An anonymous reviewer opens his or her remarks on an article I had submitted for publication in the following unintentionally hilarious fashion:
I am willing to accept the principal finding in this paper (food price levels matter more than price volatility in driving social unrest), in part because others (e.g., Bellemere [sic]) have drawn a similar conclusion.
A long-time friend and colleague writes (in French, so my own loose translation follows):
I was thinking about your post on rationality, a concept whose [economic] definition differs from its popular definition.
Other examples: “structural,” “public good,” or “efficiency.” In the limit, “profit” and “rent.”
Is it the layperson’s job to learn accurate definitions, or the economist’s job to be more precise about their vocabulary?
I think it’s our job to define the terms we use when we engage in public debates, for two reasons. First, because I believe the onus is always on the writer to be understood by his readers. That belief of mine probably stems from studying philosophy in college in a French-speaking university, and from the allergic reaction I got from being exposed to some of the most willingly obfuscating writing ever published (see Derrida, Jacques; or don’t.) Continue reading
One piece of advice—one that I haven’t seen mentioned—immediately follows from this: The way to improve your writing is to practice writing. Serious prose writers write every day. Academic social scientists who want to write well should do the same, and this especially holds when carrying heavy teaching, administering, and research loads. Because no one generates enough primary research to fill a solid hour of writing every day, it means writing for other audiences. Book reviews, referee reports, recommendation letters, blog posts, it probably doesn’t really matter, so long as the focus is on the act of writing.
That’s Cornell’s Tom Pepinsky, adding his grain of salt to a discussion of academic writing that was sparked by Stephen Walt in a post for Foreign Policy. Continue reading