On writing (academic manuscripts)

People often report having trouble writing (academic) manuscripts. I definitely did. Not being a native speaker of English did not help matters. I had, however, the good fortune of having as chair of my dissertation committee someone who not only commented on content but the way it was presented. As a matter of fact, I collected some of the pearls that he threw away in margin notes on my grad student attempts at writing:

“There are two kinds of theory. One is written to organize data. One is written for publication in JET.” That’s Journal of Economic Theory in case you are not from the econ tribe.

“Always remember who you address (it’s not your fellow students, it’s not some professor in the science of basket weaving).”

“Make assumptions that are reasonable or common, to get you over whatever hump there is. Convince yourself that it works not why it might not. Note: There is always an assumption that gets you over a hump.”

“The choice of assumptions ought to accord to social customs (it doesn’t have to, but then …). If in doubt about social custom, ask your chair.”

“At some point or another everyone pulls a rabbit out of their hat. There is nothing wrong with that unless it is done in a crude way. The art of economics is to stuff the rabbit in the hat with chutzpe, i.e., in such a way that the reader takes notice and feels obliged to retrace where you slipped the crucial assumption in.”

Over the years (decades come to think of it … ;-)), I have picked up other advice. One is from Mill’s autobiography. The Mill principle of double redaction goes like this:

“… time was devoted to a complete rewriting of the book from its commencement. It is in this way that all my books have been composed. They were always written at least twice over; a first draft of the entire work was completed to the very end of the subject, then the whole begun again de novo; but incorporating, in the second writing, all sentences and parts of sentences of the old draft, which appeared as suitable to my purpose as anything which I could write in lieu of them. In have found greate advantages in this system of double redaction. It combines, better than any other mode of composition, the freshness and vigour of the first conception, with the superior precision and completeness resulting from prolonged thought. In my own case, moreover, I have found that the patience necessary for a careful elaboration of the details of composition and expression, costs much less effort after the entire subject has been once gone through, and the substance of all I find to say has in some manner, however imperfect, been got upon paper.”

That’s a rather labor-intensive modus operandi that might well take the fun out of writing as a colleague in a recent Facebook online conversation on writing offered. True that probably.

One trick I have used for years is cutting out stuff I do not like. Instead of throwing it away for good, I put it temporarily at the end of the manuscript in what I call the Dungeon. I remove the Dungeon only at the very end once I have gone through it and made sure I did not cut out pearls of wisdom or formulation. In a sense it is a variation of the Mill principle without the double redaction. What it does is: you do not worry about cutting something out (and simplifing for example the argument) and not be able to retrieve it. This trick allows pruning, even radical pruning, without regret.

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That colleague in the recent Facebook conversation offered also, ” To me, if you can talk, you should be able to write. This [not being to able to write when you can talk, AO] will always puzzle me.”

To which I answered, “The perfect is the enemy of the good, or something. Also, don’t get it right, (just) get it written.” That latter advice has been attributed to James Buchanan and James Thurber. From my experience, it is good advice. Very good advice indeed.

Needless to say, you should get it right eventually but it is easier to start with something. Likewise, when you are being asked to write a recommendation letter for a student. I always ask the student to send me a draft of what they would write if they were me. It’s easier to start with something and then refine it than to start from scratch.

Plus, as the famous adage — attributed in slight variations to several people — has it, writing is thinking and helps you clarify your thoughts and arguments.

So, boys and girls, just do it!

EconProf: I post occasionally on whatever tickles my fancy: Science, evidence production, the Econ tribe, Oz politics, etc. Y’all r entitled to my opinions …

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