On Balance: Review of Economical Writing by Deirdre Nansen McCloskey

August 28, 2019

By: Clark Nardinelli

Over four decades ago I struggled through my first year of graduate school in economics, a struggle made palatable by the extraordinary professor who taught my first economics course. Deirdre McCloskey was (and is) smart, fun, and eccentric, and she enthusiastically led us through our first pass at economics. Part of that passage included learning to write, for McCloskey held – a notion considered eccentric – that economists should write well. Although good writing remains suspect among economists, Deirdre McCloskey taught me long ago that good writing makes for good economics.

In class, McCloskey stressed the value of writing well, passing out class notes on writing. I kept the notes for many years and hopefully studied them as I attempted to become a passable writer. I finally discarded the notes when they and much else appeared in McCloskey’s 1985 article, “Economical Writing.” The article soon became a short book of the same title; a second edition followed thirteen years later. We now are rewarded with a third edition of Economical Writing, with a new subtitle: Thirty-Five Rules for Clear and Persuasive Prose (University of Chicago Press, 2019). McCloskey’s personality pervades her little book, which is fun to read and humbling to those of us who would write better.

Good writing beats bad writing every time but should professionals who get the models and econometrics right improve their writing? Should those of us who do benefit-cost analysis write better? McCloskey would respond that, on both professional and moral grounds (“good writing is good for the soul”), economists and everyone else should care about writing. We are all writers, whether we are academics writing papers, consultants writing project descriptions, or private and government economists writing policy evaluations.

Those of us who write benefit-cost analyses write them to be read. An assessment of benefits and costs, cost-effectiveness, or other evaluation aims to shed light on a real policy or decision, and shedding light requires that people read and understand the evaluation. A well-written assessment of benefit and costs will be read and will persuade people far more effectively than a poorly written assessment.

Books and articles on writing and usage suffer from the general perception that they’re boring, and full of useless rules. The belief confuses the bad rules we remember from school with the factual rules of good writing. McCloskey labels the bad, “Ms. Jones rules,” after a generic seventh-grade teacher. Ms. Jones’s rules are mostly wrong and harmful (“Do not split an infinitive,” “Vary your words,” “Never end a sentence with a preposition,” and so on) but good rules help us write well. See the rules of Mark Twain, George Orwell, and Deirdre McCloskey.

McCloskey’s thirty-five good rules take the reader from “Writing is a Trade” to “If You Didn’t Stop Reading, Join the Flow.” It’s difficult to pick favorite rules but one that works for me is, “Write early rather than late.” Writing early gets you going, eliminates notions that sound great in your head and explode when put down in black-and-white, and gives you something to revise. Because writing is revising, the earlier you can start revising, the better. For example, a couple of years ago I wrote a first draft before working out the relationship between the theory and the empirical evidence; as I revised the paper to make the prose clear, the relationship became clear. (“Writing is thinking.”)

Another of my favorite rules is to “avoid words bad writers love,” and I agree that avoiding the words on her list would measurably improve the writing of economics. Eliminating “process,” “hypothesize,” “finalize,” “respectively,” “structure,” “and/or,” “in terms of,” and their like may be the cheapest way to improve economics writing.

McCloskey does not much like the term, “analyze,” when used to mean discuss or examine. This makes me uncomfortable not only because it is part of the common name of our field, but especially because it is part of the name of the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis, a name doubly cursed as a “teutonism” (McCloskey’s term for a string of words that creates new jargon) containing a bad word. I agree with her on the ugliness of the name but I must plead long-established usage and – what can we do? – it’s our society’s name. We should at least agree to avoid the verb “analyze.”

In addition to rules for economical writing, Economical Writing contains an interview with McCloskey on writing. It also contains some good practical tools for writers, including an appendix by Stephen Ziliak that provides a step-by-step guide to using the thirty-five rules while editing.

Professor McCloskey tells us that, with hard work and good tools, we can all write well. She may be wrong or at least too optimistic about our potential, but we can all write much more clearly and more persuasively if we follow her rules and work at it. My first four rules for economists who write: Buy the book, read it, re-read it, and keep it within reach when you write anything.

Clark Nardinelli recently retired as Chief Economist of the US Food and Drug Administration. He now serves as president of the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis.

REFERENCES 

  • McCloskey, Deirdre Nansen. 2019. Economical Writing: Thirty-Five Rules for Clear and Persuasive Prose. 3rd Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • McCloskey, Deirdre Nansen. 1985. “Economical Writing.” Economic Inquiry 24 (April):187-222.