Writing, Typing & Economics

Their lesson is simple: It’s a total illusion.

Weekly readers know that I have been digging into The Great Depression and have recently become impressed with the writing style of John Galbraith, who wrote a short history on the topic.

Unsurprisingly, Galbraith wrote on the topic of writing itself at least once, and there is a lot we can take away to improve our own approach to communication and decision making.

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Before reading the below: Are you familiar with John Galbraith?

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John Kenneth Galbraith

John Kenneth Galbraith, an economist and Harvard professor, lived a life marked by a unique blend of intellectual curiosity and social engagement, which made him one of the more celebrated public intellectuals of his time. He also happened to stand out in a crowd, towering at a height of 6 feet 9 inches! He passed away in 2006 at the age of 97.

As an economist, Galbraith was known for his progressive views, often challenging the conventional wisdom of his time. He was an advocate for government intervention in the economy and believed in the importance of addressing social inequalities. At the same time, whenever it was possible, he seemed to be a fan of letting market forces drive outcomes.

His works The New Industrial State and The Affluent Society challenged the prevailing economic theories of those such as Hayek and Friedman, offering a fresh perspective on the role of government and the nature of economic growth. In Galbraith’s view, many market outcomes were driven by the influence of large organizations — whether they be the government, large corporations, or organized workers themselves — and not by purely rationale, economic decision making on the part of all market participants.

In addition to his academic achievements, Galbraith was also an active participant in the political sphere. He served in various government roles, including as an adviser to President John F. Kennedy, and was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War. His political engagement and willingness to challenge the status quo added to his prominent figure in the public eye.

All considered, Galbraith was key figure in shaping the economic discourse of the 20th century.

Writing, Typing & Economics

Galbraith's career was characterized by his ability to bridge the gap between academia and the public sphere. He was a prolific writer, producing numerous books and articles that tackled complex economic issues in a manner accessible to the general public.

This accessibility was rooted, in part, in his approach to writing. Despite the complex topics he researched, he wrote simply. Despite the simplicity, his words carried a unique, sarcastically factual personality. Above all, his words conveyed with clarity.

The triple threat of simple, entertaining and clear lead to his work being read by many more outside the economics profession than those within it. During his lifetime, more than 7 million copies of his 46 published books were sold.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that those tasked with teaching writing to future generations took notice. So intrigued with his ease of communication, in fact, some academics once suggested he leave economics all together.

I received a proposal of more than usual interest from the University of California. It was that I resign from Harvard and accept a chair there in English... My task would be to hold seminars with the young on what I had learned about writing in general and on technical matters in particular.

I was attracted by the idea. I had spent several decades attempting to teach the young about economics. And the practical consequences were not reassuring.

However, while good writing may seem an unsolvable puzzle for many of us, Galbraith feared it too targeted a topic.

There was, however, a major difficulty. It was that I could tell everything I knew about writing in approximately half an hour. For the rest of the term I would have nothing to say except as I could invite discussion, this being the last resort of the empty academic mind.

I could use up a few hours telling how a writer should deal with publishers. This is a field of study in which I especially rejoice. All authors should seek to establish a relationship of warmth, affection, and mutual mistrust with their publishers. This is in the hope that the uncertainty will add, however marginally, to compensation.

But instruction on how to deal with publishers and how to bear up under the inevitable defeat would be for a very advanced course.

Giving up on the idea of a full university course, in 1978 he wrote Writing, Typing & Economics (link to digitized PDF) in The Atlantic to distill his key writing principles into four pages. While Galbraith was thinking about writers, his advice on communication leaves takeaways for our business lives as well — see the bottom of this post for summarized key takeaways.

Inspiration Illusion

There are days when lighting strikes and words flow from your fingertips with ease. Other mornings, all you can do is force yourself to start a single sentence before a longing for inspiration is a weight too great and your fingers give out before reaching the end of the sentence.

And so you stop writing. You decide to wait for the lighting — however long it takes.

While that can feel great as you look in the mirror with a justification in hand for why you accomplished less than you intended, it is an addictive way to trick yourself into never getting much done.

The first lesson would have to do with the all-important issue of inspiration. All writers know that on some golden mornings they are touched by the wand — are on intimate terms with poetry and cosmic truth. I have experienced those moments myself.

Their lesson is simple: It’s a total illusion. And the danger in the illusion is that you will wait for those moments. Such is the horror of having to face the typewriter that you will spend all your time waiting.

I am persuaded that most writers, like most shoemakers, are about as good one day as the next (a point which Trollope made), hangovers apart.

The difference is the result of euphoria, alcohol, or imagination. The meaning is that one had better go to his or her typewriter every morning and stay there regardless of the seeming result. It will be much the same.

