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Assorted Do-and-Dont Suggestions for Writing Economics Papers

Trudy Ann Cameron Version: 3/1/2007 Warning: this advice will not necessarily conform to this advice.

Before You Write


Re-read McCloskeys Economical Writing before each major writing project. The halflife of these insights is remarkably short. Reading it once will not be enough. Keep your copy of Strunk and White close at hand, as well. Read it now if you somehow got through your education to this point without having to read it before. The highest goal in writing is to be understood. It is not to impress the reader. Work hard to remove every possible ambiguity in your prose. Leave yourself time to write. This means starting to write early. Make advance arrangements with others to swap papers for pre-reading. Never allow yourself to be the only person to read a paper before it goes public and final. Always acknowledge your readers and their helpful comments on your cover page. (There is no need to get maudlin. Just be straightforward. Also include the standard disclaimer than any remaining errors are your own. Those generous readers are not responsible if there is still some huge error in your paper.) Whenever possible, let your paper sit for a few days to a week before you return to it for a final day of editing. Work on something different in the meantime, to clear your intellectual palate. Then go back to discover how awful your prose really is. It is best if this gestation period occurs before the due date, rather than following it. If possible, use reference management software in conjunction with your wordprocessing program. Build an inventory of references and use the cite-as-you-write feature. This allows you to change the formatting of the in-text citations and the list of references at will. Downloadable formatting for specific journals is available on the web, or you can construct your own styles. While you were doing your literature search to determine the originality of your idea and the relevant antecedents to your work, you should have been saving digital or paper copies of these publications or working papers. You will usually need to refer to these again during the writing of your own paper. Take advantage of the outline mode on your word processor to set up the structure of your paper. Think long and hard about organization before you start filling in the paper with details. Temporary section headings can consist of topical sentences for each future paragraph. These headings can be demoted to text as you flesh out the paper with your broader ideas.

The Cover Page


Know how a cover page for an economics working paper is supposed to look. There is an approximate standard. It includes title, author, authors affiliation, abstract title, abstract (all centered), then date, JEL codes, keywords, acknowledgements (left-aligned).

There should be no fancy or out-sized fonts. There are minor variations, but this is a common form. The abstract should be no more than 100-150 words and it should explain what the paper is about, what it finds, and how. Most people leave the writing of the abstract for last, but there is some merit in being able to articulate these facts very early on in the writing process. Leave adequate time to craft a truly incisive and clear abstract. These 100 words should have the greatest value-per-character of any 100 words in your paper. This is the advertisement that will attract people to actually read what is inside. The abstract is now immensely important because the title and abstract of your paper will be all that is indexed in RepEC (or in the ISI WebofKnowledge or in Econlit). Make sure you use the terms that people will be searching on when they are looking for ideas like yours. Think carefully about which keywords will lead the right people to your paper. Most journals now require author-provided keywords.

The Introduction
In your introduction, you should be careful to identify the constituency for the results you will be describing in your paper. Your audience may benefit by being reminded who they are (tactfully, of course). Our results will be of particular interest to. Also be specific about why this audience should be interested in your results. For example, you might remind them that many critical policy questions hinge upon. If you can place your research in a broader context, do so. Think about the bigger picture and lead readers to see the broader implications of your work. You paper may have a very narrow empirical focus, but you can expand your audience by doing some thinking for them. You are better positioned than any casual reader to think through the relevance of your work for other applications or subject areas. A publishable paper reports on the creation of new knowledge. Your paper should make it abundantly clear where the existing literature ends and where your innovative contribution begins. The reader should not have to guess where the demarcation occurs. Be explicit. Give full credit to the antecedents for your work, but claim your innovations explicitly. Explain what gaps your work fills and why these gaps were a significant problem in the existing complement of knowledge. Be sure you have identified the question. In economics, we are big on testable hypotheses. These issues should have come up much earlier in the research process. If you dont know what these are at the point of sitting down to write, you are not prepared to write.

