Economical Writing by Deirdre N. McCloskey
Date Read: December 25, 2020
A Harvard Economics Professor recommended this book to me 5 years ago. I got it immediately. Unfortunately, it did not stick at the time. I was not a voracious reader, back then. I regret not reading it, as it would have helped my writing in college a lot. Well, you can't change that now. But, I can improve my writing now, and this book does give you a lot of great ways to do that.
I have no idea if it is working yet (is my writing any good :D), but I'd like to believe it is.
The book is short, around 100 pages, and a few pages per chapter. Each chapter is a suggestion on how to become a better writer.
Even though this book is titled and marketed as a book for economists, in reality, it can help anyone to improve their writing (especially, nonfiction writers).
- Learn to take criticism.
- The style of writing matters at least as much as the content.
- Try to be clear as possible. If any of your readers don't understand something, it is most likely your fault. You need to rewrite the sentence.
- In matters of taste the only standard is the practice of good people.
- As you improve, your previous work might seem rubbish. There is not much you can do, apart from fighting this feeling. You will keep improving, you have to accept that.
- Don't wait until the research is done to begin writing because writing, to repeat, is a way of thinking. Research is writing.
- So What? Answer that question in every sentence, and you will become a great scholar, or a millionaire; answer it once or twice in a ten-page paper, and you'll write a good one.
- At the end of a session, always write down your thoughts. This will save you half an hour of warming up when you start again.
- Keep your paragraphs short (though, not too short). One idea per paragraph is enough.
- Use fewer commas, quite often they add unnecessary pauses.
Why You Should Not Stop Reading Here
The first and the biggest truth about writing is that we all-you, I, and Dave Barry-can use more criticism. We would be a lot more professional if we took more of it.
2 Writing Is Thinking
Now the influence of mere style is greater than you think. The history of ideas has many wide turns caused by "mere" lucidity and elegance of expression. Galileo's Dialogo of 1632 persuaded people that the earth went around the sun, but not because it was a Copernican tract (there were others) or because it contained much new evidence (it did not). It was persuasive because it was a masterpiece of Italian prose.
Note: Style matters more than you think
4 Be Thou Clear; But for Lord's Sake Have Fun, Too
The one genuine rule, a golden one, is Be Clear. A Roman professor of writing and speaking put it this way: "Therefore one ought to take care to write not merely so that the reader can understand but so that he cannot possibly misunderstand" (Quintilian, Book VIII, ii, 24). Clarity is a social matter, not something to be decided unilaterally by the writer. The reader like the consumer is sovereign. If the reader thinks what you write is unclear, then it is, by definition. Quit arguing. Karl Popper, a philosopher with a good style and a correspondingly wide influence, wrote: "I learned never to defend anything I had written against the accusation that it is not clear enough. If a conscientious reader finds a passage unclear, it has to be re-written.... I write, as it were, with somebody constantly looking over my shoulder and constantly pointing out to me passages that are not clear" (p. 83).
5 The Rules Are Factual Rather Than Logical
Good style is what good writers do. Double negatives, for example, aren't "illogical" (modern French and ancient Greek have them); they are social mistakes, at least right now. If Orwell and his kind start using "I ain't no fool," no amount of schoolmaster logic can stand in the way of its imitation. In matters of taste the only standard is the practice of good people.
7 Fluency Can Be Achieved by Grit
The trouble with developing good taste in writing, which is the point of studying books like this one, is that you begin to find your stuff distasteful. This creates doubt. Waves of doubt-the conviction that everything you've done so far is rubbish-will wash over you from time to time. The only help is a cheerful faith that more work will raise even thİs rubbish up to your newly acquired standards. Once achieved, you can reraise the standards and acquire better doubt at a level of still better taste. Buck up. Irrational cheerfulness is hard to teach but good to have for any work.
8 Write Early Rather Than Late
The teachable trick is getting a first draft. Don't wait until the research is done to begin writing because writing, to repeat, is a way of thinking. Be writing all the time, working on a page or two here, a section there. Research is writing.
10 Keep Your Spirits Up, Forge Ahead
Tf you can't think of anything to say, you might well read more, calculate more, and in general research more. Most research, however, turns out to be irrelevant to the paper you finally write, which is another reason to mix writing with the researching. The writing forces you to ask questions about the facts that are strictly relevant. The next sentence will sometimes reveal that you didn't do all the right research. The guiding question in research (research is not the subject here, but I'm not charging extra) is So What? Answer that question in every sentence, and you will become a great scholar, or a millionaire; answer it once or twice in a ten-page paper, and you'll write a good one.
At the end of a session, or at any substantial break, always write down your thoughts, however vague, on what will come next. This is a very good tip. Don't get up without doing it, even to answer nature's call. Write or type the notes directly onto the end of the text, where they can be looked at and crossed off as used, A few scraps will do, and will save half an hour of warming up when you start again.
