Communication, Latest

370. My writing process

A while back I was talking about my writing process with a colleague and had the idea of trying to describe it and demonstrate it in detail in a Pannell Discussion. Here is my attempt to do that, using the writing of last week’s PD as the example. This is a particular type of writing, of course – a blog post of 500 to 1000 words – but the process has a strong overlap with the way I write most things.

I’ve broken the process down into 6 stages. For each stage, I’ve included a bit of explanation and shown exactly what I did for last week’s Pannell Discussion.

A key point to emphasise is that I don’t just write a lot of text and then edit it into something coherent. By the time I get to the stage of writing the first draft of the text, I have planned in quite a lot of detail what the content is going to be and how the story line is going to unfold. I know lots of people write the other way (write lots and then edit) but I think that is much less efficient than the approach I use.

I also have a theory that doing it that inefficient way can make you prone to writer’s block because it requires you to be creative about two things at once: the content and the wording. No wonder people who work that way find writing difficult. In my process, I am first creative about the content and later I’m creative about the wording.

1. Be clear about the topic

For my approach to work, it’s necessary to start by being clear about what the focus of the writing is.

The example I’m showing here (last week’s Pannell Discussion) is part of a series of blog posts about criticisms of Benefit: Cost Analysis (BCA). This one is about the criticism that BCA seems to be overly focused on money, thus neglecting important non-financial outcomes. The title will be BCA Criticisms: “money isn’t everything”.

2. Capture points that could be part of the piece

In the second stage, I brainstorm points that might be relevant and could potentially be included in the piece. I’m not too fussy at this point. Anything that seems a bit relevant can be written down. I’ll decide what actually gets included later.

The points are captured in random order with no attempt to organise them into a good sequence, although sometimes groups of related points do come out together and in a good order.

This first set of points are things I thought of in bed one morning after I woke up and decided to write this PD.

Some people think that BCA only deals with money.

In some cases that is true but it doesn’t have to be.

We economists do focus on monetising benefits in BCA to allow all benefits to be included.

Also to allow different types of benefits to be compared.

It doesn’t mean we only care about money.

For some projects, non-financial benefits are the main benefits.

There are at least three uses of money: as a store of value, as a medium of exchange, and as a way of measuring value. In BCA we are only using the last of those.

In environmental and health areas, economists have put a lot of effort into measuring non-financial benefits of projects or policies and expressing them as monetary-equivalent values.

Unpriced values are called shadow prices or non-market values.

There are various methods for monetising non-financial values. Refer to other Pannell Discussions that explain them.

Now here are some additional points I thought of later on that day, before going to stage 3.

The bottom line is that the impression that BCA (and economics more generally) is only concerned with money is incorrect.

In recent years I’ve been involved in several projects to collate evidence about the monetised value of intangible benefits so that they are easy to access for use in BCA. These projects produced databases of evidence for projects related to water, natural hazards and threatened species.

Together they include results from hundreds of studies and provide thousands of non-market values.

There are other less specialised databases available as well.

I’d like to see government guidelines provide more encouragement for people to include non-market values in their BCAs. At the moment, they tend to say that if it is hard to get monetised values, you could just describe the intangible benefits in words.

Too many BCAs use this approach. Seems to be done by economists who are not very familiar with NMV or perhaps not comfortable with it.

However, the reality is that there would be some NMV evidence available that is relevant to most projects. Guidelines could specify that not using this evidence should be a last resort, not the normal approach.

3. Organise points into groups

Once you seem to have enough points for the piece you want to write, the next stage is to group related points together and decide how the groups of points will be sequenced. Similar things should be grouped close together. The way points come out of my brain, they tend to be in groups already, to some degree, but not totally.

I’ve included headings below to be clear about what the groups are about. The headings may or may not appear in the final version. In blog posts I tend to be quite sparing in my use of headings.

At this stage, don’t work on the sequencing of points within a group of points. That comes next.

Introduction/background

Some people think that BCA only deals with money.

In some cases that is true but it doesn’t have to be.

For some projects, non-financial benefits are the main benefits.

Unpriced values are called shadow prices or non-market values.

