Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Tone, Voice, and Identity in Economic Writing

I enjoy words a lot. Even as a math major, I knew that my ideal job would be something that allowed me to read and write a lot. And I have gotten to read a lot of economics literature this year. One thing I've noticed is that the writing style and tone varies fairly drastically across papers.

In some, the writing is an afterthought--just some requisite explanations of methods and results. Stiff, formal, dry. Even if there are no problems with the writing, it is just too boring to get through. I don't know if I should be admitting this, or what it says about me as an aspiring economist, but I don't think the results in economics typically speak for themselves.

Presentation plays a huge role. The most notable papers just sparkle with voice and wit. The remarkable economists are the remarkably witty ones. I'm not sure which way the causation runs-- if witty, strong personality types make better economists, or if better economists feel more permitted to allow some personality in their work, or if the boring economists are just as good but I don't realize it because I can't get through their papers...

When writing my economic history paper I often felt unsure about who my audience is. I have this strong desire to write something that my parents and non-economist friends will enjoy. But I also will eventually need to be publishing things in academic journals, and not too many people read those out of sheer interest. Also, I love talking about economics with people in other fields, but sometimes feel resentful when other scientists assume they can understand everything about my field but I can't understand everything about theirs just because they are in a harder science. I really ought to get over that.

I think economists have some age-old unresolved identity issues. More than in most fields, we have these meta-level discussions like I'm having now about the goals and boundaries of our field, whether economics is science, methodological philosophy, the role of models, positive vs. normative analysis, the crossovers between academic and public roles, whether by studying the economy we change the economy, etc. None of this is a bad thing--I also think economists have more fun than most!

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