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writing is a lot like golf

Bill Simmons is one of my all-time favorite sports columnists. For those of you who don’t follow sports (I’m looking at you Jerry), Simmons is a combination of a pop culture sponge, a sports geek, a comedian (I think he used to write jokes for Jimmy Kimmel), and a prolific writer. His columns are witty, meandering, ranting, long, and always entertaining. Simmons writes a lot and he writes really well. I’m slowly making my way through his enormous tome, The Book of Basketball, and I’m blown away by the level of detailed knowledge he has about the game (even if it almost makes me cry every time he mentions Karl Malone’s inability to play in the clutch). I saw Simmons on a late night talk show recently, and I got really interested when the host asked him to talk about what it’s like to write as much and as well as he does. Simmons compared writing to the game of golf. It’s something you have to work at every day if you’re ever going to be  good at it. If you stop writing, you’ll likely lose some of that touch it’s taken so long to develop. I thought this was a great analogy for writing, and because I’ve wanted to say something on this blog about the practice of writing social science for a while now, I thought I’d expound on the analogy.

Let me just say up front that I am not a good golfer at all and I consider my writing skills a work-in-progress.  My golf game is so bad that I’ve won the most improved award in our family golf tournament for the last three years mainly because I don’t qualify for any other award and because my loving family thinks that my skills can’t be getting worse. I aspire to be a good writer. I think writing is one of the most undervalued abilities in social science. Great writers can turn a good idea into a great paper. Bad writers can turn a great idea into a pretty confusing paper. So writing is important.

This post is about developing good writing habits. I’m probably not the best person to give tips on how to write. If you want that kind of advice, I recommend Booth et al.’s The Craft of Research. It’s a handy reference book and has lots of good tips for organizing your ideas.  I also highly recommend reading Ezra Zuckerman’s “Tips to article writers.” (I think about Ezra’s advice on framing your argument as a puzzle whenever I start a new paper.)

Like playing golf, writing well is harder than it looks. Golf doesn’t seem like a difficult sport when you’re watching it from afar (what’s amazing about the PGA is how easy they make it look – I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for pro golfers after I started tinkering around with the sport myself), but once you take the club into your own hands and start swinging away, you soon realize that this is a really hard sport to master.  You can’t excel at golf with pure athleticism. It takes years of constant practice to acquire a decent golf swing. Writing social science is much like this. When you read other people’s good writing, you think you’ll be able to do it equally well once you get that great idea. But you soon realize how much of being responsible for a good idea just comes down to writing well enough to make it convincing. There are a lot of smart sociologists who can’t write worth a lick, and it’s too bad because I think it diminishes the impact of their work. Those social scientists who have great ideas and decent writing skills should have broader influence. A classic example of this is Robert Cialdini – a great social psychologist who also writes in a very clear, accessible way.

Learning how to putt well is the best way to improve your score. Even after you figure out how to drive the ball straight down the fairway at least half the time, you still have to worry about the really hard skills, chipping and putting. Closing the hole with an efficient putt is deceptively hard to do and one of the most frustrating aspects of the game. Many great drives have been ruined by horrible play around the hole. Even when you get a great chip or putt, you’re completely incapable of repeating the feat. It just happened.  Closing is hard in writing too. Learning how to tie all of the pieces of the argument together logically and demonstrate why/how your results matter for the field is absolutely necessary if you want to make a real scholarly contribution. Even if you can learn how to logically piece together a basic argument, you still have to figure out how to pull the whole thing together with an elegant, yet meaningful introduction and conclusion. As a reviewer, I’ve been surprised by how many authors fail to take into account the big picture. You have to learn how to close or your paper will probably get lost in the stew of published work that no one ever cites.

Like golf, writing doesn’t come naturally to most of us. It’s something you need to work at if you want to improve. When you first start writing papers, it’s like swinging that driver for the first time. It feels like it’s going to slip out of your hand at any moment (mine actually did during my first golf class because the instructor kept telling me to loosen my grip!), and the follow-through feels awkward. It takes many, many swings of a club for the stroke to feel natural at all, and for some of us the word “natural” never enters our golf vocabulary.

