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Thoughts on Writing

May 21, 2013

Recently I’ve been reading “Clear and Simple as the Truth“, which is about a style of writing called Classic Style Prose. The authors hold that a style of writing is determined by an author’s stance on fundamental questions such as the purpose of writing, who the reader is, the nature of the subject matter, and the author’s stance on the nature of truth and knowledge.

The Purpose of Writing
The purpose of writing is communication. The writer should have clear idea before writing begins of what they want to impart to their audience. I write to help my readers understand the world. What matters for social scientists is not the Truth, but rather what is useful. No economic models are purely true, just as no maps are perfectly accurate. Mental models can be highly useful in explaining events and making conditional predictions. All writers have a bias, even if it a subconscious one. I do my best to be fair to my those who disagree with me and present my knowledge in as direct a manner as possible.

Time is Valuable
Every unnecessary moment the reader spends puzzling out the meaning of a sentence is time wasted. Easy reading is hard writing. Omitting needless words is effortful, but because there are many readers for each author, it is worthwhile. Unclear writing is a sign that either the author doesn’t expect to have a large audience or that their audience’s time is not valuable. Neither option is flattering.

I disagree with those who claim clarity is a matter of style. Disorganized sentences show lack of both skill and effort. If you can’t explain a concept to an intelligent non-specialist, it’s probably nonsense. The number of deep truths in the world that are legitimately hard to understand when simplified down to the purest essentials are few and far between, and I’ve never encountered one in the field of economics. Blaming the audience for not understanding or the subject matter for being complicated are poor excuses of weak writers.

Audience
I either target the intelligent non-economist or a particular economist I’m writing to. The more people you try to imagine as your audience, the worse your writing gets. Writers often try to signal to certain audiences that they are members of a particular group, and appease critics they know they will have. But each caveat and hedge distracts the core audience from the message. Any side tracking must be carefully weighed against the cost of distraction. In the internet age, critics can be debated in the comments section and citations can be hyperlinked.

Limitations of the Written Word
In the mind, thoughts and ideas link to one another in a gigantic web of associative memory. Each thought relates and reinforces others. Economic explanations frequently require that the economist hold several ideas in their head at once and apply them to the problem at hand.

Web of Ideas

Writing, on the other hand, is by its very nature linear. Teaching requires that the student get a foothold on some basic knowledge before the student progresses to more complex ideas. By grasping at complex ideas, the student learns the basics more thoroughly. A student never fully understands an idea until they use that idea to solve a brand new problem. The author must sort through and organize their thoughts in order to cope with the inherent disorder of the mind. Because of the organizational process, writing itself is one of the best ways to learn a subject for yourself. As the saying goes, writing is thinking.

Further Reading
Stephen Pinker on Classic Prose (I’ve probably linked to this before, but it’s good so deal with it.)
A review of Clear and Simple as the Truth
Deirdre McCloskey’s “Economical Writing” is excellent.
Drew Loewe on Prose style

Update: I think my style is closer to “Practical style” than “classical style”. I value clarity uber alles, and always have a time contrained reader in mind.

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