Buomsoo Kim

The Craft of Writing Effectively (UChicago Leadership Lab)


Writing is one of the most salient skills in professional life of individuals, especially for people in academia. In his talk on speaking, Professor Patrick Wilson mentioned that the ability to properly write is the second most important success factor in life (Of course, the most important one he mentioned is speaking). In this inspiring talk, Larry McEnerney, Director of the University of Chicago’s Writing Program, delineates the Craft of Writing Effectively in a provocative, yet engaging manner.

  • YouTube Link to the lecture video
  • PDF file of the handout used in the lecture (provided for the Ohio State University)

About the speaker

Lawrence McEnerney is the Director of Writing Programs at the University of Chicago. Besides teaching students how to write and speak, he serves as Resident Master and consulted numerous clients such as universities, institues, and businesses on effective communication.

Below is the summarization of his talk on the craft of writing.

Think about readers when writing

This is the gist of this talk. Do not think of rules when writing. Think about readers if you are an expert caring about the value of your writing.

Orthogonal processes of reading and writing

Horizontal process of writing interferes vertical process of reading

  • Horizontal process of writing: In most cases, writers use the writing process to help themselves think and make sense of the world.
  • Vertical process of reading: Readers use the text to change the way they think about the world.

As a result, the writing process interferes with the reading process of readers.

When readers are interfered,

  • They slow down or re-read.

  • Then, they misunderstand.

  • Then, they are aggravated.

  • Then, they are done with Reading.

Teachers do not stop reading because they are paid to care about you

They are paid to read and grade your text, not to change the way they see the world.

Nevertheless, in the world beyond school, people are not paid to care about you. They read because the material has VALUE to them.

Your writing has to be VALUABLE

Common desiderata of professional text

  • Clear
  • Organized
  • Persuasive

Value is in the eye of the reader

  • Value does not lie in the “world.” It lies in the mind of readers.

Don’t try to make readers understand, change their ideas

  • When people do not recognize the importance of work, many try to explain. But DO NOT EXPLAIN.

Explaining is “revealing to the world what is inside your head. No one cares inside of your head!”

  • Writing is not about communicating your ideas to readers. It is about CHANGING THEIR IDEAS.

When you have to explain, you explain inside the principles of VALUABLE and PURSUASIVE.

How to make your writing valuable

Contrasting view on knowledge

Positivistic view of knowledge

  • The more, the better. The newer, the better

Alternate view of knowledge

  • People interact and reach a consensus on what knowledge is (and isn’t)
  • You have to deal with what we say what knowledge is (and isn’t).

New and Original are not necessarily knowledge

  • What more matters is who cares?

Learning the CODE

Identify people with power in the community, and give them what they want*

  • Evey community has its own “CODE” that is shared across its members.

  • Persuasion depends on what readers doubt. You have to know about the readers, i.e., the CODE.

  • To get a paper published, you have to criticize previous work in accordance with the CODE.

“You are great. You advanced our community in fabulous ways. But… (argument)”

  • Examples of vocabularies indicating community/code: widely, accepted, reported

  • Spend 15 mins week, take articles in your field and print them out. Circle every word in the article that’s making value.

Nuts and bolts of VALUABLE writing


Words that indicate tension, challenge, contradiction, redflag

  • anomaly
  • inconsistent
  • but
  • however
  • although

Writing the introduction part

The positivistic approach

  • Background/definition: stability, consistency, continuity, …
  • Thesis

The VALUE approach

  1. PROBLEM: for a specific set of readers
    • Instability: but, however, although, inconsistent, anomaly, …
    • Use graphics (e.g., charts) to emphsize a problem

Again, in doing so, follow the CODE!

    • Cost/benefit: instability causes costs on readers OR instability, if solved, offers benefit to them

Literature review

Literature review for the teacher

  • The whole purpose is to make sure that the student perfectly understands the topic

“In 2001 he said this, in 2002 he said this, and in 2005 he said this, …”

Lit review in a professional text

  • The main purpose is to enrich the PROBLEM. Again, emphasize instability.

“In 2001 he said this, but in 2004, if we are smart, we realize … and in 2005 he said this, which complicates the situation. The situation is more complicated when considering previous discussions…”

  • Usually, more background means more problem, not more “lit review”

Precaution of emphasizing “GAP” in knowledge

  • A gap assumes another model of knowledge. It assums knowledge is bounded, like a puzzle.

  • If knowledge is unbounded, filling a single gap is meaningless.