Writing in Economics

by Amanda Price, Sacramento State Economics major


Often times when someone mentions writing essays, English papers come to mind.  Sometimes you may think of occasional Humanities or Anthropology paper, but either way it’s safe to say Economics is probably the last one on your list.  Contrary to what you might think, economic writing is just as important as graphs and numbers.  Mathematics, problem sets, and graphs are only a small portion of more advanced economics.   The further you dig in, the more you will read and write.  Economic articles, journals, empirical papers, all consist of tools economists use to gain tenure from one another.  As stated by the author of Duke University’s Economic Writing Handbook, Paul Dudenhefer, “At least three-fourths of economics articles, especially empirical papers, is text, not equations or tables.”  The list could go on “In talking about the economist’s craft,” says Richard Schmalensee, an economist at MIT, “it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of clear and persuasive writing.” Writing is as much a part of economics as models and data sets.”

In order to become a more successful writer and economist here at CSUS, I have created a website to help explain economic writing in a more general way. This website is a prescription for those to see how economic writers write and how to do it well.  I have devised this website into a series of topics:  


Writing Economically

The Paper as a Whole

Writing in economics is not a linear process; it comes full circle throughout the research and writing process.  In scientific writing, a hypothesis is offered; data is collected, and results are written.  Economics differs from this because the writer is encouraged to write everything they’ve noticed.  As you research you will find more data, more questions will be raised, and more writing will be required to help back up your argument.  The more you include research in your paper, the less likely it is to be disproved and you will gain support from other economists. Economic writing topics consist of a web of interdependent elements existing amongst each other all at once, which can make it difficult for an economist to find the relationship between variables.  For example, the price of tea here in the US is determined by many factors like, labor costs, inflation, tea prices in other countries, weather conditions etc.  As a researcher, it is important to include all data used to develop your argument while maintaining a style that is strong, clear, and organized. 

As in all writing, there is a beginning, middle, and end.  The beginning should introduce the topic and the argument you hope to persuade the reader with.  The middle should discuss the promises made in the introduction; it should meet expectations of the thesis.  The end should sum up what you’ve shown the reader, or maybe even introduce a call to action for further research.  The structure of writing in economics is pretty standard as a whole, the trick is to persuade the reader while using rhetoric, research and results. 

**Some of the ideas and information from this page were influenced by                                                                                   http://www.economics.harvard.edu/files/WritingEconomics.pdf


The Rhetoric of Economics

“Science is an instance of writing with intent, the intent to persuade other scientists, such as economic scientists. The study of such writing with intent was called by the Greeks, rhetoric” (McCloskey).  Rhetoric has a negative resonance in many people outside of the scientific community, many assume the word brings “empty speech” or used as a device to deceive or persuade the reader.  However, within the sciences, rhetoric is an art of argument.  It is a way in which scholars give meaning and clarity to their arguments so other scholars can understand them.   As an economist, writing a good paper with clarity and proper rhetoric is as important as the content itself; giving the writer an opportunity to convince the community of the argument and spreading produced knowledge.   Economic writing often times can become repetitive, mathematical, and most of all: boring.  The use of rhetoric within economic writing is essential to the reader due to the importance of being able to understand the significance of the paper.  Often times the only audience able to understand the economic jargon are people who already understand the argument, thus making the entire passage unnecessary.  Donald McCloskey, an economic historian whose publications focus on the ‘rhetoric of economics’ believes that the three most effective parts of classical rhetoric are; invention, arrangement, and style.

1) Address unanswered economic topics subject to a phenomenon in question
2) Use theories, assumptions, and concepts to understand the phenomenon in order to accurately explain the phenomenon
3) Use specific evidence to answer the hypothesis in question.

Be sure to use your own voice and tone.  Often writers will develop a piece of writing that is so mathematical and logical that the reader will lose interest and the paper will go unnoticed.  The best way to avoid this is to include your own voice and tone so that the reader can continue to stay focused on your topic.   

Economic Argumentation

The Economic Writing Handbook at Duke University devises economic argument into three separate categories.  The art of argument remains the same; however an economic argument has a unique way of proving a hypothesis within a discipline.  Using persuasion in any field is similar, however different from an English paper, Economic writing requires data and models to effectively reach your audience.  It is one thing to try and convince a reader to agree with your argument merely with persuasive prose, but by using these three key elements that help create an effective argument specific to the discipline of economics.

