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Writing About Economics

Writing About: Economics

Nov 27, 2012 - Posted to  Writing in General
While there are plenty of basic rules that apply to any type of writing, all disciplines have a set of guidelines that are specific only to work in those field. After all, a paper on Shakespeare is going to look pretty different from a paper on protein structure.
Here are the things you need to know if you're going to write a paper about economics.

The basics

Voice: active
Style guide: no set style; The American Economics Review guidelines are a good reference
Person: 3rd
Central argument: research question/hypothesis
Organization: background/data/model/findings/conclusion

Types of Economics papers

Empirical papers

The most common type of economics paper are empirical papers that analyze data to see how well a particular model predicts real behavior. Usually the data is not collected by the writer, but is instead taken from a third party like a government survey or non-profit report. Models, which are simplified mathematical representations of economic processes, can either be developed by the author or taken from another scholar.

Theoretical papers

Theoretical papers are proofs of economic models. They do not involve any data or testing; instead, they resemble mathematical proofs and are only used to prove that a model is internally consistent.

Literature Review

As in other disciplines, an economics literature review is a summary of the past and current research on a particular topic. They can be stand-alone papers or be included in a larger paper.

How to write about economics

Organization

Empirical papers in economics have a general format with six sections: introduction, literature review, data, model, findings, and conclusion. Obviously, this may vary depending on what type of paper you're writing, but most empirical papers will follow these guidelines.
  • Introduction

    Introduce readers to your topic and provide the background information they'll need to understand your work and why it's important. This might include vocabulary the reader needs and a general discussion of your model. This section should also include your research question and hypothesis.
  • Literature review

    This section present a summary of the current research on your topic. In a shorter paper this might be included as part of the introduction.
  • Data

    An important part of an empirical economics paper is giving the details of the data you used. This includes where it came from, how it was collected, strengths and weaknesses, and any peculiarities of the data that might affect your work. Finally, you should describe any calculations or adjustments you made to the data. This section will often include tables or figures with important descriptors of the data such as mean or deviation.
  • Model

    Next you need to explain how your model was developed. Start with a text section that describes each variable, then take the reader through each equation in the model and provide the mathematical form of the equations. In your discussion of the model, you should also explain where the it came from. Did you develop it or is it borrowed from elsewhere? If it's someone else's model, did you make any changes? Also be sure to include the assumptions your model makes and any restrictions on it.
  • Estimation technique/methodology

    Even though you're likely using data collected by somebody else, you'll still be using statistical methods to estimate the parameters for your model. In this section, tell the reader what mathematical methods and equations you used to analyze the data as well as the corrections needed to make the data usable in your model.
  • Findings

    This is the meat of an empirical paper. In this section, you'll test the model and report the results. Unlike in the hard sciences, it's not necessary to separate your findings and your discussion. Instead, you should give the results of your model alongside your analysis. How successful was your model? What problems arose? What does the success or failure of your model say about your research question?
  • Conclusion

    the conclusion of an empirical paper is usually brief. Basically, you should sum up your paper and provide a clear, concise statement of your findings, then address further avenues of research. Lastly, make sure to place your research in a wider context and explain its importance.

Sources

Economics papers rely on two different types of sources. The first is empirical data, which includes real world numbers such as prices, GDP, or interest rates. This data has usually been collected by someone else, and you'll be using those numbers to answer your research questions. Below are a few examples of common sources for economic data:
  • Economic Report of the President: published annually; includes data on employment, production, income, and the Federal budget.
  • Census: a survey of the U.S. population published every ten years.
  • Statistical Abstract of the United States: published annually; collection of data on socioeconomic issues in the U.S.
  • World Tables: published annually by the World Bank; includes socioeconomic data for individual countries.
The second type of source used in economic papers are models, analysis, and other scholarly writings. These secondary sources usually come from peer-reviewed academic journals or books. Databases for economics journals include EconLit and the Social Science Research Network.

Writing about statistics

Economics papers involve lots and lots of numbers, so you need to pay special attention to writing about statistics.
  • Provide context: Numbers don't mean anything if you don't know where they came from, so make sure you give the reader context for you data. What's the source? How reliable is it? Also let the reader know how the data fits in the larger picture. If you say that the price of an item rose $35, that doesn't tell the reader much. How much did it cost before? Over how long a period did the price go up?
  • Interpret: Don't just put numbers in your paper and expect the reader to know what they mean. You need to interpret the data and tell the reader why its meaningful. For example, if you give the mean of a set of data, the reader needs to be told how that number affects your research question.
  • Choose values that are meaningful and specific: When choosing values to present in your paper, choose data that is easy for the reader to understand and that is specific enough to be useful in your analysis.

Style

Active voice

Economics doesn't encourage the use of the passive voice as much as other sciences, so it's usually best to choose the active voice when writing. However, check with your teacher or the relevant style guidelines to be sure.

3rd person

Avoid 1st (me, I) and 2nd (you) person when writing economics papers.

Verb tense

There's no set guidelines for tense in economics papers, but in general you should use the present tense for everything except when you're writing about work that's already been done.

What to avoid

Overstating

We all want to think that the work we do is meaningful, but don't stretch your results. If they're inconclusive or don't support your hypothesis, don't be afraid to say so in your paper. If you explain the underlying issues and concepts well, then you're still doing good work; there's no need to try to make your work seem more momentous than it is.

Flowery writing

As in the other sciences, economics is about writing clearly, not about writing beautifully. While it's nice to write elegant prose, it's more important when writing an economics paper that your writing be clean, concise, and logical.

Bad formatting

There's no set style guide for economics, which can actually make it harder to get the formatting in your paper right. To make sure your tables, citations, and equations are all correct, get specific guidelines from your teacher or the publication for which you're writing your manuscript.
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