Writing Tips from Economists

Friday, November 21, 2008

Greg Mankiw offers some excellent writing tips via the Economic Report of the President guidelines here.

A few are sort of econ-centric, but most apply to any kind of writing. Our thoughts are below the fold:

Keep sentences short. Short words are better than long words. Monosyllabic words are best.
The last tip is spot-on and reinforces our admiration for the best writing guideline ever (because Orwell already covered it), but we're a bit iffy on keeping sentences short. One of our writers composes sentences that are so small reading his work is like suffering through a series of short, sharp punches. It gets very tiring after only a paragraph or two, and by the end, you're so worn out you can't even remember what his point was.

If Economists are trying to explain a complex economic concept to a general audience, then it's wise for them to break it down into short sentences that describe the key points, but that doesn't mean every sentence should be short. Most folks may not be able to follow a long exposition on production possibility frontiers or 20th-century business-cycle theories, but they're usually capable of digesting more than one thought per sentence. For example, let's change the last two sentences of the tip into one:
Short words are better than long words, and monosyllabic words are best.
That's not too difficult to follow and is much easier to read.
Avoid “of course, “clearly,” and “obviously.” Clearly, if something is obvious, that fact will, of course, be obvious to the reader.
Most submissions we read don't suffer from overuse of "clearly" and the like. Maybe we're just lucky, but we don't think this is a really big problem. That said, they do appear in a lot of blog comments, but who reads those?
Avoid jargon. Any word you don’t read regularly in a newspaper is suspect.
Another tip from Orwell.
To mere mortals, a graphic metaphor, a compelling anecdote, or a striking fact is worth a thousand articles in Econometrica.

Keep your writing personal. Remind readers how economics affects their lives.
Absolutely--not just because we've said it before. In fact, we'll write it again: People like stories. What can they take away from your piece that'll blow everyone away at the next cocktail party? It won't be jargon and it won't be a graph.
Avoid unnecessary words. For instance, in most cases, change
o “in order to” to “to”
o “whether or not” to “whether”
o “is equal to” to “equals”
This is the best writing tip you will ever read.