Guidelines for the Essays

This is a writing intensive course!  The course will include about eight graded one to five page essays.  The purpose of these essays is to help you explore the content issues in macroeconomics (e.g. what causes a recession?) and to become proficient in using the analytical techniques used by economists (e.g. the theories of supply & demand).  The assignments include reflective essays, as well as more technical assignments involving formal economic analysis.  Over the course of the semester, the assignments become progressively more complex, as your ability to handle them grows.  Early on they may ask you to explain some theory and then use it to analyze a particular issue.  Later they will ask you to explore an issue or problem and evaluate alternative solutions.

Each paper should be written in your own words.  Writing in your own words means to explain using terminology that someone you know with no formal economics training or background (e.g. a relative, roommate or friend) could understand.  While it is appropriate and even expected that proper economic terminology will be used in each paper, any terms which are not common knowledge to non-economists should be clearly explained.  In general, you should avoid quotations.  Excessive use of quotations suggests that you do not understand the issues well enough to explain them in your own words.  If so, then you don’t understand them, period.

Good academic writing has five characteristics (listed in approximate order of importance in the table above).  Your essays should embody these characteristics; in fact, I will look for them when I read your paper and assign a grade.

First, good writing should be focused, not fuzzy.  In other words, every paper should have a point, and this point should be clearly presented early in the paper in the form of a thesis statement.  It should also be restated in the conclusion.

Second, good writing should be organized.  Organization is more than just the formal structure of the paper, i.e. introduction, body, and conclusion.  Organization asks:  What are the major points that you want to make in the paper which lead logically to your conclusion (i.e. which prove your thesis)?  What is the best order to present those points?  Are there any weak or missing links in the logic?  If so, fix them! Are there any superfluous points (i.e. points which don’t lead to the conclusion)?   If so, omit them!  Note: This organization becomes the outline for the “body” of the paper.

The third feature of good writing is that it should be solidly developed. Once the major points are determined, each of those points needs to be explained in detail, and supported by evidence.  In other words, the same hierarchical structure that provides the organization of the overall paper should also be present at the micro level.  Each major point should be stated in a single sentence.  The remainder of that section of the paper should explain the reasoning for that major point.

Writing Style:

Once your paper has a well-defined focus and organizational structure, you can proceed to address the remaining features of good writing: clarity, conciseness and precision.  The point here is not to follow rules for rules-sake, but to allow your reader to easily comprehend your writing without having to work at it.  Clear writing indicates clear thinking.  If you can’t say it clearly, you probably don’t fully understand what you’re trying to say.  Do not pad your writing.  Never write a paragraph when you can say what you need to say clearly and completely in a sentence.  In the real world, you will never be asked to write something in ten (or more) pages.  Instead, you will be asked to summarize in no more than one or two pages.  Finally, say what you mean, no more and no less.  If you write in ambiguous terms, the reader will likely conclude that you’re not sure what you’re saying.

Students often think that the passive voice is more “scholarly,” and thus preferred in academic writing.  Consider the following example: “There was a failure of the results to confirm the hypothesis.”  Passive voice is not incorrect per se, but by disguising the subject of the sentence, it makes the reader have to work harder to figure out what exactly is being said.   In my class, you should use the active voice instead of the passive voice.  An example using the previous sentence might be: “The results failed to confirm the hypothesis.”

Good writers avoid “all about” writing.  “All about” writing talks around a subject, but doesn’t get to the specific point.  An example of all about writing would be “Friedman discussed whether or not firms should behave ethically.”  That may be true, but it’s far more powerful to write “Friedman believes that the only goal of business should be profits.”  In other words, don’t just raise the issue, but state the author’s point.

Writing Mechanics:

The last step in completing a paper is editing.  Here is the time to worry about correcting grammar and mechanics, as well as spelling and typographical errors.

Good writing practices include (but are not limited to) writing in complete sentences, maintaining subject and verb agreement, and avoiding spelling errors, typographical errors and gross grammatical errors.

Formal academic writing requires writing in complete sentences.  This is not rocket science; a complete sentence requires a subject and a verb.  However, it is very common for people to write sentence fragments and run-on sentences instead of complete sentences.  A sentence fragment is a subject with no verb or a verb with no subject.  Obviously, you wouldn’t do that in your paper, right, except sometimes people write phrases like “Because I said so!” which is a dependent clause, not a complete sentence.  A run-on sentence is two or more sentences which are not properly divided.  “John ran, Mary sat” is an example. The easiest way to fix a run-on is to divide the two sentences with a semi-colon or a conjunction like “and”.

Subject-verb agreement problems occur when the subject is singular (“I”) and the verb is plural (“writes”) or vice versa.  Few of us will write “I writes” but it’s not uncommon in a long sentence where the subject and verb are divided by a clause to make this mistake.

Good writers ask someone to read their work for clarity of presentation.  Since this course emphasizes good writing, you should ask someone to read each of your papers to identify anything that isn’t clear  (as well as spelling errors and typos).

Each of your papers should include a title page with the title of your paper, your name, the course number (ECON 201), the date and the name of the person who proofread your paper.  Please don’t put your name anywhere else in the paper.

In addition, at the end of your paper please list any resources you used, employing the reference style (i.e. format) of your major discipline.  If you haven’t chosen a major, you should use “Chicago-style.”

Each paper will be evaluated on the basis of two criteria:

  • How well do you understand the content issues in this assignment?  How complete and how sophisticated is your analysis and/or explanation
  • How well have you presented those ideas?  Have you made a clear, focused, well-organized argument with acceptable writing quality?

Good writers write more than one draft of a paper.  I will be happy to ready any paper you bring to me a reasonable amount of time before the due date, and give you suggestions for improving it before you submit it for a grade.

For further assistance in writing effective papers, please consult the UMW Writing Center  Appointments can be made by calling x1036.  The Writing Center is not just for people with problems writing—it is for anyone who wants to improve their work.  That should mean everyone!

2 Responses to Guidelines for the Essays

  1. jhutches93 says:

    Are we to cite our paper, even if we did not use any sources? It feels as if I should seek out sources for its own sake. But I went ahead and just wrote the paper from knowledge, rather than a conglomerate of sources tied together.

  2. Pingback: Essay 2 is due next Wednesday | Principles of Macroeconomics: The Online Version

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