4 economical writing tips from Deirdre McCloskey

The enigmatic economist lays down the law for how to write about technical topics in a readable style

In her own words, McCloskey is a “literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man.”

She’s also the distinguished professor of Economics, History, English and Communication at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

In 1985, McCloskey published Economical Writing, a paper encouraging fellow economists to be more clear in their academic writing. In essence, the subject may be confusing but the writing doesn’t have to be.

Somewhat ironically, McCloskey’s essay runs to a not-so-economical 34 pages and 28 helpful hints. So we’ve compiled that into a handful of her most inspired ideas.

Look right into the eye of your audience

McCloskey writes: “Pick a reader to ride and ride all the way with them. Economic writers too often will swap and re-swap horses in midstream. The trick is dangerous and, in a technical sense, inefficient.”

When identifying your audience, it can be tempting to try to be as wide-reaching as possible and say: “We want to appeal to everyone.” But is “everyone” making a financial decision about whether to engage with your company and product? No. So speak directly to the people who do. The more focused you can be on who you’re speaking to, the better and more effective your content is likely to be.

Avoid boilerplate

“Restatement of the well known bores the readers; over-elaboration bores the readers; excessive introduction and summary bores the readers. Get to the point that some sceptical professional cares about and stick to it.”

Once you’ve identified your audience, you can cut out the dross. Too many highly optimised, 600-word think pieces spend 300 words explaining the basics and not enough words being interesting or useful.

In B2B content marketing your audience is most likely to be made up of professionals working in your field. If you’re writing an article about pensions, aimed at an audience of accountants, they already know what annuity means. You don’t need to supply them with the dictionary definition.

Be plain

“Clarity is a social matter, not something to be decided unilaterally by the writer. If they think something you write is unclear then it is, by definition. Bad writing does not get read.”

But just because you’re speaking to experts doesn’t mean you have to crack out the thesaurus for every other word. Technical articles don’t have to be overly complex, and clarity doesn’t have to be patronising.

In this case, feedback is your friend. If you’re frequently hearing that your writing isn’t clear or easily understandable then it’s time to take note. The Hemingway App is a great way to check how readable your writing is.

Be concrete

“Bad writers in economics sometimes use abstraction because they have nothing to say and don’t want the fact to become too plain. A reader finds it harder to translate abstractions down into concrete examples than to translate examples up into abstract principles.”

Ideally, you’re creating a piece of content because there’s something interesting to say. The best writing is specific and relevant, and a great way to do this is use real-life examples.

You’d think that being abstract allows the reader to consider their own examples into the narrative. But actually it can just seem vague and unengaging.

Don’t be afraid to cite tangible examples. If you’re writing about the sales of different types of bread, for example, then be explicit with the facts. Detail doesn’t alienate casual readers, it provides authority. As McCloskey says: “the ordinary reader will understand that Wonder Bread stands for any commodity,” so be as specific as your company’s compliance regulations will allow.

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