 This can be overwhelming, especially as an undergrad.  The key is to remember to begin with the facts, and try not to veer away from the topic you’re trying to address.  George Tauchen, professor of economics at Duke University says to, “start from the innermost spot, the model and equations. We do the empirical work, and then write a narrative around selected tables and figures. We gradually expand the paper outwards in both directions towards the introduction and conclusion. Those two sections are written last: it’s impossible to write them until the author knows what is inside the paper.”

**Some of the ideas and information from this page were influenced by

Using Economic Models and Data in Writing

There will be many times when using resources and research you’ve collected may or may not be necessary.  The trick is to relay the information you’ve gathered to the audience using technical writing as well as prose.  As students we’ve been taught to follow our writing structure in a way where numbers and models aren’t ever used, it typically consists of words.  If all this time I’ve been encouraging you to use data and models, it may seem tough without showing the data itself. Harvard’s handbook of Economic writing further explains how to include empirical descriptions.

One thing the Harvard Econ handbook also mentioned was, less is more.  It is important not to dive too deeply into variables that have no importance in your argument.  You may have a very well thought out, multi-layered essay with way too much information; making it difficult to tell the difference between what is needed and what is fluff.  Use the data as tools to help argue your point toward a goal alongside the rhetoric of your argument.

*Here is an excerpt from the Harvard Handbook for Writing in Economics (http://www.economics.harvard.edu/files/WritingEconomics.pdf) which will help explain:

“Too often, authors do not pay close attention to the paragraphs that describe their results. The results are already in the table. What difference does it make how they are described in the text? The reason to craft these descriptive paragraphs carefully is that any well-designed empirical project is complex; a lot of factors must be considered in order for any single factor to be precisely estimated. You want to guide the reader and focus his or her attention on the important parts of the table, and in the right order. Moreover, no empirical paper turns out perfectly. Usually the data do not resoundingly support each and every idea. In these cases, it is crucial to discuss your results as honestly and carefully as possible.”

Genres of Economic Writing

As an economics student at Sac State, you will be asked to write in various ways; write a book review, pose an economic question and answer it according to data, research and analyze an economist’s argument.  It is important to be aware of what these types of writing mean for you as a student, and how to be more prepared before you begin. For the most part, the variations of academic writing in Econ all share a common theme: persuasion.    

Empirical Papers- These test a model with data to see how well the model represents reality. A paper like this is designed to show degree did the model’s predictions maintain consistency with the behavior of the data…In other words, it’s the type of paper we’ve been discussing throughout this website.  It is the most common type or research analysis used in economics.  A typical term paper would be an example of this: pose an economic argument and find data to support your position.  An example from Professor Dube here at Sac State reminds us of the extensive writing conducted as an econ major.  Empirical papers would be used in “classes such as ECON 112, 113, 193, and others contain a lot of writing within the content.  All Economics majors are required to take ECON 145 where they produce written work on a topic agreed to with the instructor of the course. At the end of the semester, the students get to present their papers before students and faculty.”  *ECON 145 is to be taken in your last semester which gives the student a chance to bring everything they’ve learned full circle.  The entire semester is devoted to an undergraduate thesis paper.

Literature reviews- They are designed to survey important books or articles and outline a common theme.  A literature review notices what the writer touched on and what should have been mentioned. What data wasn’t looked at? Have all the variables been approached in the writer’s argument? As mentioned in the Duke University Economic Writing Handbook, literature reviews are made up of four different elements.  “First, it should analyze critically, and organize, a body of research. Second, it should put your own study in the context of other studies. Third, your review should highlight your study’s contribution. And fourth, it establishes your scholarly “bona fides” by showing you have done your homework.”

