That’s Enough: America’s Surplus
No, I’m not talking about the federal government’s balance sheet – its budget hasn’t experienced a surplus in over 20 years.
The surplus I’m referring to isn’t economic in nature, but rather one of words – excess spending leads to deficits in the form of a lack of clarity.
A recent tribute article in The New Yorker for the late American essayist Roger Angell, who published his first essay for the magazine in 1954, noted that the writer described himself as “a ‘taker-outer,’ not a ‘keeper-inner,’” and added that this “urge carried over to his editing. Clarity above all.”
Angell was best known as a baseball writer, but his words ring true far beyond the ballpark. Particularly when reporting political news, sticking to the facts and avoiding ambiguity is essential. And given the haste with which news organizations post content, one would surmise the lesser the word count, the better. That might be easier said than done, but if an article isn’t succinct, it likely won’t reach its intended audience; people are on the go and do not have time to dissect what you are trying to say. Call it a simple matter of opportunity cost.
So how can one avoid this classic case of diminishing marginal returns?
Begin by asking three questions: What am I producing? How should I produce it? For whom am I producing? Straight news articles, for example, are informational – they inform their audience of current events. As the Roman poet Horace once wrote, “perhaps you know how to draw a cypress tree: so what, if you’ve been given money to paint a sailor plunging from a shipwreck in despair?” Trying to summon your inner Shakespeare when reporting the Federal Reserve’s interest rates hike or the latest development in agricultural policy is a sure-fire way to decrease reader interest rates.
Speaking of past writers, keep in mind, language evolves over time. As such, thou ought not remain entrapped by ways of old. Cut the flowery vocabulary, write with personality and in your own voice. The Merriam-Webster dictionary adds new slang terms each year and regularly updates definitions to remain current with modern usage. For example, it’s no longer frowned upon to use contractions in formal writing, or to use “they” in place of “one” when referring to a subject without a specified gender.
As well, big words serve as distractions, not measures of intellect. True perspicacity is the ability to explain a complex issue in a manner a less-informed person can understand without having to flip back and forth between browser tabs because what the heck does “perspicacity” mean?
And please, stop overusing the word “that.” That is just one of those words that you use without even knowing that you’re using it, convincing yourself that it’s necessary when really that piece that you’re writing could be so much more concise without all that. See what I did there? I’ll let you fix it.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned working under the communications team at the American Action Forum and growing up in the DMV, clarity matters. For a good example of a smart person framing complex policy in a thoughtful, concise manner, look no further than Circadian Scoop’s Eakinomic-focused counterpart, The Daily Dish by Douglas Holtz-Eakin; if a C+ Econ 101 student can understand it, I’m sure you’ll be just fine.
Remnick, David. “Remembering Roger Angell, Hall of Famer.” The New Yorker, 20 May 2022.
King, Dave. “Purple Prose.” DaveKingEdits.com, 22 Mar. 2022, http://www.davekingedits.com/blogarchive/current.html.