The only way to become a good writer or a good golfer is repetition. You just have to do it over and over again, realizing that you’ll continue to make mistakes and that mistakes are just part of the experience. You can only weed out the mistakes if you’ve done it enough to recognize them. This is the core of Simmons’s analogy. Golf is a game that requires practice everyday. The best golfers reach and maintain a certain level of expertise by playing the game over and over again. Good writers have to do the same.

There are lots of ways to get the ball to the green. This tip is pretty simple. Not everyone is a great driver, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make up for it in other ways. A couple of short drives down the fairway, avoiding the bunker and chipping on to the green, can be much more efficient than just trying to smack the ball as hard as you can. There are different ways to approach the game, all of which can lead to success. Similarly, there’s no one way to write a paper. You just have to find your own way of working. Your style may depend a lot on what kind of research you do. Qualitative folks do a lot of the writing while they collect their observations. Quants often wait until they have the results in hand. I like to do a little of both. I’ve also changed the hours in the day that I dedicate to writing to accommodate my family’s changing schedule. We don’t have to all adopt the same writing formats (even though you should be sensitive to what your editor/reviewers expect). The point is that it’s okay to be flexible.

Quantity really does equal quality. One reason you have to write a lot is because you never know when you’re going to be on and when something good is going to come out. You enter as many tournaments as you can and you’re bound to win some. Even if you’re not great, you’ll probably place in the top 20 a few times just out of pure chance.  Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day. Every day. Sure, probably only half of those words are really worth reading, but still, if he didn’t write with such persistence, he’d never be the famous author he is today. Other famous authors talk about how many pages they regularly put in the trash. In fact, it might be the case that the best authors throw away more words than they actually publish. If you’re going to be a good writer, you have to be willing to write more than you plan on actually getting in print. Think of those lost pages as practice rounds of golf where you were trying to improve some aspect of your game. In the end, it didn’t pan out exactly as you hoped, but you probably learned something in the process.

Of course, I’m not saying that you should write a bunch of crappy papers. You should write something everyday and throw away something if it doesn’t work. Relatedly, it’s a mistake to think that you can write a couple of drafts, call it good and submit the paper to a journal. I will usually revise my papers 4-5+ times before submitting a paper. Most academics I know seek lots of friendly feedback in between revisions. And that brings me to the next aspect of the analogy.

Even experienced golfers still need coaching; good writers never stop seeking feedback. You always have to be working on your game. Tiger Woods, possibly the greatest golfer ever, doesn’t stop trying to perfect his stroke (no need to insert tasteless joke here). The greatest golfer in the game hires coaches to help him work on his swing during the off-season. Good writers have the same mentality. I wouldn’t recommend hiring a coach, but it’s important to get reliable feedback. Get feedback from established people in your field, but it doesn’t hurt to have mom read your papers too (seriously).  And perhaps the most important writing coaches of all are other writers. Read as much as you can. One piece of advice I often give to grad students is that you should read more than you think is necessary. One reason to read a lot is that it exposes you to all of the conversations in which your own writing will be situated. But the other, just as important, reason is that reading exposes you to new ways to craft arguments, explain a theory or finding, and draw implications. Reading authors who have nothing to do with social science is also a great idea because they are probably, in many ways, better at this craft than your own peers are.  I’m always working on one novel, one nonfiction book unrelated to my research, and one sociology/org. theory book. I have a short attention span and so reading many different books at the same time is one way to keep me going. It also makes reading enjoyable.