History of thought paper- Analyzes the history of economic thought from the past and how it influences economics today.  In entry level Econ like 1A or 1B here at Sac State, tests are usually given with a graph or an equation.  Not much analysis in introduced because basic concepts are still being introduced.  Writing may not be a part of test taking in lower division classes, but it is still assigned in order to enhance the student’s history of economics.  An example of a typical writing assignment in Econ 1B might be similar to the one from Professor Dube, an Economics professor here at CSUS, “I used to assign students the names of economists in the US and elsewhere.  I would then ask each student to choose a professor, contact them, and discuss the research on topics that they have encountered in ECON 1B that relates to the professor’s work and write a 5-page paper on the economist.”  This would be considered a History of Thought paper, which is designed to examine the history of thought.  “The history of economic thought,” Paul Dudenhefer from Duke University states, “is concerned with the history of the discipline of economics —the history of economic ideas, of economic methodology, of economic practice.”


** Much of the information used to describe the different types for writing were inspired by The Duke University Handbook for Writing in Economics http://www.iset.ge/old/upload/A%20Guide%20to%20Writing%20in%20Economics-%20Duke%20University.pdf

Researching Economic Topics

 Often times an economist will find research that’s already been analyzed and seek ways to improve it or extend it. By evaluating published material the writer has an opportunity to ask further questions.  What are the major issues? Is there more data needed?  Why is this subject important?  An economist may contribute to the topic using one or more of these three elements; the question, the model, or the data and technique.  For example, they might take the same data and model but pose a different question as they research.  Or they might use the same model and question but seek different data in order to find other elements of the topic. 
One thing to keep in mind about writing within economics as opposed to other types of writing is that many will write as they research as opposed to finding the solution and then writing what they’ve gathered.  Economic writing is not a linear activity and economists are encouraged to write before they are ready to write.  It is only by writing that an argument becomes what they truly wanted to say. 

It would be best to find a topic you’re interested in, in order to hold your attention and keep you engaged in the assignment.  You want to choose a topic that gives you inspiration yet fulfils requirements of the assignment like the due date, or length of the paper.  Choosing a topic that is broad and general will probably evolve into something more direct the more you journey along in your research.  The question you begin with might not be a very interesting or specific one, but the further you research and gain knowledge about the issue, your initial question will most likely become more specific. 

Finding Resources

So, where to begin? How can we find the illustrious ‘data’ that’s been mentioned so many times? First of all, the most immediate and available resource would be the internet.  But as an undergrad here at CSUS, there are also other forms of resources that you will find helpful and insightful.  You want to find something that broadens your knowledge of the topic further than what you already know.  The two separate types of data you can recover are A) charts, graphs, and more mathematical information specific to certain topics B) journals, reviews, textbooks or any other form of literature.

These are only examples of the most widely used resources in economics.  I have not, obviously, mentioned all of them- but these will get you headed in the right direction and on a smooth path when searching for data and resources.

Interview with CSUS Professor Smile Dube

What are some types of writing assignments I can expect as an Economics major?

Comment: Writing is a form of communication. If done properly (good grammar, well-constructed sentences, and proper formatting, it can be very effective. I find that most students now use “Twitter” grammar in formal communication! No wonder that they can hardly line up good interviews for careers. Under normal budgetary conditions, an Economics major would be exposed to writing even at Econ 1A and 1B levels. For example, I used to assign students the names of economists in the US and elsewhere. I would then ask each student to choose a professor, contact them, and discuss the research on topics that they have encountered in ECON 1B that relates to the professor’s work and write a 5-page paper on the economist. There has been a scaling down of writing in many courses due to severe budget constraints facing CSUS and other universities in California.

Beyond this requirement, classes such as ECON 112, 113, 193, and others contain a lot of writing within the content. Finally, all Economics major are required to take ECON 145 where they produce written work on a topic agreed to with the instructor of the course. At the end of the semester, the students get to present their papers before students and faculty.

Do you have any special advice for writing in an Economics course?

Comment: Take time to research the topic at hand, using all facilities on campus especially the Library. If the research paper written by an economist is not housed in the Library, find out from Librarians how you can get a copy for free using their facilities. Avoid copying from already written papers. Instead, paraphrase their work and cite the author in your writing.

What kinds of evidence are recognized as valid in Economics?

Comment: Economists are basically of three types; theory people, empirical people, and those interested in qualitative research. The theory people conceptualize highly technical models to explain human behavior of consumers and firms. More often than not, empirical guys take the theory developed by theorists and apply to the real world by gathering data and doing rigorous statistical analysis to verify theoretical conclusions. This is the only evidence that matters in Economics.
Finally, there are economic historians and others who study history of economics. This group has also adopted some of the statistical approaches to produce evidence. However, this group can often tell a compelling economics story without resorting to fancy statistical analysis.

