David R. Henderson  

James Buchanan on Writing

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An excerpt from my appreciation of Public Choice, Gordon Tullock, and James Buchanan:

One other thing I've gotten from Buchanan--primarily by hearing it from his past students, and mainly from the most-published ones--is his famous line, "Don't get it right; get it written." Of course, ultimately you should get it right, but the big challenge in writing for the vast majority of us is to get it written in the first place. His advice reminds me of the famous line in Finding Forrester, the movie in which a reclusive author gives advice to a young black kid from the ghetto who aches to be a writer: "You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is . . . to write, not to think!"

I could have used Buchanan's advice about writing much earlier in my career because I earned my Ph.D. at UCLA. Buchanan, who spent academic year 1970-71 at UCLA, sometimes speaks of what he calls "the UCLA disease": the idea that Ph.D. students picked up from their professors that one must be almost perfect. We were not nurtured and encouraged to write the way Buchanan encouraged his students. In fact, it was pretty much the opposite.


David R. Henderson, "Public Choice and Two of Its Founders: An Appreciation," in Dwight R. Lee, ed., Public Choice, Past and Present: The Legacy of James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, Springer, 2013.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
PrometheeFeu writes:

In the software industry, there are a couple of catch-phrases that capture that idea: "launch and iterate" and "release early, release often"

The idea is that you won't get anything done if you refuse to release something that is imperfect. (Also, releasing, just like writing is a great way to highlight some of the imperfections that require more work)

David Friedman writes:

I remember Gordon Tullock advising me, when we were colleagues at VPI, that the one part of the publication cycle that was under your control was how long the manuscript spent on your desk.

Shane L writes:

There were posts here some time back discussing Mickey Mouse degrees. I studied journalism, which in some ways might qualify, but the one thing it taught me was to write swiftly and clearly.

I was surprised when I went back to college for my MSc to find that most of my classmates agonised over their writing, wrote far too much, and ended up cutting huge sections of text to keep below the word count. I found myself writing only what needed to be written; if anything I ended up below the expected word count. Journalism has its problems but the experience of producing lots of text to tight deadlines was great for knocking the hesitant perfectionism out of me.

Essen writes:

When you say writing, does it mean with pen on paper or is it about punching on the keyboard? Or both?

We know there are differences. For one, the pen doesn't have a delete button. And that makes a bit of difference in overcoming writing inertia.

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