gain from living with native speakers, from turning on subtitles when watching television, or from a thousand other deliberate daily choices. Students who pay attention to their writing only occasionally and in bursts of concentrated activity will not see much improvement. On the other hand, a writing course whose lessons are woven into daily practice can be of great value.
So, whether you are a native speaker or not; whether you think you have a gift for languages or a are linguistically inept; whether you love or loathe the task: Work on it. You will improve, and that improvement will make a real difference to your career prospects.
And there you have the secret to producing good writing: seize every opportunity to practice and improve your skills. Onward and upward!