Musings from Sean Z.

I must confess to being a great fraud. I have not so much as once written a blog; and seldom, if ever, read them. But my participation here at the Duke Writing Studio has afforded me the opportunity to pen a few brief thoughts for our new blog. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only Studio tutor representing the social sciences—at least this semester. However, social science students are frequent visitors. I feel compelled, therefore, to share advice and motivation about writing for the social sciences. Here again, another confession is in order. Nothing I shall say has not already—and indeed more eloquently—been stated by one of the great social science writers of the 20th century: John Kenneth Galbraith.
Never reluctant to criticize the writing of economists, Galbraith’s writing mantra might be summed up in a few brief sentences: 1) First drafts are invariably awful; to write well is to rewrite often; 2) Inspiration is an illusion; do not wait for it to strike; 3) Brevity is usually a friend of purpose; avoid excess; 4) Complexity reflects not genius but a lack of clear thinking about one’s subject. The last of these statements is especially true for economics and technical writing. On this subject, Galbraith further notes: “Complexity and obscurity have professional value—they are the academic equivalents of apprenticeship rules in the building trades. They exclude the outsiders, keep down the competition, preserve the image of a privileged or priestly class. The man who makes things clear is a scab. He is criticized less for his clarity than for his treachery.
Additionally, and especially in the social sciences, much unclear writing is based on unclear or incomplete thought. It is possible with safety to be technically obscure about something you haven’t thought out. It is impossible to be wholly clear on something you do not understand. Clarity thus exposes flaws in the thought. The person who undertakes to make difficult matters clear is infringing on the sovereign right of numerous economists, sociologists, and political scientists to make bad writing the disguise for sloppy, imprecise, or incomplete thought. One can understand the resulting anger. Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, John Maynard Keynes were writers of crystalline clarity most of the time. Marx had great moments, as in The Communist Manifesto. Economics owes very little, if anything, to the practitioners of scholarly obscurity. If any of my California students should come to me from the learned professions, I would counsel them in all their writing to keep the confidence of their colleagues. This they should do by being
always complex, always obscure, invariably a trifle vague.”
And finally, Galbraith’s approach to writing reflects Duke Ellington’s adage about jazz: “if it sounds good, it is good.” Galbraith implores writers “to be aware of the music, the symphony of words, and to make written expression acceptable to the ear.” Even social science writing should “sound good.”
For more on the topic noted above and on Galbraith’s approach to writing, here is a link to an essay he penned for the Atlantic Monthly.

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