Learn from the experts


Marc F. Bellemare

I was born in Montreal in 1976 and did my B.Sc. and M.Sc. at the Université de Montréal. In 2001, I left Montreal, first to work in Rome, and then to do my Ph.D. in Applied Economics at Cornell. After graduating in 2006, I took a job as assistant professor of public policy at Duke. I came to the University of Minnesota in 2013.

Describe your writing process/routine?

I block out time to work on specific papers, usually in chunks of 90 minutes to three hours. When the time comes to work on a paper, I block out distractions by leaving my phone in another room and firing up Freedom. That app allows me to block out distracting things (e.g., Twitter, email) but keep the things I need to work (e.g., Overleaf, Google Scholar).

When did you develop your writing process/routine?

In my last two years of grad school.

Why did you develop your writing routine?

Because I wanted to have a good work-life balance. The more disciplined I am when it comes to writing, the more I can feel free to take time off for other things. During my last year in grad school, my then-girlfriend and now-wife worked as a waitress at a French restaurant in Ithaca. She would usually head into work around 3:30 or 4 PM and work until about midnight. That was when I did all of my writing, because I wanted to spend some time with her when she came home and the next day. 

How did you improve your academic writing skills?

Mainly by doing. I go over the title, abstract, and introduction of a typical article hundreds of times. I also got into blogging in 2011 precisely so I could improve as a writer. My writing itself improved as a result, but blogging also helped make sense of a lot of my research ideas. I’d say if I have had a secret weapon in my career, it’s been blogging.

What time of day do you find you write best?

Morning (5-6am – 12pm)

What resources helped you become a better writer (books, mentors, writers, etc.)?

My dissertation advisor, Chris Barrett, corrected my written English and taught me the basic elements of style. Speaking of the elements of style, I also got a lot out of Strunk and White. I also think reading The Economist starting in college helped me quite a bit; English is my second language, and reading The Economist taught me good English grammar and vocabulary.

How do you make time for writing with all the other commitments you have?

Every Sunday afternoon I plan out the coming week and make time for writing amid all my other commitments. Some weeks see little to no writing, and that’s okay. I think the key is consistency.

What are your strategies for staying productive and for maintaining momentum with your writing?  (get specific and concrete)

I think it was Hemingway who said you want to stop writing when you are hungry for more. I try to stop at a point where I know exactly what the next sentence, paragraph, or section will look like. This allows me to hit the ground running the next time I sit down to work.

What is the best writing advice you have gotten?

A plain style, with nothing fancy, works best. I got this from one of Robertson Davies’ novels; Fifth Business I think it was.

What writing tools do you suggest? (Apps, books, etc.)

The Freedom app, Strunk and White, and the Merriam-Webster dictionary website.

What are some specific practices and rules for writing within your discipline that other researchers and graduate students might not be aware of?

I go at length into this in chapter 2 of my book Doing Economics: What You Should Have Learned in Grad School–But Didn’t, but the most important parts of an article in economics are the title, the abstract, and the intro. This is where you’ll lose most of your readers, both literally and figuratively. That is, that’s where they will stop reading or that’s where they’ll stop believing your results.

Who are some writers you particularly admire, and what about their writing seems most admirable to you?

Ernest Hemingway, for his conciseness and clarity, and John Kenneth Galbraith, for just how good his writing was for an economist.

What advice would you give to fellow writers (Make this concrete. i.e.: Read widely – what does that look like in practice? How does that benefit the process? What should the writer be looking for when reading?)

Take every occasion you have to write and turn it into an occasion to write well. We get several such occasions every day when we respond to email. Even that can be practice for bigger, better things.

Big Yourself Up!: What pubs, books, projects would you like to let others know about? Add links to your website, etc. so people can find you and your work.

My book Doing Economics: What You Should Have Learned in Grad School–But Didn’t was published by MIT Press in May. It lifts the veil on the hidden curriculum in economics, but also other quantitative social sciences like business, demo political science, public policy, sociology, etc. 

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