Economical Writing, Third Edition: Thirty-Five Rules for Clear and Persuasive Prose

Economical Writing, Third Edition: Thirty-Five Rules for Clear and Persuasive Prose

by Deirdre N. McCloskey, Stephen T. Ziliak

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Economics is not a field that is known for good writing. Charts, yes. Sparkling prose, no.
Except, that is, when it comes to Deirdre Nansen McCloskey. Her conversational and witty yet always clear style is a hallmark of her classic works of economic history, enlivening the dismal science and engaging readers well beyond the discipline. And now she’s here to share the secrets of how it’s done.
Economical Writing is itself economical: a collection of thirty-five pithy rules for making your writing clear, concise, and effective. Proceeding from big-picture ideas to concrete strategies for improvement at the level of the paragraph, sentence, or word, McCloskey shows us that good writing, after all, is not just a matter of taste—it’s a product of adept intuition and a rigorous revision process. Debunking stale rules, warning us that “footnotes are nests for pedants,” and offering an arsenal of readily applicable tools and methods, she shows writers of all levels of experience how to rethink the way they approach their work, and gives them the knowledge to turn mediocre prose into magic.
At once efficient and digestible, hilarious and provocative, Economical Writing lives up to its promise. With McCloskey as our guide, it’s impossible not to see how any piece of writing—on economics or any other subject—can be a pleasure to read.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226448107
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/17/2019
Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 316,303
File size: 454 KB

About the Author

Deirdre N. McCloskey is distinguished professor of economics, history, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Among her many books are The Bourgeois VirtuesBourgeois DignityBourgeois Equality, Crossing: A MemoirThe Secret Sins of Economics, and If You’re So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise, all published by the University of Chicago Press.


Read an Excerpt


Writing Is a Trade

In a Shoe cartoon strip long ago, the uncle bird comes in the front door with a briefcase overflowing with paper and says to the nephew bird, "I'm exhausted, but I've got to work. I've got to get this report out by tomorrow morning." Next panel: "I'll be up until 3:00 writing it." Last panel, picturing the nephew with a horrified look on his face: "You mean homework is forever?!"

Yes, dear, homework is forever. A lot of it is writing.

Outsiders have been complaining for a long time about how economic and sociological and business and bureaucratic writing gets written (Williamson 1947). I'm an economist by training, a historian by avocation, a professor of English by late-life passion. People in all fields write. Unlike professors of English, though, only a few economists and historians have written about the craft of writing or taught it to their students. As a result, the standard of economic and historical writing has declined steadily. For example, nowadays even pretty good writers of economics and history and, yes, English use locutions like the academic "as we will see," the newspaper version being "more on that later," pointlessly anticipating in a manner you never see in Alfred Marshall (1842–1924) or Lord Acton (1834–1902), or even John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) or A. J. P. Taylor (1906–90). The economist Walter Salant did his part in an essay published in 1969. In 1978 J. K. Galbraith wrote a piece called "Writing, Typing and Economics." He was referring to the novelist Ernest Hemingway's crack about the Beat Movement novelist Jack Kerouac: "That's not writing: that's typing." A lot of writing in economics, history, business, government service, the military, and on and on isn't even very good typing.

No one tells the beginner in a craft with a lot of writing how important it is to improve it. The researchers at the US Department of Agriculture, surprisingly, do care about writing. It's a tradition in the department. So do some Federal Reserve banks. Private companies do a lot of business by writing, and their CEOs often claim to care how it's done. On the other hand, presentations in business, and now too in academic life, are dominated by the worst of PowerPoint. Academics of course must write, feverishly, if they are to get tenure and the respect of their colleagues. But many of them do so with a trowel. In most colleges the undergraduates are taught nothing about writing after the compulsory first-year course in composition, which they try to forget. The graduate students do not get even that. The master carpenter turns her back on the apprentice, concealing the tricks of the trade, such as how to cut a board without splintering the back of the cut.

The big secret is that good writing pays well and bad writing pays badly. Rotten writing causes more papers and reports to fail than do rotten statistics or rotten research. You have to be read to be listened to. Bad writing is not read, even by professors or bosses paid to read it. Can you imagine actually reading the worst report or term paper you've ever written? Your sainted mother herself wouldn't.

