Writing Tips For Economics Research Papers∗
Plamen Nikolov, Harvard University†
June 10, 2013
1 General Tips about Writing Style
When I read your term papers, I look for your ability to motivate your question using economic logic, your ability to critically analyze the past literature, and your ability to recognize empirical problems as they arise. In particular, it is important that your term paper demonstrates that you are more knowledgeable, analytic, and sophisticated about the economics of health or development economics than we would expect, say, a clever editorial writer for The New York Times to be. You should present evidence, cite literature, explain economic trade-o�s, and generally approach the issue from an analytic perspective. Sometimes, a student is tempted to stray into opinion-page, journalistic writing in his or her term paper. Do not do this.
Teaching good economics writing is one of the goals of the departmental writing requirement and is a valuable lesson for potential thesis writers. You will get a lower grade if your writing is
If you have trouble writing grammatically, please leave yourself some extra time and go to a writing tutor1. Clarity is the �rst priority in economics writing. Do not worry about being �snappy� if you are being clear. Journalistic writing is characterized by the lack of an analytical tone.
Below, you will �nd some notes about the �economics style� of writing. The desirable style of writing is exempli�ed by most of the papers on the syllabus. Economists have a certain writing style that can be picked up easily and is useful to learn if you want to be taken seriously by other economists. Some of the points of style may seem arbitrary, but follow them anyway.
• Favor the present tense. For instance: �Feldstein (1976) �nds that…� or �In this paper, I attempt to….�
• Cite articles and books as above, not: �Martin S. Feldstein, in a 1976 journal article….� ∗In addition to my own thoughts on how to write excellent economics research papers, I have also used materials
from John Cochrane (University of Chicago Graduate School of Business), Claudia Goldin (Harvard Economics Department), Caroline Hoxby (Stanford University Deparment of Economics), Lawrence Katz (Harvard Economics Department), Greg Mankiw (Harvard Economics Department), Robert Neugeboren (Harvard) and Humberto Barreto (Wabash College) to produce this handout. † National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Avenue, Third Floor-392, Cambridge, MA 02138. Tel +1-617-
855-9668. E-Mail: email@example.com. 1See http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~wricntr/
• Favor the active tense.
• Use �I� when you mean �I� and use �we� when you mean �we.� For instance, you might use �we� to talk about something that everyone could be expected to appreciate: �We expect that highly selective colleges enroll few students who had low grades in secondary school.� Use �I� to talk about what you did: �I use data from….� You are correct if you have noticed that economists often avoid using any personal pronouns. This is not necessarily a good thing, however.
• Avoid adjectives and verbs that are overly dramatic. For instance, �the results shatter our expectations� is too much.
• Do not use contractions or abbreviations such as: e.g., i.e., etc.. Write out the equivalent words: for instance, that is, et cetera. Latin and other foreign languages should be in italics or underlined: �Feldstein et al (1976)….�
• It may seem boring to keep using phrases like �The results show…,� �The estimated coe�cient on…,� or �is not statistically signi�cantly di�erent from zero.� Use them anyway or use some- thing equally clear. When reading your �Results� section, readers are trying to keep track of things, so they will tolerate a less than scintillating delivery in the interest of clarity.
• Keep non-economics comments for your �rst paragraphs and your conclusion. For instance, if your results have interesting political implications, you can motivate them in the introduction and return to them in the conclusion. Leave them out of the body of the paper, however, unless they are actually part of the model.
• If in doubt about whether to include some non-economics content, leave it out. Students tend to include too much, rather than too little, political and social commentary.
• Keep sentences short. Short words are better than long words. Monosyllabic words are best.
• Repetition is boring. I repeat: repetition is boring. Cut, cut, and then cut again.
• The passive voice is avoided by good writers.
• Positive statements are more persuasive than normative statements.
• Use adverbs sparingly.
• Avoid jargon. Any word you don’t read regularly in a newspaper is suspect.
• Never make up your own acronyms.
• Avoid unnecessary words. For instance, in most cases, change o �in order to� to �to� o �whether or not� to �whether� o �is equal to� to �equals�
• Avoid �of course, �clearly,� and �obviously.� Clearly, if something is obvious, that fact will, of course, be obvious to the reader. # The word �very� is very often very unnecessary.
• Keep your writing self-contained. Frequent references to other works, or to things that have come before or will come later, can be distracting.
• Put details and digressions in footnotes.
• To mere mortals, a graphic metaphor, a compelling anecdote, or a striking fact is worth a thousand articles in Econometrica.
• Keep your writing personal. Remind readers how economics a�ects their lives.
• Remember two basic rules of economic usage: �Long run� (without a hyphen) is a noun. �Long-run� (with a hyphen) is an adjective. Same with �short(-)run.� and �Saving� (without a terminal s) is a �ow. �Savings� (with a terminal s) is a stock.
• Buy a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Also, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Read them�again and again and again.
• Keep it simple. Think of your reader as being your college roommate who majored in English literature. Assume he has never taken an economics course, or if he did, he used the wrong textbook.
• Be your own worst enemy. If you won’t, someone else will.
2 Organization of the Paper
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