Economist John List is used to academic writing, but has recently explored a more down-to-earth style of writing in his new book, “The Voltage Effect.”
John A. List is the Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. He is also Walmart’s chief economist. List works with state and federal governments to help them make better decisions.
List is used to academic writing, but recently published a book called The tension effectreleased in February 2022, and has another book titled The why axisreleased in 2013. He spoke about his work and writing at the Iowa Memorial Union at the University of Iowa on March 24 as part of his ongoing book tour.
The Iowan Daily: How was the writing process as you focus on economics rather than being a writer?
List: I focused on economics, but as an economist you have to write a lot for academic journals. It’s a kind of writing. I’ve also written textbooks – a textbook on “Principles of Economics”, which I wrote with two co-authors and it’s a different type of writing, but this type of writing in The tension effect is quite different from those. Yeah that type of writing is more about how to tell a narrative or tell a story that’s both understandable and helps teach people and that’s hard because I don’t usually write like that when you’re writing an academic paper. There’s a whole lot of savings in there. There’s a lot of jargon, there’s a lot of mathematical equations. There’s a bunch of Greek notations, and you have to take all that out and tell the stories in a popular book, because that’s what will resonate with people. So it’s art. I’m thinking of writing a popular book and that’s the hardest part. It takes a lot of revisions and a lot of outside advice, people telling you what they think of the book. Ultimately, I’m trying to write this book for people like my brother and my dad who are truck drivers. I want truckers to be able to read it, understand it and learn from it. And it’s a very different kind of writing. It’s a bit of an art, to be honest.
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DI: What do you think is the hardest part of your writing process?
List: A title is the most difficult for me. Just to come up with a descriptive, people-appealing title that people will like. I also think it’s all connected in a way – so you know, you have nine chapters in the book, but you also want a thread, a connection that ties all the chapters together in a way that you want the reader to not only read chapters one, two, three and maybe nine, you want them to read all of the chapters and understand only after they have read them all. The sum is much greater than the parts. I think this part of the writing is more difficult, because I’m used to writing only a single academic paper. So it’s a 25 or 30 page academic paper, and you’re telling the story, and that’s it – but here you’re writing nine separate academic papers, but you’re trying to tie them all together into a narrative that you want the reader to come up with the story. So I think that’s the second most difficult part after finding a title.
DI: What encouraged you to write your current and previous book?
List: I read a lot of academic papers, and the bad side of writing an academic paper is that a lot of people don’t read them because the lay audience never goes into an academic journal and never reads the papers. academics, it just never happens. So every once in a while you get into a topic that you write a number of academic papers about, like I did in the area of scaling. So I’ve written a number of academic papers on the economics of scaling, on how to scale ideas. And then I stopped and said, ‘Do you want to continue writing academic papers in this area? It’s fine if you do, or if you want to take stock and write a popular book that non-academics can read and understand what’s going on in this academic literature. Essentially, you’re trying to release the knowledge you’ve created into academia. You want to unlock this so everyone can learn from it, not just academics, and that’s happened twice in my career. It happened with The why axis. I said, ‘Look, I’ve created enough that I want to unlock now, and I want the world to know the secrets that were locked away in those academic journals.’ And after doing the scaling work I felt the same, I felt it was time to unlock it and hopefully teach the world what you learned and what you wrote about. This is such an important question that I decided to pause my academic research and do it. So now I’m on this book tour. You know, you write a book, it takes six to nine months to write it. The hardest part of writing a book, as I mentioned, is the title, but writing the book isn’t that hard. It’s really about getting people to read it. That’s the hardest part of the whole process, trying to get people to read your book.