The Resurrection of Finance?
Economics and Ethics celebrates its 500th post with a new design and more!

Revise and resubmit... with style!

Mark D. White

SwordThis weekend's Wall Street Journal featured an article by Helen Sword entitled "Yes, Even Professors Can Write Stylishly," in which she criticized the quality of writing by most academics--and praised the exceptions, explaining some features that make good academic writing shine. (More can be found in her book, Stylish Academic Writing.) Having done my share of both writing and editing for various audiences, as well as lots of reading and refereeing, Sword's article got me to thinking about the challenges of academic writing and the pursuit of style in it.

I would tend to think that scholars in the humanities (such as philosophy and law) have more latitude--and more responsibility--to write stylishly than those in the physical and social sciences. Scientific writing is often rigidly formatted (sometimes explicitly by journals): present the problem, explain the model, derive results (theoretically or empirically), and interpret the results. This should all be written well, of course, but I think style is of less concern when you're explaining a negative second derivative or a statistically significant coefficient.

I remember writing my early economics articles (in theoretical industrial organization), in which it seemed all I was doing in the middle 80% of the paper was bridging the gaps between equations. The only "real" writing came at the beginning and the end, the parentheses that held the "stuff"--but ironically, the parentheses were the only part most people would read, so I learned quickly that careful attention to them was crucial.

Writing in the humanities--a category in which I would include non-scientific economics--is less structured. This gives scholars more freedom to exercise their personal style, and at the same time provides less scaffolding under which to hide bad writing. Naturally, philosophers and legal scholars, who are trained at crafting arguments, often have the most polished prose, but many economists excel at this as well.

Personally, I find much more stylistic freedom writing books (or contributions for edited volumes) than journal articles. While I agree with Sword that journal editors (and referees) value clear writing as much as anybody, I don't know if I'd agree that they appreciate stylish writing. Maybe it's just me, but I feel constrained to write very formally when I write for a journal; based on what I read in journals, it seems that is what most journal editors expect. (I say "most," because I know some journal editors that are exceptional in this way.)

I tend to be a fairly good mimic when I write, so I've been able to adopt my writing style to whatever venue I'm writing for, whether it be journal, newspaper op-ed, popular magazine, academic book or popular trade. Out of those, the journal "style" is definitely my least favorite, and happily I'm at a stage in my career where I'm no longer dependant on journal publications for professional advancement. But while books may reach a wider audience (especially outside academia), there is a degree to which regular journal publications help keep your name in the thick of things in a particular academic community, so in that sense I miss writing for journals. (It's just not as enjoyable--and shouldn't writing be enjoyable?)

Mimckry does not always pay off, though. For instance, Deirdre McCloskey is my favorite academic writer as far as style is concerned. I adore her tone--playful and gracious, yet firm and forceful--and I have to be very careful not to indulge my inner mimic and churn out third-rate McCloskeyisms when I write!

I make no claims to any significant degree of craft or style in my writing, academic or popular. I am very grateful when friends or colleagues read my work and say they can "hear my voice" in it, and I am especially happy when they say this in reference to my academic writing, in which it is more challenging to be myself. (My natural voice comes out much more easily in my chapters in the Blackwell Philosopy and Pop Culture books and my Psychology Today posts.) Whatever academic style I have is most apparent in Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character, especially in the introduction (available here). I'll just keeping trying to improve and hone my style as I keep writing. (And writing. And writing. And...)

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