Category: Writing

Adventures in Publishing, Robbing Peter to Pay Paul Edition

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.

On “Rationality,” Other Misinterpreted Words, and Cultural Exceptions

A long-time friend and colleague writes (in French, so my own loose translation follows):

Hey,

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

How to Become a Good Academic Writer

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

Of Africa — and Writing

With the venerable Soyinka now 78, I wish I could report that his new volume of sweeping reflections is of the same stature as his best work, but sadly it is not. The book is vague, ponderous and awkward. Soyinka never says “house” when he can say “habitation,” “native” when he can say “autochthon,” “dominant” when he can say “hegemonic.” Phrases in quotation marks float free of any source. When he makes broad generalizations and criticisms he sometimes expects the reader to mentally provide specific examples. (Do you remember exactly what President Obama said in Cairo in 2009? I had to look it up.) The book abounds in passages full of 10-dollar words that have to be read two or three times to figure out what they mean. About contentions in Christian theology, for example, he says:

“These all-consuming debates and formal encyclicals are constructed on what we may term a proliferating autogeny within a hermetic realm — what is at the core of arguments need not be true; it is sufficient that the layers upon layers of dialectical constructs fit snugly on top of one another.”

That’s Adam Hochschild discussing Nigerian writer and 1986 Nobel laureate for literature Wole Soyinka‘s new book Of Africa in the New York Times Book Review. Continue reading