The Existing Literature


For in-text citations, the Author (date) format is widely used in economics. Use this as a default unless instructed to do otherwise by the journal or by your instructor. Your reference management software will allow you to change the citation format arbitrarily to any one of a wide variety of styles. Dont anthropomorphize papers. Researchers arrive at findings, papers dont. Beware of sentences beginning This paper [verb] If you are tempted to start your abstract or your introduction with In this paper, we , try substituting We Everybody knows that you are going to be doing this in this paper.

In describing the existing literature, keep in mind that any published paper to which you refer will keep on saying the same thing every time anyone else reads it. Use the present tense. Author (1997) finds that or Author1 and Author2 (1994) argue that.

Paragraphs
Make sure each paragraph has a topical sentence. It helps if this topical sentence comes at the beginning. The second most-important sentence in a paragraph is the last one. Reconsider any paragraph shorter than three sentences or longer than about one-third to one-half of a page, double-spaced. Can long paragraphs be split, to avoid fatiguing the reader? Are there really two ideas in a long paragraph? Make sure the sentences in each paragraph hang together. This can be helped by linking sentences in the form (AB)(BC)(CD), where the same letter indicates a related phrase.

Equations
Number your equations, and refer to them in the text by their numbers. Add-in software like Mathtype can be helpful for this, but beware of its tendency to crash Word and convert your equations to graphics. For papers with many complex equations, this can be infuriating, unless you never make a mistake and never have to edit your equations. (One way to minimize these crashes is to avoid highlighting an existing equation directly in Word and copying and pasting it somewhere else. If you want to make a copy of an equation, open the equation in Mathtype and highlight it there. Then open another Mathtype equation window and paste the equation into that second window.) It is still possible to rely on the symbols and subscript/superscript options in your word processor to format equations. However, they never look as elegant as what can be achieved with specialized software. The alternative to Mathtype is to learn TeX or Scientific Workplace, but then you sacrifice some of the wonderful features of MSWord. The best solution will often depend on the complexity of the math you will need to include in your paper. One advantage of Scientific Word or Scientific Workplace is that the software comes with basic templates that can make your draft paper look like a galley proof. This is nice, of course, but it is the content of the paper that deserves more of your attention in the writing phase. Some people have success using TeX-based software for the text of their paper and Word for the tables. This is clunky, but can exploit the best features of both programs and save some time. BibTeX, however, is less friendly to use for references than is Word, if you are using EndNote.

Nuts and Bolts of Writing (miscellaneous)


Always include page numbers. For all drafts except the final one, turn on the line-numbering utility in your wordprocessing software, so that when you are discussing your draft with anyone, or when they are giving you comments, they can identify passages uniquely by page-number/linenumber combinations. Be sure to get rid of the line numbers for your final copy, however (but keep the page numbers, of course).

Dont right-justify your text. Leave the right side ragged unless you are using sophisticated typesetting software like LaTeX or Scientific Word or Scientific Workplace. The most impactful portion of a sentence is at the end. Running a close second is the beginning portion. Occasionally, vary your sentence structure to put the key phrase at the beginning, but usually, put the most important phrase at the end. Add variety to your prose by avoiding repetition of Subject predicate. Subject predicate. Swap the order especially when it helps to put the most important part of the sentence at the end. Try reading your paper aloud to someone (or at least to yourself). This can highlight the rough patches that will impede understanding. Dont use a multi-syllable word when a short and simple one is perfectly adequate. Use the bigger word only if the shade of meaning it contributes is important. Where necessary, explain the word, if this will help your audience. Remember Never use a big word when a diminutive one will suffice. Data is the plural of datum. Avoid the need for italics or quotation marks by re-writing the sentence. Use them sparingly when there is no way to avoid it. Use acronyms only sparingly. If you are inventing them, try to make them at least minimally pronounceable. If you are adopting someone elses acronym and it is particularly awkward, it might be a good defense to cite the paper that perpetrated the acronym. Make sure nouns and verbs agree in number. Beware of any sentence that begins with Hopefully,. If you mean I hope or We hope, then use that instead. Better yet, dont hope at all. Know. Scrutinize every verb that ends with ing. For example, We will be describing is weaker than We will describe. The need for regulating is weaker than The need to regulate. Know the difference between i.e. (that is) and e.g. (for example). Or, dont use these Latin abbreviations at all. Scrutinize every use of the words it and they. Is it completely unambiguous what it is, or who they are? Whenever a noun is modified by a string of adjectives, ask yourself whether each adjective by itself would make sense as a stand-alone modifier of that noun. If not, experiment with hyphenating the adjectives so that a hyphenated pair makes sense. (Ill keep an eye out for a particularly egregious economic example. Notice that stand-alone modifier happens to be an example. stand modifier and alone modifier dont make any sense.) When you find you need too many adjectives strung together with hyphens, though, consider writing the sentence a different way. Know the difference between A has an effect on B and A affects B, and note how each is different from To effect a change in C... Some readers still recoil at the sight of a split infinitive. Examples of infinitives are to write, to disclose, or to go. Split infinitives are to quickly write, to truthfully disclose or to boldly go. Technically, it is more appropriate to use to write quickly,

