Better Writing is Perceived as Better Thinking

Better Writing is Perceived as Better Thinking

Better Writing is Perceived as Better Thinking

Before your writing can persuade those who actually read it of the merits of your thinking, the writing needs to persuade the reader–from the start–that it’s worth reading in the first place.

I work as an editor, so I am predisposed to believe that editing matters. But Jan Feld, Corinna Lines, and Libby Ross provide some evidence on the point in “Writing matters” (Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, January 2024, pp. 2378-397). Their study is of interest both for the methodology and findings, and also for how they define “good writing.” I’ll say a bit about both.

The study started with the authors contacting PhD students in economics and asking if they would send a paper, in exchange for free editing help. The authors got 30 papers. All 30 of the papers were then edited by professional editors, albeit professionals who didn’t usually work on academic writing. Thus, the 30 papers all had an original and an edited version. The editing took about six hours per paper.

The authors then recruited a set of 30 professors of economics and a different group of 18 writing/editing experts who worked in jobs like copywriter, technical writer, and communications manager. Each of these evaluators was sent a group of 10 papers. The economists evaluated the prospects for publication; the writing expert evaluated the quality of the writing. However, although the evaluator did not know it, they were each receiving a different mixture of original and already-edited articles. 

In addition, both groups were asked to do a quick evaluation, spending less than 8 minutes per paper. This may seem harsh. But consider the situation of an academic who is evaluating a large batch of papers that might be included in a conference, or a journal editor looking at a large batch of papers and considering which ones to desk-reject and which ones to send to referees. Quick evaluations of papers are a reality of academic life. Again, before you can impress a reader with the details of thinking, you need to get over that hump of that first five-minute read.

Feld, Lines, and Ross can then compare the evaluations of the original and the edited papers. For the writing experts, the edited papers were scored 1.22 points higher on an 11-point scale for being “better written overall” (0.6 of a standard deviation). For the economics readers, “Economists judge the overall paper quality [of the edited papers] 0.20 SD better (0.4 points on the 11-point scale). They are also 8.4 percentage points more likely to accept edited papers for a conference, and are 4.1 percentage points more likely to believe that edited papers will get published in an economics journal that is classified as A* or A on the ABDC [Australian Business Deans Council] journal ranking.” 

In short, six hours worth of work on the writing–done by an outside nontechnical editor who probably didn’t fully understand the technical economics–led to economist-readers believing that the paper was of higher quality. To put it another way, if you can’t or don’t do a good high-level edit of your own research papers, your chances of impressing readers is lower than it would otherwise be.

What is involved in taking a day to do a good high-level edit? In Appendix C, the authors spell out in a few pages what they asked the editors to do. In addition, the editors seemed to have used the software program StyleWriter to help the process along. I won’t reproduce the instructions to the outside editors in full, but here’s a short version:

Appendix C. Language Editing Guidelines for Experiment

An outline of the general approach the language editors will take

The goal is to edit the paper so that an expert who has 10 min to evaluate the paper will understand it more easily. We’ll focus on improving the title, abstract, and introduction using these guidelines. For the rest of the paper, we’ll focus on making the paper easier to skim read. …

Heavy edit of the title, abstract, and introduction only …

We’ll start by making sure the structure is clear.

The title should explain what the paper is about

We’ll make sure the title is clear. …

We’ll check the abstract is one paragraph that contains:

    • the research question

    • an explanation of how this question is answered

    • the main findings. …

We’ll edit the introduction so that it has one paragraph for each of the following parts:

    • the motivation for the research

    • what the paper does (this paragraph often starts with “In this paper,…”)

    • results

    • the related literature (unless there is a separate literature section)

    • contribution to the literature.

Avoid roadmap paragraphs

A good structure and informative section titles will do the trick in most cases …

Signposting for the reader

We’ll make sure the information flows well and is clear for the reader.

Remove roadmap phrases used to connect paragraphs

Make sure paragraphs are focused and only discuss one idea. For example, have separate paragraphs for describing the results and for discussing the related literature. …

The secret to a clear and readable style is in the first five or six words of every sentence. At the beginning of every sentence, locate the reader in familiar territory. The writing needs to have a clear flow of logic that is easy for the reader to follow — don’t frame information in a way that breaks the flow. …

Find the actor of the sentence and the actions they perform. If the actors are not the subjects and the actions are not verbs, we’ll revise so that they are.

Keep a short distance between nouns and their accompanying verb …

Use simple, familiar words

Use “use” instead of “utilize”. Use “people” instead of “individuals”.

Delete unnecessary words or clauses …

For example, in “We are the first to introduce a novel method”, there is no need to mention both “first” and “novel”.

In Section 2, we explain to the reader how our results are estimated.

Many introductory clauses that end with “that” can be deleted. Everything before the “that” should be deleted from a sentence.

It is usually the case that most good writers find that

It should be noted that writing is an art and a science. …

Avoid abbreviations and acronyms

Use them only if they help the reader and choose the ones that sound good. OECD is fine, but use Facebook instead of FB. Write New Zealand, not NZ. …

We’ll remove any hedging statements that seem unnecessary. Writers don’t need to always say “all else equal”, “fairly”, “I would argue”. However, sometimes they need to qualify the statements to avoid people getting it wrong.

Avoid naked this or that in the beginning of the sentence

We’ll add more information where needed, such as “this regression shows” instead of “this shows”. …

We’ll add information to section titles and keep them short and concise. For example, “The credit market in New Zealand” is better than “Background”. …

Use self-explanatory titles of tables and figures

“The effect of peer gender on educational outcomes” is better than “Main Results”.

Most of these changes are already covered in detail in the above sections.

    • Fix problems with long sentences (with StyleWriter)
    • Fix problems with passive voice (with StyleWriter)
    • Fix problems with nominalizations (with StyleWriter)
    • Untangle noun strings
    • Delete unnecessary words and clauses
    • Use more personal pronouns (like “we” and “our”) where possible

A lot of this advice, along with the comments about appropriate fonts, spacing, and formatting, may seem obvious. So why not take a few hours of extra time to do it?

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

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