Hal Varian on How to Write a Business Book

Hal Varian is an economist. As a matter of fact, he is the Chief Economist at Google. Wired wrote a great piece on the auction system for Adwords, which Varian shaped after his hire in 2002.

Varian is also a writer, having composed articles for both academic journals and mainstream publications.

I ran across an essay Varian wrote about called What I’ve Learned about Writing Economics. which has some relevant advice about writing business books.

Business Books

Writing Information Rules was an experiment. Carl Shapiro and I were both very interested in reaching a new audience, and we spent a lot of time thinking about who, exactly, the book was for. We already had quite a bit of material that we had pulled together for our teaching, research and consulting, so we had a good base of material to start with.

One of the most difficult things about writing a “business book” is how you phrase things. One good piece of advice is: “Don’t say what is, say what to do.” As scientists, we naturally like to describe things; our goal, after all, is to develop a better understanding of the world. But the readers of a business book don’t necessarily share this goal. Their focus is on deciding what to do. So instead of saying “price discrimination can increase profits” you should say “charge users according to their value, not according to your costs.”

Whatever you do, don’t use the passive voice! “Profits can be increased through the use of price discrimination” is about the worst way to phrase the idea. The decision makers disappear when you use the passive voice–hardly the right way to think about either social science or management!

This price discrimination example also illustrates another important point: you should try to use terminology that is meaningful to the reader. I hate to say it, but economist terminology is terrible. Economic jargon just doesn’t convey much meaning to the average reader. “Rent” is a nice example. It’s an important concept, no doubt about it, but your typical reader just won’t understand the subtleties without a lot of explanation. “Profit” they understand (or at least think they do) and it’s probably a better term in most cases.

Finally there’s the point I made earlier about making things simple for the reader. Callouts (those phrases in bold scattered through the text) and takeaway lists (the lists of points to remember at the end of the chapter) are useful tools for this purpose. They’re also a big help to you as an author: if you find that you’ve written two or three pages and you can’t come up with a one-sentence summary of what you’ve said, you should worry that you are just treading water. Perhaps you should cut some of that excess verbiage. Similarly, if you come to the end of the chapter and you don’t have half-a-dozen non-trivial lessons learned, you should probably go back and rethink the chapter.

My final advice is to tell a lot of stories. Business readers can tolerate some abstractions, but what really grabs them are stories. And the closer these stories come to the problems they face, the better. Remember they want to know what to do–so stories about what others have done, and how these choices have turned out, send a powerful message.

This is all good advice for those thinking about writing their own business book.

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