Donald McCloskey (1987:3), in The Writing of Economics, bemoans the standard syllabus that teaches things about economics rather than how to be an economist:
Students are taught minor details in statistics, when the hard business of quantitative thinking in economics is getting the data straight; they are taught minor details in mathematics, when the hard business of mathematical economics is getting economic ideas straight. In most schools they are taught nothing about writing, when the hard business of economic thinking is getting the words straight.
Writing matters, deeply. It matters even more perhaps in a field like economics, data-heavy and maths-rich, often deliberately obscure (or so it seems). As I try to shift gears into a more rigorously economic mindset in preparation for the honours year ahead – and pine for the familiar theories of the political science literature – I take refuge in words. If I can learn to write like an economist, perhaps I can learn to be one, as well.
The Writing of Economics, McCloskey
Writing 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.
— Robert Solow (1984), cited in McCloskey (1987)
This little gem is a clear, concise read. A lot of the stylistic and research advice applies across disciplines:
- Writing is thinking. Start writing before research is finished.
- Be plain. Be clear. Above all, look at your words and make sure each is where it belongs and means what you think it means.
- Speak to an audience of human beings.
- Read it over out loud (this may be the most helpful writing advice I ever received. Follow it).
McCloskey’s love of language and communications shines through and in many ways his book reminds me of Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style. Both focus on the mechanics of getting your point across and abhor adornment and flourish, without reducing language to mere function. He challenges conventional arrangement and calls for a more natural, conversational writing style.
A Guide for the Young Economist, Thomson
Thomson’s Guide is much more detailed. He echoes many of McCloskey’s concerns – clarity, conciseness, precision – before looking much more deeply at the nuts and bolts of economic papers. The sections on presenting notation and mathematical proofs are rather dense and I suspect I will need to revisit them when I have actually written my thesis. Perhaps the most important take-away is to take the reader on a journey with you: to remember the errors and difficulties you encountered on the way and point them out to the reader; to tell a story; to define clearly and denote consistently; to be as transparent about process as possible.
Thomson also includes helpful advice on presenting papers at seminars and refereeing journal articles.
McCloskey, D (1987). The Writing of Economics. New York: McMillan.
Strunk, W Jr. & White, E B (2000). The Elements of Style. 4th ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Thomson, W (2001). A Guide for the Young Economist. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Williams, J (2000). Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 6th ed. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.