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Writing Like an Economist

Updated: May 22, 2020

Greg Mankiw’s credentials are impeccable: Former Chairman of the Harvard Economics Department and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. What’s even more impressive is his writing. About 4 million copies of his textbooks are in print, and Mankiw is the 22nd most assigned author on college campuses, ranking between Martin Luther King and Virginia Woolf (Shakespeare snagged the top spot).

John Cochrane, a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, is similarly accomplished. In addition to his popular blog, the Grumpy Economist, he regularly contributes to the Wall Street Journal. What unites Cochrane and Mankiw is their economical approach to writing—stressing clarity and efficiency above all else. While Mankiw’s advice is for aspiring textbook authors, and Cochrane’s tips are aimed at PhD students, their lessons have universal appeal. Here are 15 of them:

1. Scarcity: “As economists, we teach our students about scarcity. As authors, we should remember that time is a scarce resource. That means taking out all of the easily ignored details and stressing the big ideas.” 

2. Specialization: “Many economists falsely think of themselves as scientists who just ‘write up’ research. We are not; we are primarily writers. Economics and finance papers are essays.”

3. Preparation: “Devoting sufficient time to writing is important in large part because [the market] is like a tournament. If you are not ready to put a lot of time into writing and revising, there is little to be gained from entering the tournament.”

4. Clarity: “Figure out the one central and novel contribution of your paper. Write this down in one paragraph...The first sentence is the hardest,” so “start with your central contribution.”

5. Efficiency: “Convey the information that readers want to learn in the most efficient way possible.”

6. Skimming: “Your readers are busy and impatient. No reader will ever read the whole thing from start to finish. Readers skim. You have to make it easy for them to skim.”

7. Competition: “You are competing with many other authors, and the rewards, both personal and pecuniary, are distributed highly unevenly. In other words, the benefits of writing the 10th best [book] are small.”

8. Individuality: “Committees are useful in many endeavors, but producing great writing is not one of them.”

9. Punchlines: “Organize the paper in 'triangular' or 'newspaper' style, not in 'joke' or 'novel' style. Notice how newspapers start with the most important part, then fill in background later for the readers who kept going and want more details....put the punchline right up front.”

10. Knowledge: “The most important thing in writing is to keep track of what your reader knows and doesn’t know.”

11. Responsibility: “Much bad writing comes down to trying to avoid responsibility for what you’re saying.”

12. Feedback: “When authors get feedback from editors and prepublication reviewers on their textbook drafts, they have to decide how much to stick to their guns and how much to defer to the advice of others. There is no easy answer here…Finding the right balance is perhaps the most important judgment call that an author makes.” 

13. Editors: “There is only so much an editor can do. A good editor can turn a B manuscript into a B+ or an A- book, but she can’t turn a C manuscript into an A book.” 

14. Self-Assessment: “Do you like reading books about writing? Books like The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White, or On Writing Well by William Zinsser? I love reading these kinds of books, because they give you the tools and strategies for becoming a better writer. But if you don’t, then you are probably not really interested in the craft of writing.”

15. Endings: “Conclusions should be short and sweet.”

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