A couple weeks ago, I drove to the Oregon coast with my sweetie, who is a Paul Krugman devotee. (Krugman is a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton and writes an op-ed column and a blog for the New York Times.) As we wound through the forest, the two of us were listening to a podcast of a conversation between Krugman and CUNY’s Peter Beinart. Of course, they mostly talked economics and politics, but for a few moments the discussion became about the art and craft of writing—specifically, the challenges that an academic may have when trying to write for a broader audience.
Naturally, my ears perked right up. Krugman actually reveals his “four rules for economic research”:
- Question the question.
- Listen to the gentiles.
- Dare to be silly.
- Simplify, simplify.
They’re straightforward tips, but you should really hear all he has to say about them. (I’d love to ruminate on them and unpack them in a proper blog post, but I’m really booked up to my ears with academic editing projects for two university presses right now. I’ve been disappointed not to have more time to blog and create Tweed resources this month!)
So today I had a few minutes to transcribe the bit of the Beinart-Krugman conversation about writing, and I thought I’d share it with you all. What follows is just a rough, unedited transcription. By “unedited,” I mean that I only listened to the audio once while typing, and I didn’t even copyedit my own transcript. (As you can imagine, that’s out of character for me.) It is truly a crude rendering, but you can listen (and watch) the recording online if you want. I just hope that my making the transcribed snippet available sparks your interest.
Read on, and be sure to check out the full video and audio at Fora.tv, which has actually broken the talk into handy chapters. The bit on writing is chapter 12 and about four minutes long. If you download the whole thing, that part starts at about 33:20.
I do not own the rights to the following material. I make no promises about the accuracy of my transcription, but I did try to capture the speakers’ words as I heard them. Please check out FORA.tv for this and other excellent audiovisual resources.
Paul Krugman on Academics, Writing, and Public Intellectualism
Peter Beinart, CUNY: So one of the things that people often remark about you—with a certain degree of wonder—is how it is that you came through academia and ended up being such a good writer. And now that you’ve told me that the economists would have had a malevolent effect, if anyone were to be able to understand them, maybe it’s a good thing that none of your colleagues are able to write comprehensibly. But I’ve just wondered whether you’ve given any thought to how that came to be.
Paul Krugman: Yeah. So just a note on that: I think, actually, if economists were in general better writers, the process of being a good writer requires you to clarify your thought in a way that would have made the profession’s ideas a lot less malevolent. A lot of things, real business cycle theory, if anyone here knows what that is—and if you don’t, you haven’t missed anything—but it’s something that’s an enormously powerful thing because it’s expressed in complicated, sophisticated mathematics. And you can express it in simple language, and if you do, it becomes patently ridiculous. And so, I think if people were better writers, we would actually have better economics. First of all, I learned at the feet of Bob Solow at MIT, who is in fact a spectacularly good writer as well as a very great economist. And I always modeled my writing, even when I was doing economics papers, on his. And there is a style—in my days when all I did was write papers that three thousand people read—I did specialize in the really simple, sort of rifle-shot analysis. I had a list of rules, actually. My list of rules for economic research. There were four of them. One of them was question the question. What is the question we really want to ask here? Another one was listen to the gentiles. Pay attention to what people who are not part of the economics mainstream are saying because sometimes they’re right. Another one was dare to be silly, which meant that, you know, you’re doing a model. It doesn’t have to be realistic. It’s OK to do work with stylized examples. And the last one was simplify, simplify. Always, always make things—you know, what is the simplest possible way—even if we’re doing mathematics—what is the simplest possible way to tell the story? And the process of doing that, I think, really clarifies your thought. And all those things carry over very well into writing plain English. And then beyond that, there’s always the—I wish I had a transcript. There was, long ago, an interview with Isaac Asimov, who was one of my inspirations. And somebody asked him, How do you manage to write all of these books? How do you write so fast? And he said, I’ve given this a great deal of thought, and the answer is, I have no idea.
PB: But when you talk to young PhD students or even assistant professors, if they write clearly and provocatively like you do, and in a way that’s accessible to the lay person, is that going to undermine their chances of getting tenure?
PK: It really is not advisable to do a lot of public intellectual stuff until you’ve got tenure. I have to say, I don’t know if there’s a—that’s not ideal, but on the other hand, it’s hard to see how you can avoid that. You really have to pay your dues. And Bob Solow somewhere says what matters is the simple stuff, not the fancy stuff, but I don’t trust somebody to do the simple stuff unless he can do the fancy stuff. So in a way, you have to prove that you can do that, and that’s OK. But these days, acutally, if you’re a smart economist, it’s a very fluid system, and people who turn out a series of really good papers often are tenured by the time they’re thirty or so. So it’s not like you have to wait until you’re a graybeard to do this. And the papers don’t have to be as unreadable as most of them are.
PB: What do you find—I mean, there are lots and lots of people who write about economics all the time, or at least are commenting on economics, who really don’t have any formal academic training in economics. How does that help you, and is there any way in which it actually can be a hindrance?
PK: On the hindrance side, it can be hard to switch styles. I’ve seen people who I regard as very good writers in their professional papers try to write for the broader public, and they don’t make enough of an adjustment, and it comes across really stiff and it doesn’t have the feel it should have. Though I think actually blogging is improving this, because a lot of people now are blogging and the econoblogosphere is actually very good, very interesting, and I think it’s improving. People are learning how to communicate without having to first go through and write a piece for the New York Times that nobody reads, so it’s a good way in. Not having the professional training is fine if you learn and, you know, Martin Wolf at the Financial Times is not an economics PhD, but he’s better at this stuff than just about any economics PhD I know. So that’s fine. But, look, from my point of view it helps because behind my eight hundred words, most of the time, is actually some very schematic little model that I’ve got in my head. And it structures it. You don’t need to know that, but it’s a tremendous help in structuring, and it’s not the only way to do it. I’ve found that there’s not that much discontinuity—that there is a lot of natural marriage of these things. And, you know, the basic rule for how to do it is actually the same for writing a paper and for writing a column, which is tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them—as simply as possible—and then tell them what you told them.
PB: You so dominate a certain sphere of discourse and are so associated with a certain set of policy positions, I just wonder, do you ever have the urge to write about the war in Libya, to write about abortion—something completely outside? Where you don’t have the same knowledge and expertise but, darn it, I care about it, have opinions, and want to do something different?
PK: I do it once in a while. I did a lot in 2002–2004, actually, because of Iraq. Not that I had any special expertise but that there was stuff that was as plain as the nose on your face that nobody was saying. So there, I just felt I had to say, this is my role as a citizen who happens to have access to this particular piece of journalistic real estate. Most of the rest of the time, if people are saying—if there isn’t a vacuum in the debate on other issues, then I don’t feel that I need to do it. So, I write about climate change, if only because there there’s enough overlap between what the climate scientists and I do that I can understand what they’re up to, but also because it is underemphasized. But something like Libya is—there are lots of people writing about that. Actually, the funny thing was, when I was hired by the Times, Howell Raines, who was then running the editorial page, his actual words, more or less, when hiring me were, well, we have five people writing about the Middle East, and nobody’s interested in that anymore, so we need someone to write about the economy. Obviously, the Middle East is still really interesting now, but I do feel like, in a way, I can stay within my natural habitat.
Go check out FORA.tv’s video, and I hope you feel inspired to work on your scholarly projects.