Timothy Taylor, managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, has an excellent article in the Spring 2012 issue on his job of editing economists. I’ll hit highlights along with comments on how his experience with editing dovetails with mine.

His Background

I had spent a couple of years in Stanford’s Ph.D. program, before dropping out with a master’s degree, and I had been working for a couple of years at the San Jose Mercury News as an editorial writer and columnist.

When I read that, I realized that I had met him in September 1985, shortly after he had dropped out. We met at a PERC conference in Big Sky, Montana for economists and journalists. I was covering it for Fortune. I asked him why he had dropped out of the Ph.D. program and I still remember his answer: “When you get to the second quarter of a two-quarter IO [Industrial Organization] sequence and you haven’t even heard the word ‘firm,’ that’s a problem.”

Superfluous Fluff

Some economists like to believe (although this belief has blessedly faded in recent decades) that economics is an edifice built on the rocks of mathematical theory and statistical empiricism, and everything else is superfluous fluff. McCloskey (1983) thoroughly strafed that conceit, pointing out in “The Rhetoric of Economics” that the research and analysis of economists is built on uncertain and subjective judgments, and often uses, among its rhetorical tools, analogy and metaphor, appeals to authority and to commonsense intuition, and the use of “toy models” counterbalanced with the choice of supposedly illustrative real-world episodes.

On Introductions and Conclusions

Introductions of papers are worth four times as much effort as they usually receive. The opening paragraph of each main section of a paper is worth three times as much effort as it usually receives. Conclusions are worth twice as much effort as they usually receive.

Get and Hold the Reader’s Attention

Barney Kilgore, who was editor of the Wall Street Journal during its time its circulation expanded dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s, used to post a motto in his offifice that would terrify any editor (as quoted in Crovitz 2009): “The easiest thing in the world for a reader to do is to stop reading.” An editor can help here, by serving as a proxy for future readers.

As editor of the Econlib Feature Article every month, and as editor of a few hundred articles for The Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics and The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, I always have and had the Kilgore thought in mind. (Although I had never heard it: I just learned it writing for Fortune.)

Intensive Editing

For many JEP authors, my extremely hands-on editing comes as a surprise. After all, most of those who are listed as editors of journals or conference volumes don’t actually “edit” in the commonplace meaning of the term.

In the guidelines I sent out to authors for the Encyclopedia, I wrote, “Expect to be more heavily edited than you have ever been in your life.”

Our God-given Right to Write Badly

Taylor has a great quote from Donald McCloskey in 1985 that expresses what I think most economists think about writing and what I’m sure was my attitude circa 1979:

Most people who write a lot, as do economists, have an amateurish attitude toward writing. Economists do not mind criticism of their facts or their formalisms, because they have been trained in these to take criticism, and to dish it out. Style in writing is another matter entirely. They regard criticism of their drafts the way a man unfamiliar with ideas regards criticism of his ideas: as an assault. . . . The economic writer, therefore, cherishes his habits of style as matters God-given, or at the least highly personal. One cannot change one’s body-type or basic character, and it is offensive for some creep to criticize them . . .

The two people who did the most to help me out of this were my wife, a professional editor, and the late Dan Seligman, my editor at Fortune in the 1980s.

How the Economists Took Feedback

When you deal with academics, you aren’t necessarily working with a group of great team players. However, my experience in editing economists over the last quarter century has been overwhelmingly positive, and certainly has not borne out fears of an inevitable clash between authors and editors. With remarkably few exceptions, JEP authors have been receptive, respectful, and even on occasion grateful for our comments and my detailed editing. They often say that it was a pleasure to receive constructive feedback–which I interpret as a not-so-veiled comment on the editorial feedback they are accustomed to receiving.

Similarly, most of my experiences with authors for the two Encyclopedias were positive. I remember that the late Alfred Kahn, in response to my edit of his “Airline Deregulation” article for the Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics, said that I had flattened his style. He was right: it needed flattening. But he took it professionally. There were two horror stories. But those two authors’ articles didn’t get published. One positive example particularly stands out, given his stature in the profession: the late George Stigler. I knew all of his work on monopoly and I sent him a detailed outline of what I wanted upfront: use this segment from this article, that segment from Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist, etc. He followed it like a school boy and the result is one of my favorite articles in the Encyclopedia.

The Importance of Clear Writing

One vision of “knowledge” is that it all appears in the specialized literature, and dissemination of that knowledge–whether through JEP, policy reports, articles in the popular press, teaching, or textbooks–cannot add to knowledge. However, I believe that knowledge is multidimensional: for example, as ideas and applications are applied and considered and explained in various contexts, new strengths and weaknesses are ever-emerging. One of the nicest compliments our JEP editorial process ever received was from a prominent author who sent us a first draft that, by JEP standards, was overly technical. We pushed him to scale back the algebra and to explain in words. With his revision, he sent along a note saying as he had worked to explain the material in a way appropriate for JEP, he had also come to a better understanding of his original technical demonstration.
Knowledge doesn’t end with the QED at the end of a proof or with the publication of a regression table. An editing process that produces an accessible discussion of results is part of knowledge, too.

This way of thinking has motivated me in everything I’ve ever written, whether for academic journals or for more-popular publications. I remember a colleague at the University of Rochester 35 years ago referring to popular writing as “hack writing.” If you think that way, then your popular writing is likely to be hack writing. But to do it well, you need to show as much respect for the final product as you do for more-technical writing.