Scholars Talk Writing: Deirdre McCloskey

‘I can’t tell whether any improvement is because I became a woman, or because I finally grew up’

Gage Skidmore / Creative Commons

March 20, 2016

Twenty years ago, Donald McCloskey, a brash and brilliant economist at the University of Iowa, surprised the academic world (and his family) by transitioning to Deirdre. In a 1996 profile in The Chronicle, McCloskey is quoted as saying, "I expected to lose my job. I was prepared to move to Spokane and become a secretary in a grain elevator, but I didn’t have to."

No, she didn’t. McCloskey has continued to thrive as a scholar. The final installment of her trilogy on the Bourgeois era, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, will be published in May by the University of Chicago Press.

A few years ago, after an economist friend gave me a copy of McCloskey’s wonderful style guide, Economical Writing, I wrote her a fan letter (from Spokane) and asked what kinds of changes had been made in the second edition of the guide, since the first was written by Donald and it was revised by Deirdre. She replied, "Oh, it’s mostly just moi!" It’s a delightful little book, and I’m so pleased that a third edition is due in 2017.

McCloskey is the author of many books and articles, including Crossing: A Memoir, a book about her transition that is at once breezy and profound. The same can often be said of her academic writing.

How were you able to escape the social scientist’s disease of writing, well, badly? How did you learn to write well?

McCloskey: You know the standard is not high in economics. Whenever I get the slightest bit vain about my allegedly good writing, I open The New Yorker and weep. My family is filled with good writers, so I suppose there are a few genes involved. I am a stutterer, and I’ve noticed that stutterers are often good writers: Churchill, Borges, Maugham, Updike, Lewis Carroll, Margaret Drabble, Philip Larkin. Stutterers avoid words that they think, or know, they will block on and therefore are good at finding another expression — which is to say that they develop large vocabularies and have a practiced sense of different ways of saying the same thing.

Scholars Talk Writing

In a continuing series, Rachel Toor talks with noted scholars about the joys and pains of writing.

What is also true, as I tell my students, is that — short of Borges — writing can be learned like any skill. We are not all as gifted as Edward Leamer is in econometrics, but we can learn the tricks if we study them. I got a head start with a teacher, Hal Melcher, at my boys’ school in Cambridge (now coed and called Buckingham Browne & Nichols: lots of funny stories there). In college one had to write a lot, and I was smart-aleck good at it. But when I got to graduate school, I found my style deteriorating because I had to combine good style with truth. Oy. I couldn’t just write.

The recovery took decades — attending steadily to books on style such as, of course, Strunk and White, on which my own little book is modeled, but then, among many others, The Reader Over Your Shoulder (I was struck by the dissection there by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge of a passage from Keynes, who is much admired in economics for his style), Joseph M. Williams’s Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, and Richard A. Lanham’s Revising Prose.

I accumulated rules and rules and rules, probably a few score of them. As Dick Lanham says, it’s revising that does it, and at that point you can be guided by The Rules. I use The Rules every time I write: Express parallel ideas in parallel form, don’t indulge in elegant variation, allow only one element of a sentence to get long, and on and on and on. Double oy.

And I noted how the best writers in economics did it: Robert Solow, for example, who lets his personality through. I had the advantage over many economists of reading outside of economics: Willa Cather, A.N. Wilson, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, Howard Becker, and Wayne Booth. (Wayne was delighted when I confirmed to him that I had written that "When I grow up I want to be a female Wayne Booth.")

Given the many differences you point out in Crossing about how Donald and Deirdre think, felt, and interacted in the world, surely there were changes in your prose style when you transitioned. Can you say something about gender and writing, and how your crossing affected your prose?

McCloskey: I do not want to be accused of essentialism. But as a first- and third-wave feminist (not second wave — e.g., the startlingly transphobe Germaine Greer), I note differences. It’s hard for me to judge, true, because when I read my earlier stuff I’m reading it philosophically for the argument, not rhetorically for the style. The big item I reckon is the style of argument. I still write always with an argument, which might sound male — unless you met my mother, from whom I learned how to argue! But the arguing is less relentless now, more diffident, as arguments should be if you are interested in the actual truth and want to establish it together with your reader.

As a young man I was proud of crushing an opponent in my writing — as though on my high-school football team (of which, by the way, I was co-captain). Now I am trying to make common cause with the reader, and trying also to be truthfully gentle with the "opponents." It came naturally — not as Rule No. 15 in How to Be a Woman. My joke, though, is that I can’t tell whether any improvement is because I became a woman (within the limits, alas, of biology and life history) … or because I finally grew up.

It’s interesting that one of your fears as a transperson, at least early on, was of being "read." A question I often find myself asking as I read a piece of prose is, "What is this writer afraid of?" I think much writing — especially by academics — goes wrong due, simply, to fear. Much bad prose is the result of being afraid of not being or seeming smart enough, or not knowing enough.

