Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Stanley Fish on Writing

Posted by Simon Halliday | Tuesday, August 25, 2009 | Category: |

In his column Think Again in the NYT, Stanley Fish has a new Op-Ed 'What Should Colleges Teach?' The main subject of his piece is composition - the craft of writing.  He discusses the recent publication of a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, separating their criticisms into those that are useful and those that are simply political.  Regardless of whether you agree or not with his classification (I tend to), his essay deserves to be read. 

On writing, I lament students' inability to write, particularly students in the Commerce faculty where I lectured.  But the problem goes higher up.  Also, I regularly edit articles written by my fellow graduate students, and, though most of them are second language English speakers, they still compose and write poorly.  Why is their writing poor? Not because they are second language English speakers, but because stodgy, prolix, and opaque writing pervades the economics profession.  Consequently, there are few contemporary economics articles that are well-written, few articles written with style, written with grace, written with sufficient attention to grammar and composition, written with concrete and specific nouns and verbs.   

But remedies exist! Consider first Deirdre McCloskey's Economical Writing, second Joseph M. Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, then move on to other useful books like William Zinsser's On Writing Well, Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, Clare K. Cook's Line by Line, and finally Jane E. Miller's Guide to Writing About Numbers and her Guide To Writing About Multivariate Analysis. There are so many books out there that could help to make writing clearer, and that would therefore enable economists to express their thinking more clearly. I shan't throw stones at those outside of my discipline (*cough* post-structuralists and post-modernists *cough*), but I shall make a plea to all those involved in the economics profession, or those who happen to read this blog, to consider taking a look at books on writing, to consider editing their own work rigorously (as rigorously as they consider arguments for, say, a minimum wage, or an increase in the interest rate), and to consider that writing is thinking and therefore the clearer your writing becomes the clearer your thinking becomes. 

I learned this the hard way, thinking previously that 'academic' writing was highfallutin, was purposefully obscurantist, and contained many latinates.  I was wrong.  I wrote poorly. As my writing became clearer I realised that what I thought profound was not, what I arose through simplifying and clarifying my work, what may initially have seemed a commonplace, could turn out to be something intriguing and nuanced. So I try to follow a different path now. I simplify, clarify, and simplify again - that way my thinking, my results, and my interpretation become clearer and I can understand whether what I say is interesting or uninteresting, revolutionary or prosaic, telling or irrelevant.  I hope that it eventually pays off.

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  3. Oh Stanley. He's so ridiculous sometimes. Composition should be grammar and nothing else! I am the composition God here me dictate.

    I'm bringing that article in for my Comp. class on Monday. Needless to say, the essay I assigned for Monday argued the opposite of Mr. Fish's outdated brilliance.

  4. I don't think that composition should be grammar, but rather that trying to compose without understanding grammatical structures is rather like trying to build something without understanding basic geometry. Moreover, clarifying your thinking through clarifying your writing can only help you (it has done so for me).