Thursday, December 05, 2013

How Students Can Write Better Assignments

I'm finishing up the semester, and am in the middle of grading about 20 write-ups that my students had to do for a case we covered in class.   The case involved a venture capitalist offering an entrepreneur funds for what the entrepreneur thought was far too large a stake in his firm.  The students had to write a consultant's report advising the entrepreneur what to do with the offer. 

Once again, my students demonstrated that many (not all, but many) really don't understand how to write well.  So, I thought I'd do a service for students out there who have to do written assignments  (and for the faculty who have to read them) and give a few guideline on how to write better.

  1. Know what the mission is before you start: Are you writing an advisory memo? Are you listing the issues involved in a valuation?  Are you giving a recommendation?   In other words, all good writing (just like a good presentation) has a goal in mind.   Don't start writing until you're sure what it is.
  2. Organize BEFORE you start writing:  Back in the dark ages before computers (and before the meteor hid that destroyed all in my village), changing your writing was extremely difficult once it was down on paper.  So, to avoid that, we had to get very organized before we wrote.   Dierdre McCloskey (who's done a lot of work on how to write more effectively in economics) said, "90% of empirical work is getting your data straight, and 90% of good writing is getting your thoughts straight".  So, your best friend is a VERY thorough outline.  Start with a simple "high level" outline and then flesh it out in increasingly finer points.  Then make it even more detailed.  This makes sure that your writing stays "on point".  If you have a detailed outline, the writing is easy - you're just executing the idea.   
  3. Don't use flowery language or big words trying to impress me: All through elementary and high school, teachers tell us that good writing means being more expressive and using more evocative words.   So, the message comes across that using bigger words means that your writing will be better received (you sound smarter, you're more impressive, women (or men) will fall at your feet and so on).  In general, this doesn't work with business writing.   Be simple, direct, and to the point.  Don't use a longer word where a shorter one will do.
  4. Eliminate unnecessary words and phrases: Phrases like "the fact that..." and "basically" are the written equivalent of saying "ummmmm."  They add nothing and disrupt the flow.  A former teacher of mine once suggested I write a first draft and then eliminate at least one word from every sentence.  So try to write using the minimum number of words that will do the job. 
  5. Edit, Edit, Edit: I've only met one person in all my years who could consistently write a first draft that was perfect.  Most people (and I include myself in this group) only get it about half-right the first time around.   For me, it usually takes about 4 rewrites before I'm even minimally satisfied with my writing.
  6. Give your work to your harshest critic: We all have a tendency to think that what we write is all good.  But the test of good writing is how OTHER people take it.  So, aim to have at least one person critique your work before taking it public.  And when you choose people to read it, choose the toughest (and pickiest) critics you can find.  The person who says "everything looks great" is not the critic you want - you want the pickiest, nastiest critic you can get.
  7. Give yourself Time: All the above steps take time.  So if you have an assignment due on Friday the 13th, you should aim to have a first draft done at least a day or two before.  Good writing takes time, and usually involves multiple revisions.   So start early and give yourself time for revisions.
Note: If you're new to Financial Rounds , welcome. I hope you look around a bit -- if you want to find out more about the blog, check out the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page. And if your want to subscribe to our RSS feed, there are links on the sidebar.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Student Loans Are Diving Underwater

The student loan market has a lot of factors that seem to say "Stay the heck away!": they're relatively easy to qualify for, college costs have increased far more rapidly than general consumer prices, we now seem to feel that EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE A COLLEGE EDUCATION. ELEVENTY!!!, and most importantly, the job outlook for many (most?) college grads is to put it mildly, pathetic.  

This graph from the Washington Post piece points out some evidence that we might be seeing the beginning of the next "bubble pop".  Although they're a fairly small part of the overall consumer loan market, student loans are more likely to be 90+ days past due than any other loan class.  And the percentage is growing pretty rapidly. 

Luckily, the Unknown Daughter gets free tuition at Unknown University.   We still have a half-dozen years until we have to shell out for college, but it'll take a lot to justify her going somewhere other than to my (fairly low-cost) school. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

But I'm Not Dead

It's been almost a year since I last posted.  And a lot has happened at Unknown University since then.   I'm waiting to hear from the University P&T Committee and the Provost on my tenure case (I've made it past all the other hurdles - department, college peers, college P&T committee, and dean).  So I've been keeping a low profile since then regarding the blogosphere and trying to get stuff done.

Since the last post, the Unknown Baby Boy (a.k.a. KnuckleHead) has turned 4.  He is a lunatic, and a great deal of fun (despite the occasional head butt to the package).   The Unknown Daughter (a.k.a. Future Ruler of the Universe) is finishing up 6th grade.  She's planning on going to a 1-week computer camp to learn HTML this summer, so the blog might actually end up looking good.  On the down side, she just let slip that she's sweet on a young man, so it starts.  Looks like I'll have to buy a large knife to sharpen with e demented grin when he comes a-callin.
Oh, and I had a minor heart attack just before Christmas - no damage to the heart muscle, and I've been back riding since about 2 weeks after.
I'll resume regular posting once the tenure stuff is resolved.  Lots of stuff to catch up on. 

I the meanwhile, here's something completely unrelated to academia (I just found it funny).  It's John Cleese's remarks at Graham Chapman's funeral.  Now THAT is a eulogy.