A Postcard Sized Idea

I had cause to re-read the excellent “Discover Your Inner Economist” by Tyler Cowen recently, and came across a passage that resolved a little puzzle in my head. This is the passage:

It should be possible to take a good economics argument and write it out on the back of a moderate-sized postcard. If an argument has too many steps, at least one of those steps is bound to be radically uncertain. Or, if there are too many steps, we won’t know how all those different steps fit together to establish the argument’s conclusion.
When my Ph.D. students come to me with new ideas, I first say in my sternest voice, “Give me the postcard version.” Those who know me well enter my office shouting: “I have the postcard!” Those who say it is necessary to read their entire forty-six page essay to grasp their central claim are told to go back to the drawing board.

Discover Your Inner Economist, by Tyler Cowen

Some of my own students reading this blogpost might find that excerpt familiar. I have used a variant of this advice – I ask students to tell me their idea in one sentence, and one sentence alone. I then ask them to split up that first sentence into four parts, and those four parts into four further parts, and so on. This helps them write out their essays/theses/assignments – or so I hope! I know this structure helped me write my own thesis, and I still use a variant of this when I want to write longer pieces.

The puzzle of course was the fact that I knew the idea wasn’t mine, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember where I had read about it.

I’m not bringing up this excerpt and my experiences simply because I happened to read the book again. The idea is to share with you something that might help you create a video, or an essay or even a twitter thread.

Whatever it is that you are planning on creating, can you describe it in one sentence? Try and avoid punctuations (colons, semi-scolons, commas) and conjunctions. What is that single, simplest possible sentence that describes for me what you plan to do in this project?

Can you then break up that one sentence into four further sentences? These sentences can then become sections in your essay, or chapters in your thesis.

… and on and on.


In my own experience, two things happen. Condensing down towards that first sentence is the hardest part, and it often takes the longest time. But that agonizing experience (and I do not enjoy it one little bit), forces one to excise the weaker parts of your idea, and both reinforce and modify the strongest parts.

And once that is done, the expanding to four sentences is both a lot easier and a lot of fun. And from there on in, it’s all generally downhill (at least the planning phase).

But that first sentence? That’s the really hard bit.


And on a related note