“Words Are a Scarce Resource” … Is This a Methodology Leading to These Conclusions?

Andres Marroquin, a Guatemalan economics blogger I follow with interest, has a new draft paper (co-authored with Julio Cole), “Economical Writing (Or, Think Hemingway).”  It is summarized at Marroquin’s blog post, The Economics of Writing.

Literature [Nobel] laureates tend to use shorter words than laureates in other disciplines, and the difference is statistically significant. These results confirm Salant’s idea that words are a scarce resource and should be used efficiently. This includes using short words instead of longer ones whenever possible. In short, good writing is also “economical writing.” [Table omitted.]

Note that the lowest average word lengths are for the Literature prize. In terms of syllables/word the Literature laureates’ word lengths were, on average, almost 8% shorter than the weighted average for non-Literature laureates, and about 6.6% shorter in terms of characters/word.

Salant (1969) argued that the use of short words is an indication of good writing. We found support for this hypothesis by comparing the banquet speeches of Nobel laureates. To be sure, word length is only one dimension of what makes for “good writing.” But it seems that it is a necessary dimension. Words are a scarce resource and must be used efficiently. This includes using short words rather than longer ones, whenever possible. “Economical” writing might indeed be the key for “good” writing. We leave for debate the different implications of our paper.

I invite readers to consider in the comments whether the method pursued here is suited to the task at hand, or whether it is instead an example of a method gone in search of something to measure, or something again entirely.  Note that this is different from asking whether good writing indeed consistently uses shorter words (the Hemingway or Orwell “plain prose” aesthetic), or whether good writing is much more variable on this metric than one might have guessed (Blaise Cendrars, for example, or Garcia Marquez or Milan Kundera).  Finally, is it true that “words are a scarce resource?”  Don’t the authors mean, rather, that more words are always available and that reader attention is the scarce resource?  (BTW, in posting this, I should ask whether I have been taken in by a parody – someone bidding for an Ignoble Prize?)

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