Chapter 12 from Economical Writing book by Deirdre N. McCloskey. Глава двеннадцатая из книги Economical Writing, автор Deirdre McCloskey.
Sun, 01 Jun 2003 02:44:23
Your writing must be interesting. This sounds harshly difficult. Few of us are great wits, and we know we aren't. But you can avoid some dullness by rule. Choosing oneself as the audience tends to dullness, since most of us admire uncritically even dull products of our own brains. A reasonably correct recitation of the history of prices and interest rates over the past ten years may strike its author as a remarkable intellectual achievement, filled with drama and novelty. But Richard Sutch, who knows it, or good old Professor Smith, who lived it, or the colleague down the hall who couldn't care less avout it, probably don't agree. Spare them. Restatements of well known bore the reades; routine mathematically passages bore the readers; excessive introduction and summarization bore the readers. Get to the point that some skeptical but serious reader cares about and stick to it.
Therefore, avoid boilerplate. Boilerplate in prose is all that is prefabricated and predictable. It's common in economic prose. Excessive introduction and summarizing is boilerplate; redoing for a large number of repetitive cases what can be done just as well with a single well-chosen one is boilerplate. The academic pose inspires boilerplate. Little is getting acomplished with econometric chatter copied out of the textbook, rederivations of the necessary conditions for consumer equilibrium, and repetition of hackneyed formulations of a theory.
Impenetrable theoretical utterances have prestige in economics. That's sad, because no scientific advance can be expected from such games on a blackboard. A young writer of economics will sacrifice any amount of relevance and clarity to show that she can play the game. The result is filigreed boilerplate. The economist will write about the completeness of arbitrage in this way: "Consider two cities, A and B, trading an asset, X. If the prices of X are the same in market A and in market B, then arbitrage may be said to be complete." The clear way does not draw attention to its theoretical character at all. "New York and London in 1870 both had markets for Union Pacific bonds. The question is did the bonds sell for the same in both places?"
Never start a paper with that all-purpose filler for the bankrupt imagination: "This paper..." Describing the art of writing book reviews, Jacques Barzun and Henry Graff note that "the opening statement takes the reader from where he presumably stands in point of knowledge and brings him to the book under review". In journalism it's called the "hook". A paper showing that monopoly greatly reduces income might best start: "Every economist knows by now that monopoly does not much reduces income [which is where he presumably stands in point of knowledge]. Every economist appears to be mistaken [thus bringing him to the matter under review]." It bores the reader to begin "This paper discusses the evidence for a large effect of monopoly on income." The reader's impulse, fully justified by the tiresome stuff to follow, is to give up.
Another piece of boilerplate, attached to the early parts of most student papers, is "background," a polite word for padding, the material you collected that you later discovered was beside the point. It seems a shame not to use it, you say; and after all it gives the thing weight. Resist. If you have read a lot and if you have been thinking through the question you began with, asking and answering one question after another; you will have plenty to say. If you haven't read a lot and didn't think through the questions you are asking, you will have nothing to say. No one will be fooled: remember that professors and bosses are experts in detecting lack of effort and lack of success. You might as well spare a tree.
Still another piece of boilerplate, and one which kills the momentum of most papers in economics on the second page is the table-of-contents paragraph: "The outline of this paper is as follows." Don't, please, please for God's sake, don't. Nine of ten readers skip to the substance, if they can find it. The few who pause on the paragraph are wasting their time. They can't understand the paragraph until, like the author, the have read the paper, at which point they don't need it. Usually the table-of-contents paragraph has been written with no particular audience in mind, least of all the audience of first-time readers of the paper. Even when done well it lacks the purpose. You will practically never see it in good writing. Weak writers defend it as a "roadmap". They got the idea from Miss Jones: "Tell the reader what you're going to say. Say it. Say that you've said it." It's exceptionally bad advice, and the person who made up this memorable phrasing of it is burning right now in Hell.
Therefore, avoid overtures, and do not give full elaborate summaries of what you have said. Never repeat without apologizing for it ("as I said earlier"; or merely "again"). Unless you apologize the reader thinks you have not noticed the repetition, and will suspect you have not thought through the organization. She'll be right. Remember that the paper that took you days or a week to write will be read in about half an hour. You must read the paper yourself in this rapid way to get the experience the reader will have, and to make the experience good.
The writer who wishes to be readable does not clot his prose with traffic directions. He thinks hard about the arrangement. Add headings afterwards if you wish, especially ones with declarative sentences advancing the argument, like the ones used here. Your prose, however, should read well and clearly without the headings.