Ten top tips on how to write clearly and get your ideas heard
Even the best economists can struggle to get their ideas heard. How we communicate our ideas is vital, as most of the people that make the big decisions at work – senior people, with very pressing demands on their time – probably won’t have an economics background.
This post is all about sharing a few tips that I’ve picked up over the years, to write clearly and communicate economics effectively to senior people without an economics background.
Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So take some time at the beginning to think about what you’re going to say. Make sure you understand your arguments and the evidence you’re going to use to make them.
Who is your audience? Different people will be interested different things. Senior people may not have time to consider all the details; whereas others may need to know more.
Sketch out a plan of what you think you need to cover. It doesn’t have to be detailed, just enough to give you some structure and allow you to concentrate on writing each section of your product at a time, without trying to remember what should come next.
Are there any questions you should address? Sometimes, certain people or audiences have a reputation for asking particular questions, or are likely to be most interested in a particular aspect of your work. Be prepared for this and make sure these are addressed in advance, where possible.
Just get stuck in!
Ever been sat there in front of a blank Word document, just not knowing where to start? Funny how many questions a blank sheet of paper can provoke, isn’t it? Sometimes, after having your head buried in complex analysis for so long, just knowing where to start on the write-up becomes a struggle.
The trick here is not to get too hung up on what the end product should look like, or even necessarily on whether what you’re typing makes perfect sense. The important thing for now is that you just start to write.
Imagine that you’re meeting up with a friend you haven’t seen for a while and they ask you what kind of things you do, day-to-day, at work. Think about how you would explain this to them and write the first draft in exactly this way – write it just how you would speak it.
Of course, what sounds good when you’re sitting in the pub might not look so good when it’s in print. But this is a great way kick off the writing process and get into a rhythm. There will be plenty of time to edit it later, but at least now you’ll have plenty of material to edit!
Use metaphors sparingly
Pick up any newspaper or magazine and have a flick through the pages. It’ll contain scores of metaphors. Governments are often being being raked over the coals; and voters’ hackles are always being raised. European countries are regularly spotted sailing through choppy waters. Trojan horses are everywhere; and every other speech seems to be ‘kite-flying’.
They look great in a newspaper or magazine article, but can you imagine writing like that at work? I can’t. It’s best to stick to using simple language where possible. Use them sparingly – don’t cross any bridges unless you absolutely have to; otherwise, you may look back to find them disappearing in a cloud of ash and smoke (see what I did there?).
Our job is to inform and engage our colleagues; to get them the information they need in a way that will help them to remember and understand it. Get to the point simply and in your own words and you won’t go far wrong.
Get to the point quickly
Academic journal articles often take a long time to get to the point. You have to wade through what seems like an endless literature review, lines and lines of detail about the data they’ve used and how it compares to that in other studies… and by the time you’ve got to the bit you’re interested in, you’ve almost forgotten why you wanted to read the article in the first place.
Academics have to do things in this way, but we don’t have to follow these conventions. We’re paid to know what we’re doing, so that our bosses don’t have to.
If you’ve done your own analysis and have to write it up, get to the point quickly. Tell them what’s new and what’s good about it. They don’t need to know the detail behind it or where it fits into the literature – they trust you to know what you’re doing; you don’t have to prove yourself. They’re only interested in the results and whether they’re reliable.
Take the following as an example:
“The data shows that there is a negative correlation between educational attainment and the male conviction rate for property crime. What this does not tell us, however, is whether there is a causal relationship between the two variables.
To test this, we begin by estimating the impact of educational attainment on crime using the standard Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) method. We will treat our estimates here as our base estimates. To test for a causal relationship, we will use an instrumental variables (IV) model, with the instrument being the change in the school leaving age that occurred in 1972. Table 4 shows the OLS results alongside the IV regression results. The coefficient on the instrument is larger and significant at the 1 per cent level. “
How can we change this so that it gets to the point more quickly? How about this:
“Our data shows a negative relationship between gaining a qualification and the male conviction rate for property crime. Where qualification attainment is higher, conviction rates are lower. But does this mean that gaining a qualification makes someone less likely to commit crime?
To test this, we use a range of standard analytical techniques. We find a robust, causal relationship between gaining a qualification and lower crime rates. “
This not only cuts down on some of the detail, it’s also a bit less technical.
Use short words and short sentences
Short words are easy to spell and easy to understand. Use about rather than approximately, after instead of following, enough rather than sufficient, for example.
Cut out unnecessary words. Try to avoid adjectives that you find yourself using to make something sound more emphatic. The results were impressive sounds better that the results were very impressive.
Similarly, you can meet someone instead of meeting up with them. Naughty children are sent to bed rather than sent off to bed. Safe havens are often just havens and the fact that can often be shortened to just that.
Go through each paragraph to see if it can be shortened. You might like to try cutting words out to see if the meaning of the paragraph changes. Will the reader still get the same point?
Also, be active rather than passive. John bought the car describes the event more concisely than the car was bought by John.
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But it’s harder than it looks. The thing about jargon is that if you use it, you will only have to explain what it means. So actually, avoiding it is less work. Or worse: no one will ask you what it means, because they’ve decided that they’re not interested enough in your work to take the time to understand it.
Go back to your friend in the pub earlier. How would you explain things to them without using any jargon? In general, your audience will almost always be full of intelligent people, but who know no economics.
And remember, what sounds like a simple word to us, might not be for others. I once got asked what ‘monetise’ means. It was only then it hit home that despite my best efforts, I was still using jargon.
Also try and avoid using foreign words and phrases where there is an English alternative. So ceteris paribus becomes all other things equal, per capita becomes per person; and so on.
Choose the correct tone
Have you ever noticed that as soon as you read an official looking, formally written letter, you immediately become suspicious and put your guard up? That’s how your readers will feel if you choose too formal a tone, especially when it comes to complex analysis.
The trick is to use the language of everyday speech, not that of spokesmen, solicitors or bureaucrats. Use let instead of permit, people to persons; buy instead of purchase for example.
Never send something on the day you write it
If you can, try and avoid sending something on the same day that you write it. Coming back to it with a fresh pair of eyes the following day always helps the editing process – you’ll be surprised at just how many improvements you can make.
If it’s important, get someone else to look at it
If it’s for your boss, ask another team member to proof read it for you and to check that it reads OK. Pick someone who hasn’t got an economics background to do this for you, if that’s who your ultimate audience will be. I never ceased to be amazed by how other people can come up with suggestions and questions that I would never have thought of.
Don’t be too hard on yourself
These are just a few tips that I’ve picked up and have found useful. I can’t promise I’ve written this perfectly. No-one’s perfect. There will always be that one person, who has to send back tracked changes on EVERYTHING you do, so don’t let it get you down. Applying these simple steps has really helped me to explain my economics in a simple, more accessible way. And hopefully, they’ll help you, too.