McCloskey: So true. To paraphrase C. Wright Mills, we won’t recover from the academic prose until we recover from the academic pose. The advantage of being a woman and being older is that you are licensed to quit the young, male posturing, and just say what you’ve discovered. Write what you have to say, openhandedly.

But the trouble is that a young scholar does have to establish "ethos," as the Greeks said. The older professor then gets stuck in pomposity, fearful he’ll be found out. I teach business subjects each summer to European doctoral students — formerly in France and now in Greece (it’s cheaper) — and try to get them to get over the fears. But even without fully overcoming their fears, the tricks I can teach them are often enough to raise the level of their prose. For example, I tell students to leave off anticipating ("This paper is organized as follows").

Can you talk about your revising?

McCloskey: I reread obsessively, cold, following the Graves and Hodge technique of stopping when I can’t follow it or I see an infelicity. The advantage of word processing is that revision is easy. The disadvantage is the temptation to preserve one’s golden prose, even when it’s actually a brick. Waiting long enough so that you see your prose as foreign helps. My books have got longer since word processing.

Another trick is to read your own draft immediately after reading someone else’s excellent writing. I dote on Richard Rorty, for example, and find myself imitating his tic of starting sentences with "We bourgeois liberals," inviting the reader to adopt his line. If I read Jane Austen, as I often do, I find myself using comical little ironies set into the last word in the sentence, most famously in "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." It is good to read your own work with good prose ringing in your ears. After all, there’s enough bad prose ringing, too. Get the right ring.

Who reads or edits your early drafts?

McCloskey: I do. True, I let the brilliant copy editors whom the University of Chicago Press hires give me two or three great suggestions on each page, and I get the credit!

I’ve gradually realized, by the way, that the sort of detailed copy editing I do on other people’s writing isn’t effective rhetorically. It doesn’t much help the person you are trying to help if they are the type who resist being edited. Eventually I acquired the professional attitude about it — namely, if a good writer and editor like Carol Fisher Saller (of The Subversive Copyeditor) tells me something is wrong, it is. (Carol once detected a mathematical error in an economic argument I was running.)

Sitting down with students and going slowly over a paragraph, word by word, does help. But it’s hard for students (and for too many senior professors) to take the attitude — which daily journalists learn the hard way — that the (competent, tasteful) editor knows best. I have run a decades-long attempt to get a friend, a brilliant scholar and a fine writer (even though English is not his native language), to give up that seventh-grade ornament of bad prose "not only … but also." He resists yet.

You’ve been involved in a number of writing workshops, including one at George Mason University. What are those workshops like?

McCloskey: They are my idea of academic heaven, which I have repeatedly tried to reproduce after first experiencing it in Alexander Gerschenkron’s economic-history workshop at Harvard in the 1960s. It’s how I teach advanced graduate students: I miss it so much that I just started a class (having retired from giving classes for pay) that meets every Sunday night for a meal and workshopping. Huzzah!

The key is to love your colleagues. You have to be together long enough to get over the academic pose ("Heh, I’m the expert here") and learn to listen. Love is important, and often overlooked. Love makes it possible for the writer whose work is being tested to accept criticism gracefully, since she knows it is meant in love. Men don’t grasp it, usually. They are so busy competing that they don’t realize that what actually works is cooperation. Whoops — sorry: gender candor alert.

In the Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry at Iowa, we had, and have, a rule that you could not just present a paper. You had 10 minutes at the outset of a presentation to add what you wanted to say on the spot, and then the discussion of the paper started. That meant that most of the audience had to read the paper beforehand. More usually in academic presentations, no one reads the paper beforehand because the audience knows the paper will be presented — in some fields, actually read aloud. And so the author filibusters for most of the time, and then there’s only a few minutes of discussion. That approach is pointless for the job of workshopping — that is, helping the author to improve the paper.

What are your weaknesses as a writer?

McCloskey: Prolixity, I am told. The criticism annoys me because I don’t see length as a problem if each sentence and each paragraph is worth the candle. Look at the philosopher Charles Taylor, who writes very long books, each sentence of which deserves to be engraved in stone. On the other hand, the reader is always right ("Give the lady what she wants"). Also, my writing has too many references and too many levels of sophistication (look at my quotation just now of Marshall Field of Chicago).

When I was an assistant professor at Chicago, the great historian William McNeill praised a piece of mine for its breadth of reference, and I’m afraid the praise went to my head. Bill doesn’t write that way. I suspect he was trying to alert me in his gentlemanly way to a fault. But many good writers do write in a complicated if charming and intelligent way — Clifford Geertz, for example. So it’s hopeless.

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is She welcomes comments and questions directed to