Why monetise intangible values?

We economists do focus on monetising benefits in BCA to allow all benefits to be included.

Also to allow different types of benefits to be compared.

It doesn’t mean we only care about money.

There are at least three uses of money: as a store of value, as a medium of exchange, and as a way of measuring value. In BCA we are only using the last of those.

How to monetise intangible values

In environmental and health areas, economists have put a lot of effort into measuring non-financial benefits of projects or policies and expressing them as monetary-equivalent values.

There are various methods for monetising non-financial values. Refer to other Pannell Discussions that explain them.

In recent years I’ve been involved in several projects to collate evidence about the monetised value of intangible benefits so that they are easy to access for use in BCA. These projects produced databases of evidence for projects related to water, natural hazards and threatened species.

Together they include results from hundreds of studies and provide thousands of non-market values.

There are other less specialised databases available as well.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that the impression that BCA (and economics more generally) is only concerned with money is incorrect.

I’d like to see government guidelines provide more encouragement for people to include non-market values in their BCAs. At the moment, they tend to say that if it is hard to get monetised values, you could just describe the intangible benefits in words.

Too many BCAs use this approach. Seems to be done by economists who are not very familiar with NMV or perhaps not comfortable with it.

However, the reality is that there would be some NMV evidence available that is relevant to most projects. Guidelines could specify that not using this evidence should be a last resort, not the normal approach.

The order of those four groups of points (Introduction, Why, How, Conclusion) is the order I’ll use for the final written piece.

4. Sequence points within groups

Now I go back through each of the groups of points and think about the sequencing of the points within that group. I’m trying to decide on the order of the points that will allow the story to flow. Each point should follow on from the previous point in some way. I’m thinking, if I said this, then I could follow it up by saying that, and it would flow nicely. Ways that something could flow nicely could include if a sentence further explains a point that was made in the previous sentence, or it provides an example of the previous point, or it provides an exception or a contradictory example, or it continues a list of related items. Avoid making the same point in two places, unless it is to emphasise a key point in the conclusion. In selecting the sequence, I am mentally anticipating the writing stage, but I’m not doing any of the final writing yet.

This is the stage where I might drop some points that I can’t make fit into a flowing sequence. Even if they are good points, I’ll probably exclude them if I can’t get them to fit into a flowing sequence. If I’m determined to include a point, I keep working on the flowing sequence of points until that point fits in. Deleted points are crossed out in the text below.

In thinking about the sequence of points, I may add in additional points that weren’t in the original list, to help with the flow or to fill out the story. In the BCA example below, underlined points are ones I added in at this stage.

Introduction/background

Some people think that BCA only deals with money.

In some cases that is true but it doesn’t have to be.

For some projects, non-financial benefits are the main benefits.

In those cases, if we want a BCA to be useful for decision making, we probably have to include the non-financial benefits.

The best way to include them is to monetise them.

Unpriced values are called shadow prices or non-market values.

Why monetise intangible values?

We economists do focus on monetising benefits in BCA to allow all benefits to be included.

Also to allow different types of benefits to be compared.

It doesn’t mean we only care about money.

There are at least three uses of money: as a store of value, as a medium of exchange, and as a way of measuring value. In BCA we are only using the last of those.

How to monetise intangible values

There are various methods for monetising non-financial values. Refer to other Pannell Discussions that explain them.

In environmental and health areas, economists have put a lot of effort into measuring non-financial benefits of projects or policies and expressing them as monetary-equivalent values.

There are lots of existing studies that can be used.

In recent years I’ve been involved in several projects to collate evidence about the monetised value of intangible benefits so that they are easy to access for use in BCA. These projects produced databases of evidence for projects related to water, natural hazards and threatened species.

Together they include results from hundreds of studies and provide thousands of non-market values.

There are other less specialised databases available as well.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that the impression that BCA (and economics more generally) is only concerned with money is incorrect.

However, it’s true that many BCAs don’t include NMVs even where it would be beneficial to include them.

At the moment, government guidelines for BCA they tend to say that if it is hard to get monetised values, you could just describe the intangible benefits in words.

