Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Noah Smith Writing Lesson

Source Noah Smith
Noah Smith has a good review of the writing in Deirdre McCloskey's review of Thomas Piketty's book.

A lesson for students learning to write papers: Don't needlessly annoy readers before you get to your point. If a reader disagrees, finds something wrong, or insufficiently documented, of if you offend a reader, he or she will leave without getting to the main point.  Once a reader finds one thing he or she thinks is wrong, he or she will distrust the rest of the argument. Grand methodological statements and criticisms of swaths of literature are especially dangerous.

Noah's post is a great example. As you can see, Noah never got to the main point of McCloskey's review, and happily admits it.

And Noah's criticisims are spot on.  The first four pages of McCkoskey's review are full of grand, outrageous, and arguably false statements, having nothing to do with Piketty, inequality, or anything else that follows.  McCloskey, author of a splendid essay on writing in economics, should really have known better.  My review said as much too. Interestingly, I quoted quite a few of the same points Noah found.  (I put that at the bottom of a "too-long post on a far-too-long review of a enormously-too-long book" because  my main point was not about writing and for once I followed my own advice and put the secondary point at the bottom.)

So, dear students, learn the lesson: write the minimum up front needed to make your main point later. If you think everyone runs too many regressions, or you don't like non-cooperative game theory, and unless this point is absolutely necessary to your criticism of Piketty, save it for another day. Only offend people you really really need to offend. Otherwise, you risk having a potential reader like Noah give up in disgust before he gets to your point. Noah, hold your nose and plow on, it gets better.


  1. I suggest suggesting to Prof McClosky she take another shot

  2. "Of course, there is no substitute for reading Marx himself -- as torturous as that might be at times." - Peter Boettke, You Have to Read Marx and Understand His Philosophical System to Appreciate What He Said and What Is Wrong With It

    Maybe Noah Smith is under the impression that it's a walk in the park for us pro-market types to read his blog. I think it's a pretty universal rule that it's not very enjoyable to subject yourself to disagreeable things. With this in mind I do feel somewhat obligated to give Noah a few props for at least attempting to walk the gauntlet.

    1. "Maybe Noah Smith is under the impression that it's a walk in the park for us pro-market types to read his blog."

      Pro-market type? Such a thing does not exist as all economists are for markets. The smarter ones just get that there is market failure in the world (imperfect competition, externalities, imperfect information and the resulting incentive problems) which makes economics a complex, technical discipline which has progressed far beyond the pseudo-philosophical nonsense of Mises, Marx or other early economic thinkers. There is a reason Austrians and Marxists are not mainstream but heterodox/radical economists.

  3. "Of if" a reader is put off by typos, that may be the one thing that does it. ;-)

  4. If you want to see good writing, read Eric Hoffer.

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