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Deirdre McCloskey on Writing

Deirdre McCloskey on Writing

Writing

    One of the best books for writers in the social sciences is Deirdre McCloskey’s Economical Writing, a very short, very small book that offers a number of important principles for writing. McCloskey is an economist by training, but she has written across a wide variety of fields. Economical Writing is a must-have and a must-read for any serious writer. Here are five of her points from Economical Writing and elsewhere I have tried to incorporate into my own work (not always perfectly, certainly, as my dissertation committee could not doubt verify).

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    1. Always ask “so what?”

    Don’t assume that your topic is important just because you think it is, and don’t assume everyone automatically recognizes its relevance. Be very clear about establishing why your topic is important and why your reader should care. Your reader’s time is very valuable, and he or she could be doing a lot of different things. They have decided, for whatever reason, to take a look at something you have written. Look to inflict interocular trauma. In other words, hit them between the eyes with why what you have done is important. Convince them immediately that they should keep reading your work instead of picking up something someone else has written or playing with the kids.

    2. Always ask “how do you know?”

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    Economical Writing cover

      According to McCloskey, this was always Milton Friedman’s question, and in the last two-and-a-half decades, McCloskey has waged a campaign against sloppy empirical methods particularly in economics but in all the sciences more generally. Clarify the theory you are examining, the testable hypotheses that they admit, the types of evidence you have at your disposal, and how you should best test the hypotheses you have devised. If you are measuring something, make sure you ask “how big is big?” In other words, talk about magnitude. A lot of statistical investigations discuss “statistical significance” and leave it at that, but statistical significance tells us nothing about whether the magnitude of an estimated effect is big enough to matter. Statistical significance only tells us whether we have enough data to measure the effect with much precision. Life-and-death situations are made every day based on flawed applications of statistical significance and very poorly-thought-out use of evidence. The world deserves better.

      3. “Fluency can be achieved through grit.”

      Or, in the words of 1986 Nobel Laureate James Buchanan, “keep your a– in the chair.” Write, even when you don’t feel like writing. Make it a habit rather than something you do when inspiration strikes. Your work will be much better for it.

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      4. Guard your inspiration and “clean up in a dull moment.”

      The world is screaming for your attention (Facebook! iChat! Lifehack! Youtube! Twitter!), and it is up to you to make sure you don’t let urgent-but-unimportant things get in the way of doing important work. One scholar periodically mails his internet cable to himself in order to give himself at least a couple of days free of the distractions of the internet. It is hard to lay down the digital crack pipe, but you must. As McCloskey writes, when you are truly inspired, you must resist the urge to go the library to check your sources, to go get another cup of coffee, to return phone calls, or to answer email. This can all be done during the dull moments when the creative juices aren’t flowing quite the way you would like them to.

      5. Don’t skimp on supplies.

      A great writer can be a great writer no matter his surroundings or materials, but having equipment that works well is essential for most of us. A laptop that is on its last legs can be extremely frustrating to work with, and good pens can be much easier to work with than the ballpoints you pick up from hotel rooms (I have tons of them; I know). Remember that paper is cheap and recycling it is bad for the earth–it creates a lot of pollution, and since trees are farmed commercially you actually aren’t “saving trees” by recycling paper or by using less of it. Making judicious use of scrap paper is wise, but incurring inconvenience in order to save paper is a very poor tradeoff.

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      There are a lot of economists and social scientists who have written extensively in the scholarly problem. McCloskey is one of the best, and I assure you that you will be a much better writer if you have Economical Writing on your bookshelf.

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      Last Updated on September 20, 2018

      7 Powerful Questions To Find Out What You Want To Do With Your Life

      7 Powerful Questions To Find Out What You Want To Do With Your Life

      What do I want to do with my life? It’s a question all of us think about at one point or another.

      For some, the answer comes easily. For others, it takes a lifetime to figure out.

      It’s easy to just go through the motions and continue to do what’s comfortable and familiar. But for those of you who seek fulfillment, who want to do more, these questions will help you paint a clearer picture of what you want to do with your life.

      1. What are the things I’m most passionate about?

      The first step to living a more fulfilling life is to think about the things that you’re passionate about.

      What do you love? What fulfills you? What “work” do you do that doesn’t feel like work? Maybe you enjoy writing, maybe you love working with animals or maybe you have a knack for photography.

      The point is, figure out what you love doing, then do more of it.

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      2. What are my greatest accomplishments in life so far?

      Think about your past experiences and the things in your life you’re most proud of.

      How did those accomplishments make you feel? Pretty darn good, right? So why not try and emulate those experiences and feelings?

      If you ran a marathon once and loved the feeling you had afterwards, start training for another one. If your child grew up to be a star athlete or musician because of your teachings, then be a coach or mentor for other kids.

      Continue to do the things that have been most fulfilling for you.

      3. If my life had absolutely no limits, what would I choose to have and what would I choose to do?

      Here’s a cool exercise: Think about what you would do if you had no limits.

      If you had all the money and time in the world, where would you go? What would you do? Who would you spend time with?

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      These answers can help you figure out what you want to do with your life. It doesn’t mean you need millions of dollars to be happy though.

      What it does mean is answering these questions will help you set goals to reach certain milestones and create a path toward happiness and fulfillment. Which leads to our next question …

      4. What are my goals in life?

      Goals are a necessary component to set you up for a happy future. So answer these questions:

      Once you figure out the answers to each of these, you’ll have a much better idea of what you should do with your life.

      5. Whom do I admire most in the world?

      Following the path of successful people can set you up for success.

      Think about the people you respect and admire most. What are their best qualities? Why do you respect them? What can you learn from them?

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      You’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.[1] So don’t waste your time with people who hold you back from achieving your dreams.

      Spend more time with happy, successful, optimistic people and you’ll become one of them.

      6. What do I not like to do?

      An important part of figuring out what you want to do with your life is honestly assessing what you don’t want to do.

      What are the things you despise? What bugs you the most about your current job?

      Maybe you hate meetings even though you sit through 6 hours of them every day. If that’s the case, find a job where you can work more independently.

      The point is, if you want something to change in your life, you need to take action. Which leads to our final question …

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      7. How hard am I willing to work to get what I want?

      Great accomplishments never come easy. If you want to do great things with your life, you’re going to have to make a great effort. That will probably mean putting in more hours the average person, getting outside your comfort zone and learning as much as you can to achieve as much as you can.

      But here’s the cool part: it’s often the journey that is the most fulfilling part. It’s during these seemingly small, insignificant moments that you’ll often find that “aha” moments that helps you answer the question,

      “What do I want to do with my life?”

      So take the first step toward improving your life. You won’t regret it.

      Featured photo credit: Andrew Ly via unsplash.com

      Reference

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