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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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      Art Carden

      Art Carden is an Assistant Professor of Economics and Business at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

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      Last Updated on July 3, 2020

      30 Small Habits To Lead A More Peaceful Life

      30 Small Habits To Lead A More Peaceful Life

      In today’s world, true peace must come from within us and our own actions. Here are 30 small things you can do on a regular basis to increase your overall sense of harmony, peace, and well-being:

      1. Don’t go to every fight you’re invited to

      Particularly when you’re around those who thrive on chaos, be willing to decline the invitation to join in on the drama.

      2. Focus on your breath

      Throughout the day, stop to take a few deep breaths. Keep stress at bay with techniques such as “square breathing.” Breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, then out for four counts, and hold again for four counts. Repeat this cycle four times.

      3. Get organized and purge old items

      A cluttered space often creates a cluttered spirit. Take the time to get rid of anything you haven’t used in a year and invest in organizational systems that help you sustain a level of neatness.

      4. Stop yourself from being judgmental

      Whenever you are tempted to have an opinion about someone else’s life, check your intentions. Judging others creates and promotes negative energy.

      5. Say ‘thank you’ early and often

      Start and end each day with an attitude of gratitude. Look for opportunities in your daily routine and interactions to express appreciation.

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      6. Smile more

      Even if you have to “fake it until you make it,” there are many scientific benefits of smiling and laughing. Also, pay attention to your facial expression when you are doing neutral activities such as driving and walking. Turn that frown upside down!

      7. Don’t worry about the future

      As difficult as this sounds, there is a direct connection between staying in the present and living a more peaceful life. You cannot control the future. As the old proverb goes, “Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.” Practice gently bringing your thoughts back to the present.

      8. Eat real food

      The closer the food is to the state from which it came from the earth, the better you will feel in eating it. Choose foods that grew from a plant over food that was made in a plant.

      9. Choose being happy over being right

      Too often, we sacrifice inner peace in order to make a point. It’s rarely worth it.

      10. Keep technology out of the bedroom

      Many studies, such as one conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital, have connected blue light of electronic devices before bed to adverse sleep and overall health. To make matters worse, many people report that they cannot resist checking email and social media when their cell phone is in reach of their bed, regardless of the time.

      11. Make use of filtering features on social media

      You may not want to “unfriend” someone completely, however you can choose whether you want to follow their posts and/or the sources of information that they share.

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      12. Get comfortable with silence

      When you picture someone who is the ultimate state of peace, typically they aren’t talking.

      13. Listen to understand, not to respond

      So often in conversations, we use our ears to give us cues about when it is our turn to say what we want to say. Practice active listening, ask questions, process, then speak.

      14. Put your troubles in a bubble

      Whenever you start to feel anxious, visualize the situation being wrapped in a bubble and then picture that sphere floating away.

      15. Speak more slowly

      Often a lack of peace manifests itself in fast or clipped speech. Take a breath, slow down, and let your thoughtful consideration drive your words.

      16. Don’t procrastinate

      Nothing adds stress to our lives like waiting until the last minute.

      17. Buy a coloring book

      Mandala coloring books for adults are becoming more popular because of their connection to creating inner peace.

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      18. Prioritize yourself

      You are the only person who you are guaranteed to live with 24 hours a day for the rest of your life.

      19. Forgive others

      Holding a grudge is hurting you exponentially more than anyone else. Let it go.

      20. Check your expectations

      Presumption often leads to drama. Remember the old saying, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.”

      21. Engage in active play

      Let your inner child come out and have some fun. Jump, dance, play, and pretend!

      22. Stop criticizing yourself

      The world is a hard enough place with more than enough critics. Your life is not served well by being one of them.

      23. Focus your energy and attention on what you want

      Thoughts, words, and actions all create energy. Energy attracts like energy. Put out what you want to get back.

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      24. Assign yourself “complaint free” days.

      Make a conscious decision not to complain about anything for a whole day. It might be harder than you think and the awareness will stick with you.

      25. Surround yourself with people you truly enjoy being in the company of

      Personalities tend to be contagious, and not everyone’s is worth catching. Be judicious in your choices.

      26. Manage your money

      Financial concerns rank top on the list of what causes people stress. Take the time each month to do a budget, calculate what you actually spend and sanity check that against the money you have coming in.

      27. Stop trying to control everything

      Not only is your inner control freak sabotaging your sense of peace, it is also likely getting in the way of external relationships as well.

      28. Practice affirmations

      Repeat positive phrases that depict the life and qualities you want to attract. It may not come naturally to you, but it works.

      29. Get up before sunrise

      Personally witnessing the dawn brings a unique sense of awe and appreciation for life.

      30. Be yourself

      Nothing creates more inner discord than trying to be something other than who we really are. Authenticity breeds happiness.

      Featured photo credit: man watching sunrise via stokpic.com

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