I’d like to see government guidelines provide more encouragement for people to include non-market values in their BCAs.

Too many BCAs use this approach. Seems to be done by economists who are not very familiar with NMV or perhaps not comfortable with it.

However, the reality is that there would be some NMV evidence available that is relevant to most projects. Guidelines could specify that not using this evidence should be a last resort, not the normal approach.

5. Write the first draft

Now I take the sequence of points from stage 4 and write the first draft of the piece. I probably make minor adjustments to the plan, but I’ll generally stick pretty closely to it. The first draft should be written quickly. Don’t look back. Don’t try to polish it as you go. Leave that to the next stage. Focus on getting the wording right and making sure the story flows. Here’s my first, quickly written draft.

I’ve heard people express opposition to the use of Benefit: Cost Analysis because they say that it is too focused on money and neglects important non-financial benefits. While that’s true for some individual BCAs, others do a good job of capturing the intangible or non-financial benefits that a project can generate.

It’s worth stressing that BCA (and in fact economics in general) is not just about money. It’s about values and preferences of all types and, if done well, includes allowance for complex factors like how people behave and how to accommodate risk and uncertainty.

For some types of projects (e.g., environmental, health), non-financial benefits (also called non-market values or shadow prices) are the main benefits, so doing a BCA without including them would probably be a waste of time.

The best way to include them is to express them in monetary-equivalent terms. By doing that, we can express all of the benefits in a common currency and ensure that our BCA metrics include all relevant benefits. It also helps us to weigh up the relative importance of benefits of different types.

Expressing intangible benefits in monetary-equivalent terms doesn’t mean we only care about money. They are still intangible benefits. We’re just using money to measure their magnitude. That is, we are using money for one of its three main uses: as a store of value, as a medium of exchange, and as a way of measuring value.

How do we monetise these benefits? I’ve talked about that quite a bit in other Pannell Discussions. For a reminder, check out PDs 218 to 221. It comes down to estimating the amount of money that people would be willing to pay for an intangible benefit if they had to pay for it. This is consistent with the way we measure the benefits of market goods.

When doing a BCA, even if there isn’t the time or money to do an original non-market valuation study, there are probably many existing studies that can be used to estimate the relevant monetary-equivalent values.

In recent years I’ve been involved in several projects to collate databases of these studies for specific areas: water, natural hazards and threatened species. Together they include results from hundreds of studies and provide thousands of non-market values.

There are other less specialised databases available, including the Environmental Valuation Reference Inventory (EVRI). https://www.evri.ca/en/splashify-splash

The bottom line is that the impression that BCA (and economics more generally) is only concerned with money is incorrect.

However, it’s true that many BCAs don’t include NMVs even where it would be beneficial to do so. At the moment, government guidelines for BCA tend to say that if it is too difficult to obtain monetised values for intangible benefits, a benefit: cost analyst could just describe the intangible benefits in words. While that is better than ignoring them altogether, I’d like to see government guidelines provide more encouragement for people to include non-market values in their BCAs.

The reality is that there would be some non-market value evidence available that is relevant to most projects. Guidelines could specify that this evidence should be used unless it is judged to be of too poor quality.

That’s it. Since it’s a blog post, I don’t need a tidy conclusion that wraps everything up.

6. Polish it

If you have time, it’s good to leave your draft for a few days so that, when you read it again, you can do so with relatively fresh eyes. You’ll see problems that are not apparent if you try to polish it straight after writing the first draft, because at that stage your mind is full of the content and fills in any gaps. You tend to read over errors or problems that become obvious later. Also, you’ll probably have additional good ideas when you look at it again after a break.

I won’t reproduce the polished version here as you can see it in last week’s Pannell Discussion. The amount of editing between the first draft and the final version was fairly modest. I modified the second paragraph a bit, added a couple of new ideas later in the piece, added or changed some words here and there to clarify things and corrected some punctuation. If I use this six-stage approach, I find that it’s commonly the case that not much polishing is needed. I guess it’s partly that I have had a lot of practice by now – practice definitely helps improve your writing – but the process helps to minimise the amount of re-working and restructuring that is needed.