Jim Brander's Rules of Writing

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Jim Brander’s

“The Rules of Writing”

(As understood by his student)

The Rules

1. Sentences and paragraphs should be structured with emphasis in mind.

a. The start and end of every sentence should be a strong point.
b. The start and end of every paragraph should be a strong point.
c. Sentences should not be phrased in the passive voice.
d. Sentences should not be questions, except as a very occasional stylistic device.
e. Paragraphs should, with only occasional exceptions, be between three and six sentences in length.

2. Every sentence should be grammatically correct.

a. Reference statements are not an exception to this; references should not be placed in brackets and nested within a sentence.
b. Brackets may be used for four reasons: To introduce an abbreviation (abbrev.); to include an explicit example (i.e. or e.g.); to include an implicit clarification (especially x… and therefore y…); and to include dates for references as in Brander (2006). Bracket contents may be grammatically incomplete sentences in these circumstances. Brackets should be used sparingly.
c. Brackets may never be nested within other brackets, except within mathematical formula.

3. Sentences should be short and concise.

a. Sentences, generally, should not contain more than one sub-clause.
b. The use of the semi-colon is permitted in order to either imply equality between the preceding and following statements, or as a list separator. However, it should not be used abundantly.
c. Sentences should not contain more than one referent whenever possible.
d. Avoid the use of pronouns, instead restate the referent.

4. The use of everyday examples is permitted.

a. Examples should be non-ambiguous; there should not be obvious alternative explanations to the examples.
b. Examples can be used in place of references to demonstrate that a point has its basis in common sense, rather than academic theory.

5. The choice of language should be appropriate to the target audience.

a. Avoid the use of academic language unless your audience is purely academic (this is particularly important for words like ‘endogenous’).
b. Do not use statistical words, especially ‘significant’, except in a statistical sense, unless there is no possibility of ambiguity.
c. Do not use words or phrases implying certainty. Ever.
i. In an empirical context, things are not ‘determined’; instead they are ‘estimated’, or ‘investigated’.
ii. The extant literature is not ‘limited to’, neither is some work is ‘the only example’. Always assume your own ignorance.
iii. Nothing is ever, or could ever be, conclusive or absolute. Avoid these words.
d. (The) definite and indefinite articles should not be included unless they are strictly necessary.
e. Do not personify inanimate things, particularly theories and hypotheses.
f. The word ‘firm’ is preferable to the word ‘company’ in economic-oriented writing. ‘Enterprise’ is also acceptable, as is ‘organization’ in some contexts. In addition generally restrict the usage of the word ‘public’ (in the context of firms) to refer to the public sector (i.e. government firms), and use ‘publicly traded’ or ‘listed on a public exchange’ for publicly-held (as opposed to privately-held) firms.

About the Rules

These rules were given verbally by Professor Brander to one of his students (Ed Egan), over many months and many interactions. As the student made a new infraction, a new rule was added or amended. The causality of this was not problematic for either party. The rules are not complete, and it is possible that some rules may have been misinterpreted by the student. Certainly some of this document is inherently contradictory (see rule 5c.iii, for example). However, the student has posted it here in the hope that other students will find it of some use.

Other Rules

I recently found Plamen Nikolov's Writing Tips For Economics Research Papers. Plamen is a 2013/14 job market candidate from Harvard Econ, and I found his writing tips compelling reading, particularly for empirical work.

Jim Brander's Introduction Formula is available from Keith Head's Blog, and is highly recommended for those writing papers in economics and/or business.