FORTUNE -- For this installment, 250 Words' Sam McNerney sits down with the influential and incendiary libertarian author Charles Murray. Murray’s 1984 book Losing Ground helped shape welfare reform under President Bill Clinton, and his 1994 release, The Bell Curve, ignited national outrage over its arguments about race.
His new book comes out on Tuesday. This time around, though, Murray isn’t courting controversy. He just wants to help.
Murray’s latest, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life, is a vade mecum for the recent graduate. It was released by Random House on Tuesday. Here, Sam talks to Murray about how to write well, the difference between being nice and being good, and the Bill Murray movie that can help teach morality.
McNerney: You begin The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead by outlining a few tips “on the presentation of self in the workplace.” What are your favorites?
Murray: Without question, tip #3, “Excise the word ‘like’ from your spoken English.” People who use “like” as a verbal tic drive me nuts. Tip #5, “On the proper use of strong language,” is also a favorite. If you want the f-bomb to be a bomb, for example, you’ve got to hold it in reserve for when it’s the mot juste. Repeating it five times in a row doesn’t cut it. The English language is a thing of beauty. Tap into its power.
A portion of your book provides a number of suggestions for thinking and writing well. You write that “the process of writing is your most valuable single tool for developing better ideas.” What is the most valuable writing advice you’ve ever received?
I learned it on my own: Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. I don’t know about other writers, but I don’t so much write a book as sculpt it. I go through drafts endlessly, chipping away, adding detail, polishing a little with each pass. And frequently throwing out whole paragraphs and starting from scratch.
What’s wrong with the celebration of “nonjudgmentalism”?
The only you way can avoid making judgments is if you deliberately refuse to think. That’s a rejection of what makes human beings special: the cognitive capacity to make judgments. Tolerance of ideas and behaviors of which you do not approve, but which people should be free to hold and do, is good. Nonjudgmentalism regarding ideas and behaviors is a form of moral cowardice.
Will you explain the difference between being nice and being good?
Being nice means behaving in ways that have immediately pleasant consequences. Being good means behaving in ways that contribute to the welfare of your fellow human beings. Sometimes being nice and being good call for the same behaviors, but often they do not.
You write “be open to a startup marriage instead of a merger marriage.” What’s the difference between the two?
In a merger marriage, both partners are well established in their careers and usually have comfortable incomes when they tie the knot. In a startup, the bride and groom are both getting started. Each kind of marriage has its own advantages and strengths. I think symbiosis in a marriage is more common in startups. Making your way together from the beginning can create a special bond.
Many people reading your book will be either atheist or agnostic. They might participate in religious traditions, but they are not religious. Why should they “take religion seriously"?
People who decide that the Sunday school stories weren’t true and don’t give religion another thought are failing to take advantage of a rich, intellectually demanding, and -- in my view --productive way of trying to understand the universe. I don’t mind people being atheists. Being a confident atheist seems to me to be silly, unreflective, and ignorant.
Let’s say I’m in my twenties, I attended a well-known college, and I aspire to become successful within my industry. Besides The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, what books should I read?
I’m so naïve that I think virtue is rewarded in the workplace as well as in one’s soul. So study Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. Or, failing that, watch Groundhog Day several times.