THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 20, Spring 2001

William A. McEachern, Editor

Omit Needless Words!

The best mantra for clear writing is still "Omit needless words!" a phrase immortalized in The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. The rule is echoed in Deirdre McCloskey's Writing of Economics, and in Stephen King's current nonfiction bestseller, On Writing: A Memoir. King argues that the rule applies with equal force to fiction -- "The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing -- literary Viagra" (p. 179). He even passes along a formula, which he claims fueled his career: "2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%" (p. 178).

Writing with economy -- conveying ideas using the fewest possible words -- should appeal to economists. Careful pruning sharpens the focus, reduces the reader's effort, increases the reader's productivity, and thereby increases the writer's probability of getting read. Less is more.

For centuries, the scarcity of space on the printed page has reinforced the need to write with economy. But the Internet, by liberating words from paper, has softened one constraint that kept a lid on needless words.

What does all this have to do with teaching? Based on my survey, the last issue of The Teaching Economist reported some attractive features of several dozen course syllabi available online. What I didn't report at the time was that some online syllabi are numbingly verbose and badly in need of editing. Here's an example: "Be fully prepared on the day of the examination for any type of examination. Therefore, students must be fully prepared on the day of the examination for any type of an examination." Say what? One syllabus took 443 words to explain grading options. Despite the length -- or perhaps because of it -- the options still seemed confusing to me after two readings.

I recently heard an economist marveling at the Web's potential, since it offers an infinite supply of space to cover any topic. That may be true, but as Herbert Simon warned years ago, "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." I can't prove it, but I'll bet there is an inverse relation between the length of a syllabus and the percentage of students in the class who actually read it.

Not only are some online syllabi puffy, they are marred by poor grammar and bad spelling. For example, one syllabus notes "Upon completion of this course the student should have the following competentcies" (one competency the student may not develop is the correct spelling of "competencies").

Sloppy writing is not a victimless crime. A poorly written syllabus needlessly taxes student comprehension and offers a bad example for the student's own writing. We don't necessarily expect well-crafted prose from online course materials, but in an era of spell checkers and online-grammarians, we should be able to get the mechanics straight.

For years I have limited the syllabus in my large principles class to a single typed page. Keeping matters to a page has been a challenge, but it saves trees, avoids staples, and reduces problems of missing or lost pages. Despite the brevity, I believe my syllabus includes all essential information, including assignments for each class.

Take a look at your course syllabus and see if you can't prune it 10%. I'll bet you can, and I'll bet it will become clearer. The effort to omit needless words smokes out our carelessness with the written word. We should exercise more care with material we write for students than with what we write for colleagues. Easy reading is hard writing.

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