Giving Advice: Rewards and Penalties

Yet another stub. I need to write on the paradox that it’s easier to tell a good writer how to improve his writing than a bad writer, and he is also more likely to accept your advice. With business managers, it’s harder to give advice to a good manager than a bad one, but he, too, is easier to improve, since he’s smart enough to know your advice is good.

The good writer takes your advice as praise; the bad writer, as an insult. This is literally true. I don’t much bother with trying to correct poor writers. It’s just too hopeless, and it’s not my job, unless they’re my students. And in that case I can force them to pay attention. But a good writer might take up my suggestions. So if I tell somebody they’ve written something badly, that’s most likely because I think they’re a good writer.

Referee reports are like this, too. In economics, when you submit a paper to a journal, the editor picks three referees, scholars in the field of the paper, who anonymously give comments and recommendations (though only the editor’s decision matters in the end). This is the “peer review” you may have heard about. I like getting really bad papers to referee, because they’re easy. You just find the fatal flaw, write it up, and you’re done– easy reject. I hate getting poorly written papers to referee. You can’t tell what the author is trying to say, so you can’t tell whether it’s good or bad. It actually might be good economics, just incompetent writing style. Young authors, take note: poor writing puts the referees in a foul mood and they itch to destroy your paper, even though a sense of duty may compel them to fight through your poor writing and see if the paper is any good. It’s hard to be fair to a careless writer, though— I’d prefer to spit in his face.

At any rate, if a referee sends back a four-page single-spaced report, that means one of two things, or both. True, it might mean your paper is bad and he’s trying to impress the editor with how smart he is, because he is hoping to ask the editor for a tenure letter later. (Referees are not paid enough to matter much, if anything– just $100, say, so the “impress the editor” incentive is understood as important. Editors have a hard time getting good referees, adn they know the extra work later for themselves is aprt oft he price of being a good editor.) But the second thing is that if teh editor writes four pages of criticism, it may mean he thinks it’s a really good paper with a lot of potential for influence in the profession.

My favorite French aphorism is yet again relevant: “Une poeme n’est jamais fini, seulement abandonee.” I usually translate it when I write it, though you, careful reader, should really be insulted when I do, since you don’t need to know a word of French to translate it, just a little intelligence. But those who have little intelligence don’t realize this, and they need the translation, and so, even if I’m like a magician revealing my tricks, I’ll do it: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” Explaining what that means, though, is going a step too far, even for me, so I won’t do it. (If you’re younger than twelve, I’ll relent,though, and you can email me at [email protected] and I’ll explain it.)

This is a little like the problem of African economic development. See RObert Klitgaard’s Tropical Gangsters. In 1985 he was very optimistic about Equatorial Guinea, because it had such potential. A big improvement would be to just get the economy back to 1968 and Spanish colonial rule, before the evil dictator killed off a quarter of the population and so many plantations went back to nature. All you had to do was implement policies such as requiring government employees to pay for stuff rather than just taking what they liked and driving the stores out of business. But there’s the fallacy: “all you had to do”. He failed.

This is closely related to “critical thinking”, by which I mean being able to look at anything and see its good and bad points. Most people are really bad at that, and think it’s immoral. They think the moral thing is to cheer your friends and boo your enemies, and never to use grey paint. Polemarchus suggests this definition of Justice in Book I of the Republic, but he quickly admits that it’s a bad definition. Most people are clueless. Twitter illustrates this very well. Most people on it are there to cheer their friends and boo their enemies. When I criticize a conservative (e.g. John Huber) or defend a liberal (e.g. Judge Emmett Sullivan), they get very confused. It’s even more confusing if they see me both criticize and defend a single individual. For example, I praise John Huber for his Flynn case tweets and then tell him that his tweet thread is so intricate nobody will get the point. I condemn Judge Sullivan as a traitor to his oath of office who embarasses himself because he’s so ignorant of law and cares so little what is lawful, but I defend Judge Sullivan against ungrounded accusations that he’s corrupt (something crazy like that his sons are murderers and he’s covering it up– it’s no even worth looking up).

Personal life and sin advice, childrearing advice, are different. There, it is harder to know what advice to give to someone who has their act together.

For myself, if you are going to say nice things about the paepr I’m working one, don’t bother. Compliments are useless. I want criticisms. I know I’m smart, a good writer, blah, blah, blah, and whether you think so or not might be interesting but isn’t really relevant to the project at hand. I want to know how to improve this particular piece of writing.

That’s hyperbole. A little. Compliments can be useful. They are useful to prevent me from ditching the project entirely, if it is a good one. If it is a bad one, compliments are the worst thing you coudl do, because I should kill it, adn you’re getting me to waste a lot of time on something useless. And this applies on the micro level. I was just referreeing something where I told the publisher and author that using contractions and “you” and an informal style was good, so they wouldn’t harm the piece by changing all that.

Note, however, that compliments in advice are not the same as compliments in general. There is a big male-female divide here. I am here discussing the male compliments and the male criticism. When men say X, they are trying to convey the information X. When women say X, they are trying to convey the information that they wish to say X. For example, when a man says, “I like your new haircut”, he means that he likes your new haircut. When a woman says, “I like your new haircut”, she means that she likes you and notices your appearance, but it is understood that she is not really making any comment whatsoever as to whether she likes your new haircut and might well think it’s ugly. Similarly, if a man says, “I don’t like your new haircut”, he means that he doesn’t like your new haircut. When a woman says, “I don’t like your new haircut”, she means that she hates you and want you to know that she hates you, again without expressing any opinion on whether she likes your haircut, which she may even think is a vast improvement over your old one. This difference in male and female use of language is a frequent cause of marital discord. Think of the joke about what a man should say if his wife asks, “Am I getting fat?” after she’s gained 30 pounds in the past six months. The wrong answers are, as the joke goes (comment welcomed as to the truly best answer):
(a) Yes, now that you mention it.
(b) Compared to what?
(c) Honey, I love you regardless of how much you weigh.

The best answer according to the joke, is
(d) Of course not, darling.

If you want to improve your writing style, you have to ask for answer (a) instead. For most people, that is too high a price to pay, so their writing never improves. That’s fine. For me, lifting weights each day for half an hour is too high a price to pay for strong muscles, so I remain weak. I’ll hire someone strong if I need to dig a ditch; you hire somebody who’s good at writing if you want to write a memo. But if you do want to learn to write, or to do research more generally, you’ll have to not just accept but invite and welcome criticism.

What a fool is she, that knows I am a maid,
And would not force the letter to my view!
Since maids, in modesty, say ‘no’ to that
Which they would have the profferer construe ‘ay.’