11 Speak to an Audience of Human Beings
Choose a reader and stick with her. Changing your implied reader is in an economic sense inefficient. There is no point in telling your reader in a paper on the oil industry that oil is a black, burnable fluid, then turning to an exposition that assumes the reader understands supply and demand curves. If vou've started with a pre-schooler for an implied reader have to keep her around.
12 Avoid Boilerplate
Choosing oneself as the audience tends to dullness, since most of us admire uncritically even dull products of our own brains. A reasonably correct recitation of the history of prices and interest rates over the past ten years may strike its author as a remarkable intellectual achievement, filled with drama and novelty. But Richard Sutch, who knows it, or good old Professor Smith, who lived it, or the colleague down the hall who couldn't care less about it, probably don't agree. Spare them. Restatements of the well known bore the readers; routine mathematical passages bore the readers; excessive introduction and summarization bore the readers. Get to the point that some skeptical but serious reader cares about and stick to it.
Never start a paper with that all-purpose filler for the bankrupt imagination, "This paper. .. ." Describing the art of writing book reviews, Jacques Barzun and Henry Graff note (p. 272) that "the opening statement takes the reader from where he presumably stands in point of knowledge and brings him to the book under review" (p. 272). In journalism it's called the "hook." A paper showing that monopoly greatly reduces income might best start: “Every economist knows by now that monopoly does not much reduce income [which is where he presumably stands in point of knowledge]. Every economist appears to be mistaken [thus bringing him to the matter under review]." It bores the reader to begin "This paper discusses the evidence for a large effect of monopoly on income." The reader's impulse, fully justified by the tiresome stuff to follow, is to give up.
Still another piece of boilerplate, and one which kills the momentum of most papers in economics on the second page, is the table-of-contents paragraph: "The outline of this paper is as follows." Don't, please, please, for God's sake, don't. Nine out of ten readers skip to the substance, if they can find it.
Do not give elaborate summaries of what you have said. Never repeat without apologizing for it ("as I said earlier"; or merely "again").
Unless you apologize the reader thinks you have not noticed repetition, and will suspect that you have not thought through the organization. She'll be right. Remember that the paper that took you days or a week to write will be read in about half an hour.
13 Control Your Tone
The tone of the writing and much of its clarity depends on choosing and then keeping an appropriate implied author, the character you pretend to be while writing: the Enthusiastic Student, the Earnest Scientist, the Reasonable and Modest Journeyman, the Genius, the Math Jock, the Professor, the Breezy Journalist.
Tone of writing is like tone of voice. It is personality expressed in prose. Students would do better to reveal more of their character in their writing. A college teacher on the whole likes students (or else she would be selling insurance).
So don't worry. Be nice, not servile or pompous.
Tone is transmitted by adaverbs, those "-ly" words that drive up the emotional pressure of verbs or adjectives. Run your pen through each "very" (or tell your word processor to flag it). Most things aren't very. "Absolutely," “purely," and the like are the same: most things aren't absolute or pure, and to claim so conveys a falsely emphatic tone. "Literally" is routinely misused,
Most academic prose, from both students and faculty, could use more humor. There is nothing unscientific in selfdeprecating jokes about the sample size, and nothing unscholarly in dry wit about the failings of intellectual opponents. Even a pun can bring cheer to a grader working through the 54th term paper. A writer must entertain if she is to be read.
The Nobel laureate Robert Solow says of economic at prose:
Personality is eliminated from journal articles because it's felt to be "unscientific." An author is proposing a hypothesis, testing a hypothesis, proving a theorem, not persuading the reader that this is a better way of thinking about X than that. AWriting would be better if more of us saw economics as a way of organizing thoughts and perceptions about economic life rather than as a poor imitation of physics. (1984)
14 Paragraphs Should Have Points
The reader will skip around when her attention wanders, and will skip to the next paragraph. If your paragraphs are too long (as they will tend to be from a word processor, by the way) the reader will skip a lot of your stuff to get to the next break.
Paragraphs, though, should not be too short too often.
The same is true of sentences.
Short paragraphs give a breathless quality to the writing.
15 Make Tables, Graphs, and Displayed Equations Readable
Who wants to read 3.14159256 when 3/7 describes the elasticity without making the reader stop to grasp the stream of numbers? (The point is widely misunderstood. Read Oskar Morgenstern, On the Accuracy of Economic Observations, 2nd ed., chapter 1.)
Remember: you're trying to be clear, not Phony Scientific. A column labeled "LPDOM" requires a step of translation to get to the meaning: "Logarithm of the Domestic Price." You want people to understand your stuff, not to jump through mental hoops.
