Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Tips in Scientific Writing

The student paper at TSE (TSEconomist) has asked some of us to provide writing tips for students. Here is my take.

I can say that I have not been very good at writing papers until recently, and that practice is the essence of progress. But, there are a few things I can say that I think can help make writing easier.

The first and main thing is: do NOT start writing when you have finished the theoretical/empirical work. This is a rookie mistake that I repeatedly made over the 3 papers I have out now and the 3 others that I am currently writing. This is stupid. Writing should be intricately related to the work itself, and the paper should be written all along the course of the project. (I think we should think in terms of project, not of papers, since a project is made of several papers, and you have to conduct research, not write papers, papers are the outcome, not the goal.) 

What I do now is that I blog: first, I blog about a research idea. This makes for a nice post where I have to explain why I think the idea is important, why I should spend time and effort exploring it and why people should be interested by the results. This is maybe the most critical part of any project. This is also the part that most people overlook, especially students. They generally want to rush for the technical things that seem more reassuring instead of taking time to elaborate their intuition about why something is important. Do elaborate on the why of the project. Spend time and effort explaining why this is an important question for economic science, economic policy and why the literature has not found an answer yet and why you think you can solve that with your idea. If you cannot do that, I would say stop and think again. Do you really want to spend one year of effort on something you do not even know why you are doing it? If you do not do this, you will eventually end up repeating previous research with a small tweak, or you are going to lose the reader into the details and lose track of the ambitious and novel idea that you have. With the blog, I usually write updates of the research as I go along, and this keeps me focused on the original idea and on the eventual changes that I might have made. I have found that I, and students also, tend to lose sight of the original goal as we enter the technical aspect of the project, and we bury ourselves in details instead of exploring the deep important research question. So, first advice, write a blog (or write for my blog, or for any blog). Then, writing the paper is just a matter of wrapping things up. It becomes so much easier.

My second advice is: write as if you would explain your research to your grandma. Do use a relaxed tone, avoid technical words. Try talking yourself, your friends, your family, your colleagues, your teachers, anyone, through your research project, as often as you can. Especially confront specialists of your field and see if you can convince them. If you cannot, it does not mean that your idea is stupid, it means that it still is not clear enough.

My third advice would be: read the LSE blog on scientific writing. It is full of sound detailed advice like "find the essence of your message," "never anticipate on an argument or go back to one," "start paragraphs with the main idea and then develop," "choose an accurate and catchy title."

My fourth advice is: read John Cochrane's writing tips for PhD students. They are excellent. Find the main message would be the essence of it, and it is in general realy hard to do.

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