Varian: Say what to do, not what it is

This weekend I decided to clean my paper files. Tucked in between my notes on refining your research questions, or writing a PhD thesis, I came across this 2001 article by Hal Varian with writing advice.

The article has various useful tips, both general advice about writing, and specific advice about writing three different types of outputs: textbooks, business books, and newspaper columns. Alas, nothing on blogging 😉 But there is one piece of advice in particular that I wanted to share with you, and it is this: Don’t say what is, say what to do. 


Here is how Varian explains it:

“As scientists, we naturally like to describe things; our goal, after all, is to develop a better understanding of the world. But the readers (…) don’t necessarily share this goal. Their focus is on deciding what to do. So instead of saying “price discrimination can increase profits” you should say “charge users according to their value, not according to your costs.”

I know that this is one of my weaknesses, when it comes to writing. It is not just the ‘being a scholar’ factor, mentioned by Varian, and the associated tendency to summarise what is known about topic x, or the debates around topic y. It is also the ‘being an educator’ factor as the role of a teacher is to enable learning not to give solutions.

But writing is different from researching or teaching. And writing blog posts is different to writing a conference paper. I definitely need to improve my ability to write about what to do with some piece of information.

What about you? What is your writing weakness?

One thought on “Varian: Say what to do, not what it is

  1. Ana, I agree with your point, ‘Don’t say what it is, say what to do’. The key to effectively using this is to remember your target audience. Using your example about price differentials, if I was presenting to a group of Directors, with the aim of obtaining some consulting work, then my ‘take-home’ message to them would be ‘price discrimination can increase profits’. They would, hopefully, then pay me to implement this and in so doing we would explore how to ‘charge users according to their value, not according costs’. In other words, use the ‘non-academic’ wording to obtain clients but when you have them use the academic wording to show you are knowledgeable and their decision to pay for your services was a good one. Whereas presenting for academics, the latter wording is the correct wording as it summarises the theory being used.
    That is why ‘know you audience’ is they key to using this tool wisely.


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