Do you recommend any resources that could help someone writing an essay for an Economic assignment?

Comment: With the advent of the internet, most students today do not know how to use Library to check out books and read them for additional information. Instead, many resort to exclusively using online resources to get information about a topic. There is nothing wrong with using technology but it is clearly NOT a substitute for reading the printed sources. Often times, the professor will help you out with resources required or simply send you to the Library to discuss resources with professional librarians well-versed in the sources. For example, we have Bill Christie who is very knowledgeable about the resources in economics.

What qualities of writing are especially valued in an Economic writing assignment?

Comment: Writing is a form of communication and if done properly, it sets you apart from other graduates who cannot put together a complete sentence. Of course, writing clearly and the practice of economy in the use of words are highly valuable. There should be no space in Economics writing for wind bags!

Does professional writing differ from academic?

Comment: Critical thinking and scenario problem solving. I would dare say that a well-rounded individual in philosophy, history, and politics is preferable to say an accounting major without any additional reading in other skills. It is easier to the train the former for firm-specific tasks than training the latter to think broadly beyond the spreadsheet. With the advent of ‘blogs,’ the quality of professional writing has deteriorated so much so that only quality newspapers such as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal have maintained standards in a sea of mediocrity. For example, the opportunity cost in the use of social media has been to take grammar and spelling to the lowest common denominator! On the other hand, academic writing is always in the third person. It is meant to be non-subjective and yet deliver a clear headed critical analysis of the problem under investigation.

Within this major, where does the writing usually stem from? ethos? pathos? logos?

Comment:  The writing in economics starts from attempts to solve human problems in either society or business. As in the natural sciences, economists tend to solve such problems within a 4-part structure. They define variables that are necessary (for example, prices and quantities), impose assumptions (such as ceteris paribus), form a hypothesis (for example, blight in Brazil will reduce the supply of coffee to the world market), and finally form predictions (given everything else, a blight in Brazil will increase the price of coffee). As stated, this problem is natural territory for empirical economists who gather data and test the hypothesis and use the results to predict the future behavior of coffee prizes.

What ways do the writers try to influence the reader?

Comment: Like all professions, economists write to share new ideas with fellow economists, usually in languages that are understood by this group only. The methods are usually steeped in dense mathematics, statistics and a combination. Any reader outside this group would find the writing impenetrable. However, economists are people too. There are many journal outlets written by economists for the general public. For example, economists in the Journal of Economic Perspectives take dense arcane economics from leading journals and writes articles in basic language that is accessible to all people. In this way, economists do connect with the public. Furthermore, there are economists who work in the public policy areas. These economists must be able to communicate with ordinary citizens and more importantly with their politician-boss who may only have a smattering appreciation of economics.

Economists often appear on TV to discuss issues related to the budget deficit, war spending, global climate issues, fishing and so forth. Others write syndicated columns in simple language to explain economics issues relevant to society. For example, Paul Krugman writes for the New York Times.


"American Economic Review." Journal of Economic Perspectives. American Economic Review. Web. 07 July 2011. <http://www.aeaweb.org/aer/index.php>.
Dudenhefer, Paul. "A Guide to Writing in Economics." Lupus.econ.duke.edu. Duke University, Dec. 2009. Web. June 2011. <http://lupus.econ.duke.edu/ecoteach/undergrad/manual.pdf>.
E-mail interview. 19 June 2011. Professor S. Dube
McCloskey, Donald M. "How To Do A Rhetorical Analysis and Why." American Economic Association. American Economic Association. Web. July 2011. <http://www.deirdremccloskey.com/docs/pdf/Article_140.pdf>.
McCloskey, Donald M. "The Rhetoric of Economics." American Economic Association, June 1997. Web. July 2011. <http://www.imprsd.de/courses/01ws/mccloskey.pdf>.
Nelson, John S., and Allan Megill. Rhetoric of Human Sciences. Univ Of Wisconsin, 1987. Print.
Neugeboren, Robert. "Writing Economics." Writing Economics Handbook. Harvard University Economics Dept., Jan. 2005. Web. June-July 2011. <http://www.economics.harvard.edu/files/WritingEconomics.pdf>.