Edward R. Tufte's amazing book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983), demonstrates such precepts as "Mobilize every graphical element, perhaps several times over, to show the data" (p. 139; Tufte is not to be taken as a guide to writing prose). Everyone who uses tables or graphs should buy and study Tufte's book, and then reward themselves by getting his second book, Envisioning Information (1990).
16 Footnotes Are Nests for Pedants
Footnotes should not be used as a substitute for good arrangement. If the idea doesn't fit maybe it doesn't belong.
Footnotes should guide the reader to the sources. That's all. When they strain to do something else they get into trouble.
17 Make Your Writing Cohere
A newspaper editor once gave this advice to a cub reporter: "It doesn't much matter what your first sentence is. It doesn't even much matter what the second is. But the third damn well better follow from the first and second." If you once start a way of talking-a metaphor of birth in economic development or a tone of patient explanation to an idiot-you have to carry it through, making the third sentence follow from the others.
You must reread what you have written again and again, unifying the tenses of the verbs, unifying the vocabulary, unifying the form. That's how to get unified, transitive paragraphs.
Yet, a clumsy way to get transitive paragraphs begins each sentence with a linking word. Indeed, not only did good Latin prose in the age of Cicero have this feature, but also Greek had it, even in common speech. In English, however, it is not successful. Therefore, many Ciceronian and Greek adverbs and conjunctions are untranslatable. To be sure, the impulse to coherence is commendable. But on the other hand (as must be getting clear by now), you tire of being pushed around by the writer, told when you are to take a sentence illustratively ("indeed"), adversatively (“yet," “however," "but"), sequentially (“furthermore," "therefore"), or concessively ("to be sure"). You are crushed by clanking machinery such as the hideous "not only... but also." English achieves coherence by repetition, not by signal. Repeat, and your paragraphs will cohere.
21 Watch How Each Word Connects with Others
Most people's first drafts (including mine, believe me) are jammed with elegant variation, traffic signals, illogical sentences, nonsentences, misquotations, boilerplate, monotonies, and jingles. Easy writing, remember, makes hard reading. Dr. Johnson said two centuries ago, "What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure." Like effort in any work, such as sewing or auto repair, you must check and tighten, check and tighten.
Put modifiers-adjectives, adverbs, and whole phrases called in Miss Jones' class "participles"-close to the word they modify. Otherwise they tend to connect with other 6, words and spoil the meaning.
22 Watch Punctuation
After a comma (,), semicolon (;), or colon (:), put one space before you start something new. After a period (.), question mark (?), or exclamation point (!), put two spaces. Just do it: don't argue.
The dash-used like this, a sort of parenthesis spoken in a louder tone of voice can be overused to solve a problem with a badly organized sentence (I do it a lot in drafts), but is not otherwise difficult.
A lot of people are confused about the colon (:) and the semicolon (;). The safest rule is that the colon indicates an illustration to follow: just like this. The semicolon indicates a parallel remark; it is (as here) an additional illustration. The semicolon (;) means roughly "furthermore"; the colon (:) means roughly "to be specific."
Weak writers these days use too many commas, and use them by rule rather than by ear, probably because Miss Jones told them to. It's no rule of life, for instance, that "an if-clause always requires a comma after it" or "When a clause cannot stand alone it must be hedged with commas.' In fact, such rules lead to a comma in nearly every sentence, and consequent slowing of pace. When applied too enthusiastically the rule-driven comma ends up separating subject from verb. (Notice that I did use a comma after the "In fact in the sentence before last but not after "When applied too enthusiastically" in the next. Stay tuned.) In revision the trick is to delete most commas before "the," as I just did after "In revision," and did a couple of sentences earlier after "When applied too enthusiastically"; I didn't do it after "In fact" in the earlier sentence because the next word was not "the." The "the" signals a new phrase well enough without the clunk of a comma.
Note: Author plays with sentences nicely, showing the rules she talks about. However in some cases it gets too meta.
23 The Order Around Switch Until It Good Sounds
A problem comes with modifiers, especially with adverbs, which float freely in English. The phrase "which is Geain merely another notation for X should be "which cgain is merely another notation for X. Moving the "again prevents it from piling up against the other modifier. Or: the elasticities are both with respect to the price" should be both elasticities are with respect to the price." Until they work, try out the words in various places. In various places try out the words until they work. Try out the words in various places until they work. There. If you can't get them to work, give up the sentence as a bad idea.
24 Read, Out Loud
Reading out loud is a powerful technique of revision. By reading out loud you hear your writing as others hear it internally, and if your ear is good you'll detect the bad spots.
Note: Read out loud!
As usual, Hemingway had it right: “The writer needs a built-in, shockproof bullshit detector." You know more about good taste in the language, and how to spot bullshit, than you think. If in rereading your writing out loud you blush to hear an over-fancy sentence or a jargony word, change it.