to disclose truthfully, and to go boldly. American English is a little more fastidious about this than is English English. Know the difference between its and its. Only the contraction of it is employs an apostrophe. The possessive form does not, for some stupid reason. Many writers try to avoid the gendered pronoun problem (his/her, he/she) by using they generically. This is not technically correct, as they is plural. There is growing acceptance of the practice of varying the gender of your entities. The consumer might be he and the producer might be she, or vice versa (not visa versa). This also helps the reader keep the players sorted out. To beg the question does not mean that a question is begging to be asked. From the Oxford English Dictionary: To take for granted without warrant; esp. in to beg the question: to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof. Check each comma in your paper to see if it is essential. Commas slow your reader. Sometimes they are essential to delineate the portions of a sentence when you have varied the order of its parts. Sometimes they can be dropped without confusing the reader, especially if the next word is the. Check each sentence for superfluous preamble words. Examples include In order to have the greatest impact It would be sufficient to use To have the greatest impact. Be sure you know how to use a semicolon, a colon, dashes, and parentheses before employing them in your paper. Dont use etc. if you can possibly avoid it. Dont use whether or not when whether suffices. Dont use In regard[s] to. If you must, try With respect to or Concerning. Think about whether your sentence even needs this preamble.

Describing Empirical Results


When describing empirical results, keep in mind that it is not variables that are statistically significant or insignificant, it is the estimated coefficients on these variables. Also, coefficients are usually evaluated on whether they are statistically significant from zero. The from zero part is understood by sophisticated consumers of regression results, but not by other readers of your paper. When describing empirical results, it is just fine if the story in the paper does not refer to the variables using the same name as you used in your estimating software. In Stata, make use of the label variable newname command to create more recognizable variable labels, especially if you are using outreg.do or estimates table in Stata 8. Learn how to exploit outreg.do or the estimates table command in Stata or other post-processing utilities, to streamline the process of revising your tables of results in the face of last-minute alternations to your specifications. Tables produced by these utilities can now be opened directly in Word, or in Excel, or inserted into TeX documents. However, when opening outreg results in Excel (for example, in order to alter the number of significant digits) remember that Excel interprets things in parentheses, like t-ratios, as negative numbers. You can prevent this by reading the outreg output into Excel as text, but this precludes changes to the number of decimal places. Anticipate having to do some touch-ups by hand.

When reporting on empirical work, be sure you have exercised due diligence in assessing the robustness of your results. At the very least, be sure you have asked yourself whether all of the derivatives of y with respect to x are constant. If they might not be, you should have explored specifications with quadratic terms and interaction terms. You should have examined the marginal distributions of all of your variables and pruned away any obviously outliers in testing for robustness. The substance of your results should be robust to inclusion or deletion of outliers. You should also have assessed the predictive ability of your model by limiting estimation to one randomly selected subsample. Impose those estimated coefficients upon the other half of the data to see whether the R-squared-type value that is achieved here is essentially the same as the real R-squared in the estimating sample. This is called out-ofsample forecasting ability, or cross-validation.