The reason it is so important to get something on the page is that whatever you first put down — inspired or not — won’t be great. Revision is required because the quality of your first words are hindered by needing to think and communicate at the same time.

As you revise your draft, your own thinking becomes clearer, allowing you the mental capacity to review if the words actually reflect what you intend.

In my own case there are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. However, when I'm greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed...

My advice to those eager students in California would be, “Do not wait for the golden moment. It may well be worse.”

Better Through Brevity

It is easy to fall in love with what you have written. Every written sentence feels worth keeping — or even expanding. The adjectives you’ve liberally donated throughout sentences ring beautifully in your ears.

But that might be the only place they resonate so well — and you are not writing for your own ears.

Next, I would stress a rather old-fashioned idea to those students. It was above all the lesson of Harry Luce. No one who worked for him ever again escaped the feeling that he was there looking over one’s shoulder. In his hand was a pencil; down on each page one could expect, any moment, a long swishing wiggle accompanied by the comment: “This can go.”

Invariably it could. It was written to please the author and not the reader.

Forcing brevity targets your messaging and filters out that which doesn’t add to it. You can hide your best ideas amongst so many dull ones that no one notices anything but a mundane set of letters to glaze over.

The gains from brevity are obvious; in most efforts to achieve brevity, it is the worst and dullest that goes. It is the worst and dullest that spoils the rest.

Clarity Requires Comprehension

If something is understood to be complex, humans tend to suspect foul play from anyone that attempts to simplify it.

Any specialist who ventures to write on money with a view to making himself intelligible works under a grave moral hazard. He will be accused of oversimplification.

The charge will be made by his fellow professionals, however obtuse or incompetent. They will have a sympathetic hearing from the layman. That is because no layman really expects to understand about money, inflation, or the International Monetary Fund. If he does, he suspects that he is being fooled. One can have respect only for someone who is decently confusing.

However, complexity often represents inadequate thinking. A writer can use a plethora of words — and sprinkle in obtuse language and technical jargon — to take advantage of our belief that more words equal more thought.

Galbraith suggests the exact opposite is true. Clear thought results in clear language. Complex writing reveals a lack of understanding.

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.

Facts are Fascinating

In the absence of anything of substance to share, it is easy to try to share anyway. This leads to many words and a lot of effort that could have been avoided altogether. The author may feel they have imparted insight onto pages, but the reader reaches the end of them having taken nothing away.

Nothing is so hard to come by as a new and interesting fact. Nothing is so easy on the feet as a generalization.

[As I’ve gotten older] I now pick up magazines and leaf through them looking for articles that are rich with facts; I do not care much what they are. Richly evocative and deeply percipient theory I avoid. It leaves me cold unless I am the author of it.

My advice to all young writers is to stick to research and reporting with only a minimum of interpretation. And especially this is my advice to all older writers, particularly to columnists. As the feet give out, they seek to have the mind take their place.

Humor Can Hinder

Galbraith also advises against using humor in writing — which caught me off guard as he tends to have a little bit of dry humor weaved throughout his own writing. On reinspection, his jokes are not in fact jokes. As he suggests directly above, he merely presents the facts artfully and lets reality paint the picture, humorous or not.

Reluctantly, but from a long and terrible experience, I would urge my young writers to avoid all attempts at humor. It does greatly lighten one’s task. I’ve often wondered who made it impolite to laugh at one’s own jokes; it is one of the major enjoyments of life. And that is the point.

Humor is an intensely personal, largely internal thing. What pleases some, including the source, does not please others. One laughs; another says, “Well, I certainly see nothing funny about that."

And the second opinion has just as much standing as the first, maybe more.

And should you decide to attempt humor regardless of the risk of misinterpretation, it is important to do so only in the right time and place. Wrongly timed, a joke can belittle your main point and distract from your key message.

There are other reasons for avoiding humor. In our society the solemn person inspires far more trust than the one who laughs. The politician allows himself one joke at the beginning of his speech. A ritual. Then he changes his expression, affects an aspect of morbid solemnity signaling that, after all, he is a totally serious man.

Nothing so undermines a point as its association with a wisecrack.


For Investors:

1. Don’t overcomplicate things. If you can’t simply state why you are making an investment, you might want to think about it more.

2. Sometimes the obvious conclusions are enough and additional work merely creates the feeling of better decision making.

3. Find facts and interpret them yourself — be careful to not outsource thinking to others.

For Builders:

1. Inspired or not, make progress every day. Progress compounds over time — inspiration doesn’t.

2. Simple clarity reduces friction, so don’t over complicate things for your customers.

3. Stick to the facts of how you add value and the message will be more easily heard.

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Twitter / X: @HistoryEJ

Disclosure: Nothing in this article constitutes investment advice. More detailed disclosure here.

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