John Kenneth Galbraith, economist, diplomat, and public intellectual, was renowned for the clarity of his writing. Using this skill, he was able to communicate complex ideas to a wide audience. His most famous work, The Affluent Society (1958), was a best seller.
As the writer of almost fifty books, his reflections on the craft of writing are well worth listening to. A few years ago, browsing on the web, I found a transcript of an interview with Galbraith from the 1970s in which he comments, with his usual wit and style, on this craft. The website on which the transcript appeared has long since evaporated into the ether, but I kept a copy and so I’d like to make Galbraith’s thoughts on writing available again:
Start writing now…
Do not wait for the golden moment. It may well be worse than the present one. The idea of awakening to find oneself on intimate terms with poetry and truth is a lovely but terrible illusion. Most writers, like most shoemakers, are about as good one day as the next. The best rule is to go to the typewriter each morning and stay there, regardless of the result.
First drafts and the need for revision…
Thinking is tedious and writing is hard, and first drafts are flawed by the need to combine composition and thought. In my own case there are days when the results are so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. On really good days, no fewer than four revisions may be needed.
In economics, as in other fields, there is no important proposition that cannot be stated in plain language. The only value of obscurity is to preserve the image and reality of a private and priestly class – to exclude outsiders, like the apprenticeship rules in the building trades.
The most important point I take away from Galbraith’s remarks is that we can all produce high-quality writing if we are willing to take the time to work through those four (or five!) drafts in order to polish the writing. The best writers are, in fact, the best rewriters.
Zobel, M. (2003). John Kenneth Galbraith on writing. Retrieved on March 24, 2004. Visit the website here
Article provided by David Parker