Caveats and Suggestions for Future Research


Briefly remind readers about the more significant limitations of your research. Things to mention here will include your use of a non-random sample, or a key variable that is measured with error, or the fact that you have had to resort to proxies for key variables, and so on. It is not necessary to itemize all the minute shortcomings of your research, although you will be acutely aware of them by this time. However, it is a form of truth in advertising (before launching into your conclusions) to make sure that the reader does not impute more generality to your results than you can really support. Pre-empt future research ideas by outlining what else you would do if had the time and resources to pursue your ideas further. Tread a fine line between giving away a great idea and at least forcing anybody who steals it to acknowledge that you thought of it first. Most empirical papers will include a section called Caveats and Suggestions for Future Research.

Conclusions
Be sure to conclude something at the end of your paper. In the process, reinforce who should care about this and why. Make sure your reader is satisfied by the experience of getting all the way to the end. At the risk of sounding trite, be sure you achieve some closure.

Citations and References


Other papers are cited in Author (date) form in your text, and the complete reference for this citation is included at the end of the paper in the References section. Other peoples papers are cited, not sited or sighted. If there are more than two authors on a paper, the in-text citation can typically be given as Author1 et al. (date). Note that et is not an abbreviation for the Latin, but al. is. Make sure you put the period in the right place. There should be a one-to-one correspondence between citations in your text and references in your References section. This correspondence can be enforced easily if you use integrated reference software, like EndNote. When you delete a citation, its corresponding reference will be dropped from the References section.

A bibliography will often list papers that you do not cite explicitly in your paper. Most economics papers employ a Reference section, rather than a Bibliography.

Footnotes and Appendices


If it is remotely possible, do not put a footnote anywhere except at the end of a paragraph. At a minimum, rearrange your prose so that a footnote sits at the end of a sentence (outside the period). It is very disruptive to stick a footnote in the middle of a sentence. Dont make your reader look away with an idea still hanging. Never footnote a title or section heading. Some journals want you to collect all of your footnotes at the back of your paper as endnotes. This is more difficult for readers, but easier for typesetters. Most readers will be grateful for same-page footnotes. Most word-processors will let you convert from one format to the other, en masse. Relegate all the gory details of your data cleaning struggles to an Appendix called Data Preparation. There should be sufficient material in this section to allow replication. Streamline the main text of you paper so that there are as few distractions as possible from the main storyline. Outline briefly the types of data-cleaning decisions that you have made, but avoid the minutiae. Appendices can also be used to collect complicated mathematical proofs that are inessential to the understanding of a casual reader.

Tables and Figures


In drafts, put tables and figures at the end, but leave their pages un-numbered so you can insert each table or figure into the manuscript immediately after it is first referenced. Save your reader the trouble of digging through the back of the paper to find the particular graph or figure you are describing in the text. In a working paper, do not try to insert your tables or figures into your text. Tables and figures should be placed on separate pages, with titles. Refer to the table or figure in your text. Minimize the lines in your tables. A common error is to put every number in its own box. This is irritating to most readers. A simple horizontal line to separate headings from the body of the table, and a bottom line to separate the table from its footnotes will usually suffice. Empirical results should be presented in standard form, where each row corresponds to an explanatory variable and each column describes a model (a specification). Name your models in the table and refer to them by this name when you discuss them in the text. This format allows the reader to see clearly how parameter estimates change as variables are added or deleted from the specification. By convention, Table 1 contains variable acronyms, definitions, and descriptive statistics for all variables used anywhere in the body of your paper. Tables 2+ contain your empirical results. Parameters are referenced by the name of the variable they modify. You will rarely see Greek letters in a table of results. Variable names should be selfexplanatory. Learn some simple figure-drawing programs so that you can include diagrams where they will be helpful.

Writing for Different Audiences


When it really counts, and your audience will be broad (e.g. for grant proposals), enlist the help of your parents, siblings, friends, or significant other to read your prose. There may be portions of the work where a non-expert will get bogged down, but for the abstract or project summary, for the introduction, for the review of the literature and delineation of your contributions, and for the conclusions, the material should be accessible to anybody. If it is not, you may be writing too technically for the range of non-specialist experts who will sit on the proposal review committee. Learn as much as you can about your audience before writing something that really counts. For journal articles, your audience is the readership of that journal. For grant proposals, the audience can be very different. Avoid jargon, or explain it carefully the first time it is used.