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Writing for On Balance: A Note from the Outgoing Editor
01/08/2020

January 8, 2020

By: Fran Sussman

So, you've done this great research, had this novel idea, attended a phenomenal event, or read a paradigm-shifting book, and you want to enlighten everyone in the benefit-cost analysis community.

Yes, we absolutely want your blog at the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis.


The purpose of On Balance is to encourage the dissemination of ideas and thoughtful discourse and, ultimately, advance the theory and practice of benefit-cost analysis. The blog’s focus is on how economists and others engaged in benefit-cost analysis further that goal by crafting and testing theories, gathering and assimilating evidence, developing and applying statistical and other analytical methods, participating in conferences and meetings, and, of course, analyzing and designing policies.

But a word of caution: a blog is not less than a journal article. Rather, a blog has to be more: more tightly crafted, more clearly argued, more accessible, and better organized. That's a lot for 700 to 1000 words. But a well-written blog is beautiful, informative, and persuasive.

I’ve learned a tremendous amount by editing On Balance. One of the best parts is reading blogs in areas of economics where I know little. I benefit from learning the perspective of economists in other countries with different priorities, institutions, and terminology. My brow furrows as I try to think clearly about what language really conveys, while working out edits with those whose first language is not English, or have very different writing styles. And above all, I try to find a way to keep the blogs both informative and engaging, and adherent to standards of clarity and completeness in writing, while at the same time allowing each author to retain his or her own voice, perspective, and ideas.

Communication has to be at the heart of what we do. More and more often we share ideas with other economists with complementary expertise, or work with sociologists and other social scientists. All of us on occasion work with lawyers and with physical scientists—hydrologists, biologists, epidemiologists, or atmospheric scientists.

In my professional life, I have worked for nearly three decades on climate change. I have experienced first-hand the challenges of understanding or explaining disciplinary jargon and overcoming cross-discipline wariness. Policy makers and the general public constitute yet another language barrier to overcome. At the same time, each foray beyond your field of interest can be viewed as an opportunity: a chance to eliminate the double speak, streamline the caveats, substitute precision for jargon, and think about the message you really want to get across.

My recommendations to you, the prospective blog writer, are:

  • Think about the key messages. What do you want your reader to come away with and remember from your blog? The entire blog should lead up to and support these messages.
  • Use a compelling start. The first paragraph is the one that readers will see and decide whether they want to read the rest. They should immediately grasp what they are about to find in your post—and why.
  • Get to the point quickly. The first few paragraphs should contain the most important information; the reader should get your main points quickly, and understand the structure of your argument right at the beginning.
  • Be conciseYour content should be concise and readable. The ideal blog length is less than 1,000 words. No one can read much more than that with their coffee.
  • Keep paragraphs short—no longer than 5-7 lines. Readers will be looking for key ideas and nuances; your points should be accessible and not shrouded by too many words.
  • Remember we have an international audience. Watch the dependent clauses, the idioms, the acronyms, and the assumptions you make about what people think and know.
  • Limit the citations. What do readers really need to know to be sure you have done your homework well, or where they can go for more information?
  • Finish strong. Your concluding paragraph is important: what is the takeaway message for the reader?

I’m thrilled that Rob Moore is taking over as Editor-in-Chief of On Balance, and look forward to watching it evolve over time. I’m also sorry to step down. The Board of Directors approved the development of the blog in the summer of 2017, and it has grown to be one of the most viewed pages on the website. I expect that most readers of On Balance are members of the Society, but it also has a wider reach; sometimes I get emails from folks who are pleasantly surprised to find the short writeups while searching on a particular topic.

On Rob’s behalf, let me add a plea: take what the editor says to heart. As a Board member once told me: “The reader is almost always right. After all, writing is about communication and you don’t really know what you’ve communicated until you get feedback.”

Last, my takeaway. We want to hear from you! If you have a proposal for a blog but are not sure whether it would work, please write Rob or someone on the Board to knock around a blog premise. We’re always happy to explore ways to think about and present economics – after all, that’s what the Society and all of us are all about.

Editor’s Note:  Recent posts and guidelines for submissions to On Balance can be seen on the blog's homepage.

Fran Sussman is an Independent Consultant working on economic and policy analysis of climate change and related environmental and energy issues for public and private sector clients. She is the founding editor of On Balance, and served on the Board of Directors for the Society of Benefit-Cost Analysis from 2016 to 2019.

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