That saying comes from my brilliant colleague Richard Wagner. And after close to 25 years in this business I believe Dick's words more than ever. Student after student over that period have insisted to me that they are working their butt off reading and thinking and reading and thinking, but they cannot produce an argument on paper. As my professor (and Dick's) Jim Buchanan used to say, "writing is research."
Now Michael Munger of Duke, another witty and brilliant guy, has a new column up at The Chronicle of Higher Education on writing. Mike has the great advice --- set goals based on output, not input --- which maps with Wagner's point. Mike provides several other key pieces of advice, in fact, all 10 are critical.
I particularly like #3, and #5. #3 says "find your voice, don't just get published". I actually think this is the most important thing for young aspiring economists to learn. And it is also the best predictor of who is going to be successful and who will fail. Those who find their voice, and are comfortable with that voice are going to be active researchers. Those who struggle finding their voice, may very well never find it. Be who you are, and dare to be different. But meet the challenge of rising to the highest professional standards of argument.
#5 says "everyone's unpublished work is brilliant." This is similar to the fact that many people have beautiful practice swings in golf; in rhythm, in balance, and even on plane. But put the ball down, and all of sudden "shankapotomus" appears. Well, lets face it, in our business there are no unpublished geniuses running around. At least that should be your working hypothesis. And all that talk you might hear about this or that brilliant idea, may be little more than the beautiful practice swings so many high handicap golfers produce every Saturday and Sunday. Nope we don't know if that swing is really like Freddie Couples, or like Fred Flintstone until we put the little ball down and they actually have to hit it. Buchanan was right, writing is research; Wagner is right, thinking without writing is daydreaming; and Munger is right, all unpublished work is brilliant.