A couple of trowel-writing professors of economics attacked the article version of the present book by claiming that actually obscurity pays off. Well, suppose it does. Suppose I'm wrong that bad writing pays badly. So what? Being bad is bad. The sainted mother I mentioned told you to be good, period. Being clear — or, to use the term of art, "readable"— is an ethical matter beyond mere profitmaking prudence (McCloskey 1992).


Writing Is Thinking

Another reply to instruction such as what's offered here is "That's just a matter of style. After all, only content matters." Students will sometimes complain about bad grades earned for writing badly, arguing that they had the content right or that they meant to say the right thing (people who complain about grades speak in italics). Your boss probably won't tell you outright that she thinks you're an idiot on account of the shocking illiteracy of the last report you turned in. But you'll get the point soon enough, with a pink slip or a lack of promotion. And anyway you want to do a good job, for your personal and professional self-respect. I know you do.

The influence of mere style is greater than you might think. Ideas are not merely "conveyed" or "communicated," as though through the pneumatic tube at the drive-in bank. In communication studies we call "conveying information" the "conduit metaphor," which is not meant as a compliment. Any idea changes, sometimes radically, in its expression and in its reception. The history of ideas has made many wide turns caused by "mere" lucidity and elegance of expression. Galileo's Dialogo of 1632 persuaded people that the earth went around the sun, but not merely because it was a Copernican tract (there were others) or because it contained new evidence (though it did). It was persuasive in good part because it was a masterpiece of Italian prose in an era in which most scientific writing was in scholarly Latin. Poincaré's good French and Einstein's good German early in the twentieth century were no small contributors to their influence on mathematics and physics. John Maynard Keynes (rhymes with "brains") hypnotized three generations of economists and politicians with his graceful fluency in English. Keynes is acknowledged as the best writer that economics has had. Yet look at the hostile dissection of the style of a passage from Keynes in Graves and Hodge (1943) 1961 (33–40). It makes one wince that the best is so easy to fault.

You can't split content from style. They constitute yolk and white in a scrambled egg. The conduit theory says that content sits in one brain until it is communicated by pneumatic tube to another, unchanged in the communication. That's true of sheer information, like your phone number or the place you left your keys. But it's not true of knowledge. Knowledge relies also on judgments, which you discover and polish in conversation with other people or with yourself. Therefore you don't learn the details of your argument until speaking or writing it out in detail and looking back critically at the result. "Is what I just said foolish, or is what I just wrote a deep truth?" In the speaking or writing you uncover your bad ideas, often embarrassing ones, and good ideas too, sometimes fame-making ones. Thinking requires its expression. You can't add 23 and 27 if you get all fuzzy about whether 3 plus 7 equals 10 or 11. You have to know. Good thinking is accurate, symmetrical, relevant to the thoughts of the audience, concrete yet usefully abstract, concise yet usefully full of good ideas. Above all it is self-critical and honest. So is good writing.

Good writers, that is, write self-critically and honestly, trying to say what they mean. Sometimes you'll discover in the writing that what looked persuasive when floating vaguely in your mind looks exceptionally foolish when moored to the page. You'll discover, too, truths you didn't know you had. Annie Dillard says in The Writing Life, "When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner's pick, a woodcarver's gouge, a surgeon's probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. … The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool" (1989, 3).

Writing resembles mathematics. Mathematics is a language, an instrument of communication. But so too language is a mathematics, an instrument of thought.


Rules Can Help, but Bad Rules Hurt

Like mathematics, writing can be learned. You are merely evading the responsibility to overcome your ignorance, such as we all have, if you talk of writing as a natural gift, a free lunch from the gods that some people have and some don't. It's an excuse for not doing your job in a workmanlike manner. Although we can't all become Mark Twains or Virginia Woolfs or George Orwells or Annie Dillards, anyone can write better than they used to. In fact, Twain and Orwell, like Dillard, worked at explaining how (Twain 1895; Orwell [1946] 1968), and Woolf's essays are models for any student on how to write.

Elementary writing can be learned like algebra. On the simplest level, neither is inborn. Very few people can prove important new theorems in mathematics or make highly original and important points concerning Shakespeare's Othello. They're as rare as people who can write regularly for the New Yorker magazine. Yet anyone can learn to solve a set of simultaneous equations or learn basic Shakespearean definitions (for example, honest meant mainly "aristocratic," not truth-telling, a highly relevant point for Othello), just as anyone can learn to delete a quarter of the words from a first draft.