No one, though, knows everything just because she's an English-speaking citizen. The ear is trained by exercise.
Read the best old books (only when books are old do we know whether they are the best: the bestsellers of today are mostly rubbish). Take pleasure in the language of literature.
Read poetry out loud, lots of it, the best. Memorize some of it (you know the lyrics of scores of rock songs: that's poetry; you might as well learn some of the real stuff, too). If you stop reading good writing when you leave school you will stop improving your ear. Even an economist's ear should ring with our English literature.
25 Use Verbs, Active Ones
Finally, words. The snappiest rules of good writing are about words. For instance, write with nouns and, especially, verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. In revision the adjectives and adverbs should be the first to go. Delete as many as you can.
Around 1830 the humorist Sydney Smith wrote, "In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigour it will give to your style." He might have followed his own advice more fully, and would have done so if writing nowadays:
In composing [of course it's composing: that's what we're talking about, you dunce!], asa general rule [what would be the point of any other?], run your pen through every other word you have written [of course writing: again, that's what we're talking about; and in any case, what else would you run a pen through? Your finger?]; you have no idea what vigour it will give te yoOur style [for goodness sake, how often do you have to repeat that you are talking about style?]
The result is: "Run your pen through every other word; you have no idea what vigour it will give." (In both Smith's version and mine the word "it" is ambiguous: it's not instantly clear what "it" refers to. But that's another matter.)
Note: Check out page 70 in book. Middle paragraph is an example.
Use active verbs: not “active verbs should be used, which is cowardice, hiding the user in the passive voice.
Rather: "you should use active verbs." The imperative is a good substitute for the passive, especially for taking a reader through mathematical arguments: "then divide both sides hy x" instead of "both sides are then divided by x."
Verbs make English. If you pick out active, accurate, and lively verbs you will write in an active, accurate, and lively style. You should find the action in a sentence and express it in a verb. Expressing it in a phrase functioning as a noun saps vigor. The disease is called “nominalization,"
27 Be Concrete
A good general rule of words is Be Concrete. A singular word is more concrete than a plural (compare "Singular words are more concrete than plurals"). Definiteness is concrete. Prefer Pepperidge Farm to bread, bread to widgets, and widgets to X.
Bad writers in economics sometimes use abstraction because they have nothing to say and don't want the fact to become too plain, in the style of educational bureaucrats.
Mostly, though, they use abstraction to get general. They don't believe that the ordinary reader will understand that "Pepperidge Farm" can stand for any commodity or that "ships" can stand for all capital. Secret codes use the principle that translation is often easier in one direction than the other. Contrary to what most economic writers seem to think, of course, a reader finds it harder to translate abstractions down into concrete examples than to translate examples up into abstract principles. Much economic writing reads like a code. "%& * marginal# #$$ processof& %$ #@ 66 #$ % !structure."
Writing should make things clear, not put them into a code of Latinate abstraction.
28 Be Plain
A lot of economic jargon hides a five-cent thought in a five-dollar word. Economists have forgotten that it's jargon.
"Current period responses" means "what people do now"; "complex lagged effects" means "the many things they do later." "Interim variation" means "change"; “monitored back" means "told." Economists would think more clearly if they recognized a simple thought for what it is. The "time inconsistency problem" is the economics of changing one's mind. The "principal/agent problem" is the economics of what hirelings do.
Remember Sydney Smith running his pen through every other word: You should reexamine any phrase with more than one adjective, considering whether it might be best in leaner form, and should watch especially for nouns used as adjectives. It is the genius of English to let verbs become nouns and nouns adjectives. You go to the club, get a go in cribbage, and hear that all systems are go at the Cape. What is objectionable is piling up these nounverbadjectives teutonically.
29 Avoid Cheap Typographical Tricks
An occasional GDP or CAB won't hurt anyone, but even such a commonplace as GDCF pains all but the most hardened accountant. "Gross domestic capital formation" is fine once or twice to fix ideas, but then "capital formation" or (after all) plain "it" will do the job. Believe me: people will not keep slipping into thinking of it as NDCF or GCF or GC. The point is to be clear, not to “save space"
(as the absurd justification for acronyms has it, absurd because the acronyms in most long papers save a half dozen lines of print, less than the pointless table-of-contents paragraph).
If you use “quotation marks" all the time when not actually "quoting" someone, it is probable that you wish to “apologize" for the “wrong" word or to sneer at "it." Don't. It's impolite to cringe or to sneer.
30 Avoid This, That, These, Those
Another plague is this-ism. These bad writers think this reader needs repeated reminders that it is this idea, not that one, which is being discussed. Circle the “this" and “these" in your draft: you'll be surprised at their number. The "this" points the reader back to the thing referred to, for no good reason. No writer wants her reader to look back, for looking back is looking away, interrupting the forward flow and leaving the reader looking for her place.