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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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      The Gentle Art of Saying No

      The Gentle Art of Saying No

      No!

      It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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      But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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      What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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      But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

      1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
      2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
      3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
      4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
      5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
      6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
      7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
      8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
      9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
      10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

      Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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