On Mankiw and Cochrane on Writing

Via Greg Mankiw, I discovered this short compendium of excellent writing advice from two very good economics writers. These principles mostly apply across the social sciences. I say “mostly” because there are some exceptions. Here are my marginal notes on what’s most important in this list, and what to ignore.

Points 4 (Clarity) is the key. From it follow Points 5, 6, 9 (Efficiency, Skimming, and Punchlines). Effective social science writing is easy to digest, especially in snippets and introductions. The best start-to-finish papers don’t have to be read start-to-finish.

Points 10 and 11 (Knowledge and Responsibility) are more even important than they might seem. “Much bad writing comes down to trying to avoid responsibility for what you’re saying” follows directly from George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language:

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

Points 12 and 13 (Feedback and Editors) are also essential. It is very, very hard to write effectively without feedback from a trusted source or two. My first trusted sources were my parents. But these two points come into some conflict with Point 8 (Individuality). In my experience, committees can be quite useful in generating effective writing. The trick is managing the division of labor.

And this brings me to the point with which I most strongly disagree. In my view, Point 7 (Competition) is incorrect. Not as a matter of taste, but as a point of fact. For almost all people, “The benefits of writing the 10th best [book] are” actually quite large. The perfect is the enemy of the good-enough-for-impact/tenure/acknowledgment. What this means is, perniciously, that lousy writing generally survives unless you work to get rid of it.

I’d like to imagine a world in which all social science writing is effective, meaning that it no longer distinguishes between (to continue the example) the first-best and 10th-best books. However unlikely we are to find ourselves in that world, it would be one in which the social sciences would better shape the public debate. Until then, Mankiw and Cochrane’s principles apply.