Like mathematics or literary criticism at the simplest level, good writing at the simplest level follows learnable rules. Rulebooks on writing, most of them pretty good, proliferate like mushrooms. Read 'em. (By the way, the preinstalled programs in Microsoft Word and the like that claim to help you with writing are useless. Turn them off. They advise you, for example, to put a comma in a sentence after every introductory phrase. In Dutch, yes, a rule. In English, optional, a choice.)

You can find the good rulebooks in the writing section of any big bookstore. My three old favorites, from elementary to advanced, are William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style (1959 and later editions); Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Reader over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose (1943 and later editions); and Joseph M. Williams, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (1981; 12th ed., with Joseph Bizup, 2016). Not everyone will get as much as I did from the three. But Strunk and White is fundamental. You can't be any kind of professional writer if you haven't read and taken to heart its little lessons. "Express parallel ideas in parallel form." I catch myself daily not doing it. Then I force myself daily to do so.

Other texts I know and admire come from the era in which I was actively trying to improve my own wretched style by being a student of the masters. (By now I have become The World's Leading Expert, as President Harry Truman expressed it: "An expert is someone who doesn't want to learn anything new, because then he wouldn't be an expert.") Note that all the books think of readin' and writin' as learnable crafts, not inherited genius. A few of the best are Richard A. Lanham, Revising Prose (1979; 5th ed. 2007) and his Revising Business Prose (5th ed. 2006); and Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams, The Craft of Research (1995; 4th ed., with Joseph Bizup and William T. FitzGerald, 2016). Some more advanced books are F. L. Lucas, Style (1955; 3rd ed. 2012); Jacques Barzun, Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers (1976; 4th ed. 2001); part 3 of Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher (1970; 6th ed. 2003); Paul R. Halmos, pages 19–48 in Norman E. Steenrod et al., How to Write Mathematics (1973; 2nd ed. 1981); Sir Ernest Gowers, The Complete Plain Words (1962 and subsequent editions); Howard S. Becker, Writing for Social Scientists (1986; 2nd ed. 2007); William E. Blundell, The Art and Craft of Feature Writing (1988, by a writer for the Wall Street Journal); Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose (1994; 2nd ed. 2011); and anything instructional by Annie Dillard, such as The Writing Life (1989), which I just quoted.

But some of the books on style are surprisingly bad, so watch out. A good test is whether you read the book with pleasure. If a so-called master carpenter does not know how to cut a board clean, maybe you better not become his apprentice. (By the way, here's how: nail a piece of scrap to the back of the piece to be sawed, flush with the cutting side. Cut both boards. The scrap piece prevents the saw from making splinters on the other side of the piece to be sawed.)

Many of the rules I give here are the same ones the other books give, but some are my own creations from observing writing by me and by others. They will be depressing at first, because of their great number ("Number 613: Query any sentence with more than two adjectives") and their vagueness ("Be clear"— but, you ask, how?). What you are trying to learn resembles good sewing or carpentry, watching what you're doing and giving it some thought, having learned from others. Long ago I heard a paper at a conference on writing called Writing on the Bias (published as Brodkey 1994). "On the bias" is a term from sewing, cutting and sewing a piece of cloth diagonal to the weave to make the finished skirt swirl gracefully. The author's mother was a brilliant seamstress, and her sewing, said her daughter, taught the daughter how to write, making the prose swirl gracefully. I myself learned how to work at writing from watching my mother tearing down (nonbearing) walls and studying ancient Greek. She finished jobs, such as a brilliant poetic autobiography called The Strain of Roots, written slowly, daily, self-critically over thirty years after her husband died. If you resolve right now to put away your amateur attitude toward writing and to start observing and thinking about your own style, you'll do fine. Meanwhile, as with the first steps in sewing or carpentry, learn the rules and rules and more rules.

Don't believe everyone, though, who sets up as a teacher. The first rule here is that many of the rules we learned in Ms. Jones's class in the seventh grade are wrong. Sometimes of course Ms. Jones had a point. For example, dangling out on a limb alone, she justly castigated modifiers badly placed in a sentence. Read a sentence from the Washington Post (12/29/2017): "That confusion was echoed among thousands — some following the advice of their accountants — who interrupted their holiday activities to line up at tax offices." It paints a picture of accountants lining up, not clients, because of where the "who interrupted ..." is placed in the sentence. Put the word or clause relevant to X close to X. Thus, from an email I wrote and then revised, "I'm traveling a lot, to Las Vegas in a couple of weeks, for example, a strange place" should be instead "I'm traveling a lot — in a couple of weeks, for example, to Las Vegas, a strange place." If people are going to grasp immediately what's "strange," they need it to be close to "Las Vegas." I'm telling you.

