The Laffer curve of writing quality

You’ve probably heard of the Laffer Curve. Economist Arthur Laffer allegedly sketched it on a napkin during a 1974 meeting in Washington that included Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

It is a thought experiment intended to show that if you raise the tax rate beyond a certain point you actually end up collecting less tax revenue. (At a tax rate of 100%, for instance, nobody would bother earning income at all anymore.)

Well, the curve just popped into my head as I was contemplating something completely different: The quality of my writing — or of anybody’s writing.

Look at Laffer’s curve above and replace Government Revenue on the Y axis with Writing Quality, and Tax Rate on the X axis with Words Written.

Up to the peak

In general, I have noticed that my writing in the past always improved when I wrote more.

So, at The Economist for example, I noticed ‘being on a roll’ every time I finished a Special Report (those 12,000-word inserts). Then, when I wrote my book in my spare time, I again noticed that all my writing seemed to improve. When I added this blog, my writing seemed to get better again. And so forth.

Why might this be the case?

Perhaps because when you write too little (which applies to most people), you are too timid with your words, too diffident that you actually have something to say. As you write, you discover that you do have something to say, and the words come more easily and fluidly.

Or perhaps you feel less less uptight about your words as you write more of them, and you become looser as a result. Who knows?

So far, the advice for most writers and bloggers would therefore seem to be:

Write more.

Down from the peak

But of late, I’ve also been wondering whether one can write too much.

At The Economist, for example, we’ve been adding all these blogs, not to mention the “multimedia” content. So now we’re expected to “feed” those as well.

Internally, we’ve resolved that readers come to blogs with different expectations of polishedness (as opposed to quality, which should stay high). It’s OK to shoot from the hip.

Still, I wonder about the Laffer Curve. When do I start writing so much and so often that my writing gets worse?

Writing = Vita interrupta

That’s my silly word play on Coitus Interruptus. What I’m trying to say that writing is always and necessarily the second step in a process.

The first step must be:

  • thinking,
  • reporting,
  • experiencing
  • living

Then you interrupt that first step and write about it. But if you write too much, you cannibalize the thinking, reporting, experiencing and living, do you not?

Perhaps then it’s time to

write less.

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19 thoughts on “The Laffer curve of writing quality

  1. “…….the advice for most writers and bloggers would therefore seem to be: Write more……….”.

    Permit me also to suggest: Read, read, read, read, read, read, and read……deeply and widely.

    • Absolutely.

      And yet, here too, a Laffer Curve seems to take effect: I’m not saying that you can read “too much,” but at some point you do have to interrupt and consolidate and use what you’ve written, perhaps by writing something original.

      Example: I was so absorbed in Chernow’s biography of Hamilton for a while that I completely forgot to write down my thoughts arising out of his pages.

  2. I think you’re right–what’s the word? Logorreah.

    No one’s mentioned this Plinky thing, but that seems to have a scary premise: Even if you don’t have anything to say, we want to hear you.

    • I had the paranoid thought that the Plinky Prompt ads appeared on my WordPress account only, as if some evil WordPress administrator had singled me out for remedial help.

      I have the perverse desire to create the Sundance Film Festival of Plinky Prompts (it will certainly have a cooler name!) with all kinds of opaque prompts, like the essay topics for University of Chicago undergraduate admissions this year. This one, for example: Find x.

      Or how about Plinky Inhibitors: a service providing random phrases designed to discourage the writing urge, especially for those days when I am under the delusion that I have something to say.

  3. What happens when you qualify X as either a) words written for public consumption or b) words written for an audience of one – yourself?

    • Hmm. Interesting twist. That had not occurred to me, because I never write for an audience of one.

      I’m reading a biography of Nietzsche at the moment, and in his case his private notes (for an audience of one) fulfilled a crucial function: This is where his thoughts first appear as experiments, later to morph into mature ideas in his public writing (for an audience of more than one).

      My guess is that the test is this: Does the private writing hurt or help?

  4. take the curve up to the celing, write write write, lossen your mind, your heart, your will… and then bring it down to earth, edit edit edit, don’t let your main ideas get lost among too many words… and keep loyal to your style, if you own one. And of course read read read but then close the book, try to forget what you read and don’t worry: what you captured will remain with you forever.

  5. Of course the Laffer curve is nothing to be laughed at but how does it compare to Boileau’s famous “Cent fois sur le métier remettez votre ouvrage”? Writing is never a finished job, always, when revising or editing, something will come up calling for a change here and there…but somehow you have to pot the last period some time.

  6. Thinking, reporting, experiencing, living. There must ways of doing this without using words at all (inside or outside one’s brain), much less writing.

  7. Very interesting post and reasoning. I’ve always thought that art (writing, painting, any musical activity and so forth) can enrich life greatly. Done in excess, art cannibalizes life instead and dries up, since the materials that feed our imagination are taken from life itself. In other words, if you spend your life writing or painting, you reach a point you don’t know what to write or paint any more.

    • Amen. Which is why it is such a good idea for artists such as yourself to take occasional breaks, even prolonged ones, in order simply to live. “Sabbaticals of experience”, we might call them,

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