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GUIDELINES FOR WRITING
David B. Mustard
University of Georgia
Department of Economics
This page outlines some
guidelines for good writing for students in my undergraduate and PhD
classes and students who are writing a senior paper with me.
I highly recommend John Cochrane's "Writing Tips for PhD Students,"
which contains very helpful suggestions for students of all levels. My
students at all levels--Ph.D, M.A., and B.A. should read this 12-page
paper on good writing.
Titles should ask a question or articulate a hypothesis rather than describe an area of research. For instance, "Does Capital Punishment Deter Crime?" is better than "An Analysis about Crime Rates and Punishments." Such titles are more helpful to the reader and provide a framework or outline for the author.
Use active voice not passive voice. Active voice makes the argument more concise and comprehensible.
Get the facts right
Use specific evidence and examples to buttress your case rather than rely on general arguments.
Evaluate both sides of an argument--or both costs and benefits
Use words like "believe", "argue", "contend", or "maintain" rather than "feel". Sound more analytical rather than subjective.
Can often eliminate "seems to" and "appears to". While sometimes appropriate, this phrase usually makes the argument sound less compelling.
More accurate and clear
Be precise--don't settle for vague statements.
1. Watch use of buzzwords (for example, students often use the word "efficiency" but do not use it precisely)
2. Don't use vague references with no noun. For example, "this shows how important it is". Words like "this", "these", "those", "it", etc. should usually be paired with a noun, especially when you use the words to start a new sentence. It may be clear in your mind what you are refering to, but it may not be clear to the reader.
3. Generally avoid words like "really", "quite", etc. For example, "the economy grew really quickly" can be better written as "the economy grew 4.5 % per year."
4. Generally avoid using words and phrases with quotation marks or italics. Instead, clearly explain you mean.
5. Avoid using words like "sort of", "kind of"--just say what you mean.
6. Be consistent with verb tenses.
7. Use correct capitalization, possessive cases, etc.
8. The word "data" is plural. "Datum" is singular.
9. In discussing literature and your own work, the norm in the economics profession is to use the present tense. Use either present or past tense but be consistent.
Eliminate the following phrases from your writing
- “in order” - the industry must change "in order to" be more competitive. Can say the industry must change to be more competitive. Similar with "in order for" and "to be able to"
- "whether or not": Cut "or not" - it is implicit in the "whether".
- "in an effort to regulate" -> "to regulate"
- “in fact”
- "in the fact that", "due to the fact that" and similar phrases can usually be replaced by "because"
- phrases like "choose to" "decides to" "seeks to", etc. can usually be cut and you can use the verb that follows.
- "needless to say" "It is needless to say that the regulation imposes costs and benefits."
- "in other words"
- "that is"
- "itself", "themselves", "herself", etc. "The government regulated the industry itself" This is repetive.
- "so as to" -> "to"
- "actual" and "actually" - are typically unnecessary
- because you are writing the paper, you can usually cut phrases like "I believe", "I feel", etc.
"which" is often used incorrectly for "that".
Use paragraphs to delineate distinct ideas. Paragraphs should be concise and not run on to discuss multiple ideas in detail.
Most writers use too many words to convey their thoughts. Once you finish your piece go back through the paper and look to cut words. You can often make your writing clearer and more concise simply by cutting words.
Use paragraphs of reasonable length. If your paragraph is over a page long that should trigger you to check it. In such cases, you probably are discussing too many ideas and could improve your writing by devoting one paragraph to one or two key ideas and using additional paragraphs for other ideas.
When discussing the literature, it is conventional to use present tense. Pick one tense for literature and generally stick with it to avoid confusion.
All sources you cite should be in references. All sources in references should be cited. There should be no loose sources in either direction.
Freeman, Richard. 1991. "Crime and the Employment of Disadvantaged Youths." National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper #3875.
Published Single-author paper
Mustard, David B. 2001. "Racial, Ethnic and Gender Disparities in Sentencing: Evidence from the US Federal Courts," The Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 44 (1): 285-314.
Published Multiple-author paper
Nagin, Daniel and Joel Waldfogel. 1995. "The Effects of Criminality and Conviction on the Labor Market Status of Young British Offenders." International Review of Law and Economics, Vol. 15 (January): 109-126.
Moore, Myra, and David B. Mustard. 2002. Test Bank for History of the American Economy. Southwestern, Mason, OH.
Engber, Daniel. "Markets vs. Exchanges: What's the Difference?" Slate Magazine, http://www.slate.com/id/2117171/. Accessed on April 22, 2005.
How should you cite references?
There are two appropriate ways and both involve listing the author(s) and the year of the paper:
1. Nagin and Waldfogel (1995) conclude that ....
2. Research consistently concludes that .... (Mustard, 2001).