Yet in many ways Ms. Jones's rules and the associated folk wisdom have done grave damage. "Never repeat the same word or phrase within three lines," said Ms. Jones. The rule fit splendidly our budding verbosity at age thirteen, so we adopted it as the habit of a lifetime. Now we can't mention the "consumer" in one line without an itch to call it the "household" in the next and the "agent" in the next. Our readers slip into a fog known in the writing trade as "elegant variation."

"Never write 'I'," wrote she, and we (and you and I) have drowned in "we" ever since, a "we" less suited to us mere citizens than to kings, editors, and people with tapeworms. "Don't be common. Emulate James Fenimore Cooper. Writing well is writing swell," said she, praising Harry Wimple in the second row for his fancy talk — and in later life we struggled to attain a splendidly dignified bureaucratese. Her strictures against "I" make no sense if they merely result in replacing "I" with "we." But they do make sense if you note that when you're talking about "I" (or "we") you're not talking about the subject. Talk about the subject, class.

Ms. Jones ruled against our urge to freely split infinitives. H. W. Fowler, who in 1926 wrote an amusing book on the unpromising subject of "modern English usage," knew how to handle her ([1926] 1965, article "Split Infinitives"): "Those who neither know nor care [what a split infinitive is] are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by most. 'To really understand' comes readier to their lips and pens than 'really to understand'; they see no reason why they should not say it (small blame to them, seeing that reasons are not their critics' strong point)."

Ms. Jones filled us with guilt about using a preposition to end a sentence with. In English you have a choice: "a service for which people were willing to pay" or "a service which people were willing to pay for." Usually getting the preposition out of the final position is better, though it's best to judge by sound, not by rule. The rule you learned in school to never leave the preposition at the end is mistaken. Winston Churchill (1874–1965) was a British politician of note who wrote English well. About his very lofty Harrow School he said that the boys learned Latin as a duty and Greek as a treat (the economist Keynes won the Greek composition prize at another such school). Being no good at either, Churchill claimed, he merely learned English astonishingly well. Legend has it (though it might just be legend) that this master of the language wrote in the margin of a manuscript corrected by a student of Ms. Jones and her rule of no prepositions at the end of a sentence, "This is the sort of impertinence up with which I will not put."


Excerpted from "Economical Writing"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Deirdre Nansen McCloskey.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents Preface Why You Should Not Stop Reading Here 1. Writing Is a Trade 2. Writing Is Thinking 3. Rules Can Help, but Bad Rules Hurt 4. Be Thou Clear, but Seek Joy, Too 5. The Rules Are Factual Rather Than Logical 6. Classical Rhetoric Guides Even the Economical Writer 7. Fluency Can Be Achieved by Grit 8. Write Early Rather Than Late 9. You Will Need Tools 10. Keep Your Spirits Up, Forge Ahead 11. Speak to an Audience of Human Beings 12. Avoid Boilerplate 13. Control Your Tone 14. A Paragraph Should Have a Point 15. Make Tables, Graphs, Displayed Equations, and Labels on Images Readable by Themselves 16. Footnotes and Other "Scholarly" Tics Are Pedantic 17. Make Your Writing Cohere 18. Use Your Ear 19. Write in Complete Sentences 20. Avoid Elegant Variation 21. Watch How Each Word Connects with Others 22. Watch Punctuation 23. The Order Around Switch Until It Good Sounds 24. Read, Out Loud 25. Use Verbs, Active Ones 26. Avoid Words That Bad Writers Love 27. Be Concrete 28. Be Plain 29. Avoid Cheap Typographical Tricks 30. Avoid This, That, These, Those 31. Above All, Look at Your Words 32. Use Standard Forms in Letters 33. Treat Speaking in Public as a Performance 34. Advice for Nonnative English Speakers 35. If You Didn't Stop Reading, Join the Flow "Scholars Talk Writing: Deirdre McCloskey," Interview by Rachel Toor from the Chronicle of Higher Education House Rules: Teaching Materials Appendix: Applying Economical Writing to Become Your Own Best Editor, by Stephen T. Ziliak References Index Books by Deirdre Nansen McCloskey

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