Friday, March 15, 2024
Insights from Aaron Wildavsky on Writing and Craftsmanship

This week the Center posted a blog by Katherine Barrett, Richard Greene, and Don Kettl announcing the release of their monograph, The Little Guide to Writing for Impact: How to Communicate Research in a Way that People Will Read

The subtitle is key. The authors acknowledge the importance that government officials write well with the intent to produce government communication that the public can understand and use. However, they are even more worried about a connected issue: “too many people with great academic training are writing about powerful ideas, backed by years of research, that are obscure at best and incomprehensible at worst.” The book is aimed at those people with big ideas who want people to read them.  

As I read this blog, it reminded me of Aaron Wildavsky’s excellent book of essays, Craftways: On the Organization of Scholarly Work. Wildavsky, a premier figure in the field of public administration, was a true intellectual craftsman: a superb prose stylist as well as an acute mind. He truly believed that quality writing is ineluctably linked to quality of thought. This compilation of essays is his meditation on craftsmanship offering insight less on the mechanics of writing and more on the craft of communicating.  His focus on craftmanship continues to make his work on such diverse topics as political culture, policy analysis, implementation, budgeting, and public administration approachable, engaging, and revelatory. I’d like to share some of his thoughts on the craft of writing and how he approached it throughout his career. It is intended as a nice and worthwhile complement to the guidance offered today by Barrett, Green, and Kettl. 

“In the Same Place, at the Same Time, and in the Same Way”

This is the essay that started all. It began Wildavsky’s effort to state the rules of writing he followed so that others might adapt them for their own use. “Were it not for the warm reception accorded this [essay], I might not have continued developing this genre,” he admits. He believed that the basic elements of craftsmanship in social science were not being taught nor observed close to give students a sufficiently precise idea of how to do their scholarly work. Here are some insights in his own words. 

Bridging that Chasm Between the Thought and the Deed. Even if the thought is in you, there is no guarantee it will come out. That gulf can only be bridged by taking seriously the task of organizing work. 

Developing Appropriate Habits. In addition to having things to say, the ability to write depends on developing appropriate habits, finding the right kind of place, obtaining useful criticism, learning how to arrange material, working out suitable physical style, combining teaching with research, and overcoming temptations to divert energies.

Importance of Habit and Rhythm. One cannot overestimate the importance of habit and rhythm: Try to work in the same place, at the same time, and in the same way.  Once the rhythm of work begins to take hold, it carries one through fallow periods. It keeps you going through the inevitable descriptive passages that contain nothing new but are essential for the story you are telling or the point you wish to make.

‘I write when sit and think when I walk.’ [Wildavsky liked to write for an hour or two then walk and think over the next steps.] There is something about releasing the physical energy kept under control while writing that makes it easier to begin again.  It is a mistake to push oneself when the flesh is weak and the spirit unwilling. Writing is not only a mental but a physical process in which a sense of though connects thought with word. 

Writing is a Process of Self-Discovery. That sometimes leads you to say more than you knew was in you or carries you far from original intentions. That is why I have learned not to worry about introductions to books or essays. There is no sense in trying too hard to get them “right” because you do not know what that will be until you finish. The purpose of a beginning is to get you started; when the work is completed, you can go back to the beginning and tell the reader not what you thought you were going to say but what you ended up saying. 

“Rationality in Writing: Linear and Curvilinear”

In this essay, Wildavsky introduces two distinctly different ways to approach writing. He describes how he used each of these approaches in writing two of his book. However, the ultimate point of the essay is to underscore the connection between thought and writing. 

Writing as an Integral Part of Thinking. A writer by vocation is a person who cares about the quality and craft of writing as inseparable from the content of whatever they are trying to communicate. Indeed, for me writing has become an integral part of thinking. I don’t know what I think until I have tried to write it. Sometimes the purpose of writing is to discover whether I can express what I think I know; if it cannot be written, it is not right. Other times I write to find out what I know; writing becomes a form of self discovery. I hope to learn more than was in me when I started. Few feelings compare with the exhilaration of discovering a thought in the writing that was not in the thinking. 

Writing Should Resonate with the Subject Matter. Making the form fit the substance so style reinforces content, is what craftmanship is about. However, the style should also fit the author, for style is a personal signature. It should be possible to recognize the author from the style. However, it is one thing to want to read a piece because of the author and quite another to learn more about the author than the subject. 

Linear or Curvilinear – “Straight on” or “Roundabout”. Books and essays can be written linearly, straight-on according to plan, with one topic following another in orderly sequence. They may also be written in curvilinear fashion much like fitting together the parts of a puzzle except that all pieces are not available at the beginning but only as one goes along, and the final shape is made up by the pieces instead of being fit into a predetermined form. Though process may be roundabout, the story should be linear.  I have written both ways and each has its pleasures and pitfalls.  Linear is easier, but it must be done consecutively, the relationship among the parts being retained, so that time is a critical constraint. Curvilinear is more rewarding because of the surprise at creating something new.  


This blog shares only a snapshot of some of the salient insights about the craftmanship of writing and the organization of scholarly pursuits as documented by Aaron Wildavsky.  Craftways: On the Organization of Scholarly Work has even more to offer its reader exploring such diverse but complementary topics as reading with a purpose, working with others, organizing your time wisely, and how best to do interviews. Throughout these essays, Wildavsky tries to transmute the personal into the general. From his own experience coupled with his observation of others, he offers advice on the craft aspects of scholarship and writing. He admits this advice may be inadequate or out of place, so when in doubt, he advises the reader to do it their own way. In the acknowledgment, he makes another worthwhile suggestion for those who are interested in exploring craftways to checkout C. Wright Mills’ exemplary “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.”