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Economics Paper Guidelines

Papers should of course have a clear theme, based on appropriate sources, mainly ones academic for analytic issues. Data may come from (credible) news sources. Remember too that your textbook is a potential source!

You need an introductory paragraph or two – more means you’ve passed the limit of “introduction” and are into the core of your paper. You then need to develop your theme, something that can take anywhere between 5 paragraphs and 20 pages. You close with a conclusion of two to three paragraphs (less in a short paper). The start and end, your introduction and conclusion, will require a single page each. The body of your paper, a combination of data and analysis, must needs be more extensive. Remember that you need good illustrative examples, quotes and numbers. I don’t want to know what the authors wrote about, I want to know what you think the main theme of your source is, what is critical in what they said, and why. Remember that papers should be as long as necessary – and no long. Any suggested length is only that, a suggestion.

Papers are graded on both content and writing quality — organization, grammar, spelling, typos, and appropriate use of examples. Feel free to use the Williams School Communication Center. I pay attention to writing not because it is “important,” but because poor writing affects your ability to communicate. Poor organization signals that you’re unsure of what you want to say. Poor paragraph-level organization typically means you will fail to convey your analysis clearly. “Paragraphs” that trail on for two pages generally aren’t. Sentences 5 lines long surpass my powers of concentration, and in all likelihood are run-ons. Such prose gets in the way of conveying your message.

Remember, even if you lay out your argument systematically, bad grammar diverts the reader’s attention from what you are trying to say. Typos annoy me (your most important reader). So does illegibility; my eyes do not resolve small fonts or lines spaced too closely or the output of almost-empty ink cartridges. If you single-space, I’m also left with no room to make comments and if you don’t want feedback, why should I read it? Similarly, failure to spell check suggests that you care so little about the paper that you won’t mind an “F”. I generally am not that grumpy, but it does cost you.

Working with others on writing is standard practice both in academia and in the work world. Any important business memo gets read by others in draft form; I myself get colleagues to read drafts, and in addition expect feedback from editors. For obvious reasons I do not want to make editors annoyed with me, especially when they propose to pay me for writing – or have not yet agreed to publish what I’ve written. This creates a strong incentive for me to do two or three drafts, with a day or more between drafts so that I can read my output with a fresh eye. Duly acknowledge their efforts, but get a proofreader. Moms and dads and siblings are acceptable, though in my experience are not sufficiently critical.

USE FORCEFUL WRITING. If you use the passive voice, you weaken the impact of your exposition. A sentence in passive voice is always longer, and in my experience invites being verbose. That doesn’t mean every sentence has to be direct. Vary your sentence structure a bit, after an hour of grading that helps me focus on your paper. But keep on the lean-and-mean end of the scale.

Be sparse with modifiers. Overblown prose lessens your credibility. Indefinite modifiers – “some,” “a few,” and “often” – add no value. Instead, they imply you’re unsure of what you’re saying. If you don’t have a number, don’t try to make up for that with a weak modifier. Silence beats floundering phrases.


  • make sure of your theme, and convey it to your reader
  • organize your claims and present data (numbers, quotes) to document them
  • don’t hand in your first draft; get a proofreader / editor
  • write forcefully and accurately
  • keep it “clean” – 1″ margins, 12 pt Times, 1.5-2.0 spacing, extra space between paragraphs