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The Economics of Writing Poorly

November 4, 2013 in Economics

By Joseph Salerno

In a brilliant and entertaining new book, aptly titled Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences, Professor Michael Billig explains why social scientists typically write so poorly.  For Billig, who is not an economist, the main point is simple economics:

If we want to understand why academics today write as they do, then we should bear in mind one simple fact: in current times academics are writing and publishing as part of their paid employment.  We will not get near to understanding what might be going wrong in the social sciences unless we accept this.  By and large, academics today are not writing in answer to a higher calling or because they have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of truth.  We are, to put it bluntly, hacks who write for a living. . . . Given that our products are academic words, then we learn how to promote our academic words as part of our employment.  These are conditions where the rewards do not go to those who only write when they have something to say and who then take trouble to write as clearly as possible.

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