In this blog post, I address some frequently made mistakes in the writing of econometrics theses. Naturally, there is more to academic writing than can fit into a single blog post, so I will focus on the issues that seem to go wrong most often. Note, also that the comments reflect my own preferences. When writing in other circumstances, take from this what you will. Finally, this blog post is about the academic side of writing not about English prose. I am semi-qualified to talk about the former and absolutely unqualified to talk about the latter.
A general point is that you need to write for the reader and not yourself. Do not focus on your discovery process but on the research results that you want to convey to the reader. These results are the main message of your writing and everything else needs to serve the purpose of getting them across as clearly as possible.
This is arguably the most important section of a scientific paper and of your thesis. This is where you make the reader enthusiastic about your research and entice them to continue reading. Academic readers (such as your supervisor) have many papers to read, so any paper will quickly have to prove its worth to keep them reading. Do not waste time with „warming up“ the reader, instead cut straight to the chase.
Unless you have a very obscure topic that needs an introduction, you do not need to provide any background information before announcing what your research is about. It can feel brutal to start the thesis without giving a general introduction but the thesis will read better for it.
A good structure for the first few paragraphs of the intro is as follows:
What exactly is the research question you are dealing with. An example: „This thesis analyses the forecast accuracy of boosted regression trees for Dutch inflation.“ Under no circumstances start with a general statement such as „Inflation is an important variable for central banks“ — the reader knows this already and you have wasted their time making them read this.
Next, let the reader know how you are approaching the topic. For example: „The empirical analysis compares forecasts for Dutch CPI inflation from 1992 to 2021. The forecasts are constructed from boosted regression trees and are compared to those from benchmark models, such as AR models and the random walk.“ Then, provide some more details of your approach to the problem. Be reasonably precise without killing the reader with minute details.
Next, explain your headline findings, that is, what are the most important take-aways. For example: „I find that the random forest has a root mean square forecast error that is 11% below that of the best AR model.“ More headline results could follow, such as the performance of the other methods, important results in sub-periods, and so forth.
These first few paragraphs should explain your research and your research only. Once you are done — and this can take three or more paragraphs — the reader should be aware of what the general research question is, how you go about answering it, and what you find.
General introductions are only necessary if the topic is very obscure, for example, due to the regulation of a particular industry or the requirements of a particular company where you write your thesis. Any general introduction that provides a background should nonetheless be specific to your research and not exceed a short paragraph. Always avoid general statements, such as „GDP is an important economic variable“, from which the reader learns nothing.
It is important that you place your own research in the literature. This serves a number of purposes. First, it is unlikely that you have not based your research on that of others, and you need to indicate what you have been building on. This is important as even the suspicion of plagiarism is damaging. Second, given that most readers will be aware of the existing literature, you need to emphasise what is new in your research. This is easier when discussing what has been done before. Any difference will then be your own work and you can then easily point out those differences. Third, academic readers can be impatient and will want to know early on that it is worthwhile reading your work. Pointing out the differences to the previous literature can help emphasise the importance of your work.
From the above, it should be clear that your review of the literature needs to be tightly linked to your own research, which you explained at the beginning of your thesis. For this reason, it is a good idea to have the discussion of the literature in the introduction without a separating section header, that is, do not have a separate section called „Literature“ but discuss the literature in the introduction.
Another reason to avoid a separate literature section is that section headings seem to act in a similar way to doors. When looking for something and walking through a door people tend to forget what they came looking for (see evidence described here). Similarly, section headings appear to disconnect the mind of the writer from the previous section, which results in literature reviews that are only vaguely connected to the description of the research in the previous section. This makes the literature review much less useful.
Finally, for the reader, a literature section blocks the path from the exciting promise of great research in the introduction to the actual research. The purpose of writing a research paper or a thesis is to transmit a great idea from the creator to the reader. Anything that blocks this transmission, such as a section on the literature that only vaguely relates to that idea, is a problem. The computer scientist Simon Peyton Jones explains this eloquently.
Writing is hard work and takes time. Good writing explains as much as possible in as few words as possible. Make it an exercise to go over your thesis and ask yourself if you can express what you have written in fewer words. (For example, the previous sentence could drop “you can express what you have written” for “it can be expressed”. It could have been better that way.) You will be surprised how many words you can save. This does not mean you should drop content but that the same content can be transmitted with fewer words. It is possible to be too stingy with words but I have yet to encounter a thesis where this was the case.
What needs to be explained in the thesis
Sometimes students struggle with the questions which concepts to explain. There are two issues to consider. First, how well known is a concept. Generally, if it was in a course that everybody in your degree followed, you can assume it is known. Second, how central is the concept to your thesis. If it is central you need to explain it. Say, you write about an extension to the AR model, then you need to have the equation of the basic AR model in the thesis even if this was the subject of a second year course.
The language of econometrics
I supervise many theses that use machine learning methods and there seems to be a temptation to use machine learning slang in econometrics theses. This is risky. Not because machine learning slang is worse than econometrics slang but because you will end up using different words for the same concept. What is the difference between features and regressors, weights and parameters? Being able to translate a machine learning model into the language of econometrics has the added benefit of demonstrating that you understand what you do.
As a rule, stick to the defaults that LaTeX uses. Two exceptions: use
your supervisor may not have perfect eyesight any more, and use
a4paper as we
are in Europe where A4 is the standard. Under absolutely no circumstances fiddle
with the margins or the line spacing. Just don‘t.
- Avoid footnotes.
- Do not use punctuation after display equations.
- In the References section, do not put “The” in front of journal names. That is, “Review of Economic Studies” and not “The Review of Economic Studies”.
Most importantly, enjoy the thesis process, including the writing part. It is hard work but it can be a lot of fun.