Get to know the course/your audience. Some golfers just seem to perform better on certain courses. People like to emphasize Tiger’s handling of Pebble Beach, for example. A golfer’s performance fluctuation by course can be explained by a couple of things: the match of his or her skills to the course design and his or her familiarity with the course. Tiger knows Pebble Beach well because he played it hundreds of times while he was a student-athlete at Stanford. Similarly, writers can develop “home course” advantages as they become more familiar with their audience. Your audience can be as small as the specialty area that you work in or it could be as broad as the entire discipline (if, for example, you hope to publish in AJS or ASR). Knowing how to frame the paper requires some deeper knowledge about your audiences’ expectations, norms, vocabulary, etc. The better you know your audience, the easier it will be to adapt your writing for that forum. Again, using Cialdini as an example, his writing changes quite a bit depending on his audience. When he writes journal articles, he writes in the language of a professional social psychologist explaining technical details of the experiment and theory, but when he wrote his popular book about influence, he changed his tone and wrote something that could be accessible to his neighbors. Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s important to be clear and as accessible as possible even when writing a journal article, but you have to adapt your use of jargon accordingly. Good jargon is shorthand that conveys specific ideas and meanings to the right audience.

Enjoy the scenery. Writing should be fun. Even though golf can be extremely frustrating (just ask my wife who has seen me in my greatest moments of rage on the golf course), we like the game because it puts you in the middle of great scenery and lets you walk around outside for a couple of hours. If you can forget about trying to improve your score every time you play, golf can be a very relaxing sport. That’s ultimately why I like it. Similarly, I realize that writing can have many dark moments, most of which happen right about the time you get the rejection letter and have to revise your paper yet again, but writing can be really fun. I think it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that most of us chose this career because we enjoy doing it. We like the thrill of coming up with new ideas, putting them down on paper, and seeing how they hold up to scrutiny. We love the creative process. We like seeing our thoughts materialize on a page, knowing that we’ve worked hard to make something interesting and worth reading. Sometimes I just have to remind myself just how much I enjoy doing this and not to take the “game” too seriously. We have the best jobs in the world. Remember that the next time you’re tempted to sink the abyss and throw your golf club at the computer screen.

UPDATE: Here are some older orgtheory posts on writing: Fabio’s grad school rule on publishing, Katherine Chen on writing ethnography, how to write articles, and Teppo on lousy papers.

Written by brayden king

January 21, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Posted in academia, research

9 Responses

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  1. Nice list, Brayden. On coaching, I highly recommend investing in a copy editor for at least one paper. I learned a ton (mostly about what I should immediately cease) by doing just that.

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    jdos23

    January 21, 2010 at 4:39 pm

  2. Excellent post! My only addition: writers learn from other writers.

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    fabiorojas

    January 21, 2010 at 7:02 pm

  3. Perhaps I shouldn’t have given up golf in grad school…

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    randwest

    January 21, 2010 at 9:24 pm

  4. […] 21, 2010 · Leave a Comment Brayden King has an excellent post on writing.  I especially enjoy the analogy Professor King makes between […]

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  5. […] c’est comme jouer au golf C’est en tout cas la thèse défendue par ce billet de Brayden King sur Orgtheory.net. J’en conseille la lecture notamment à ceux qui compte se lancer dans une […]

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  6. Out of the books that I’m currently juggling, Ronald Giere stands out as a really good writer. He writes in very simple, accessible prose, yet is able to get fairly involved arguments/points across. Another person that stands out is Andy Clark (also a philosopher) who shows that you can write well without giving up on jargon. Also, my sociology colleague Erika Summers-Effler is a fantastic writer!

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    Omar

    January 24, 2010 at 2:56 pm

  7. […] Writing is like golf: I saw Simmons on a late night talk show recently, and I got really interested when the host asked […]

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  8. As someone who does both, I’d say that your analogy is spot on.

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    Scott

    July 4, 2010 at 11:22 am

  9. Yes, you are so right here. I guess any sport looks easy when we are watching it on TV. It all comes down to when you go and play golf and that is when we alll get into some strive to reach the final hole.

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    Play Golf

    July 15, 2010 at 4:06 am


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