Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Rhetorical clutter (2)

Clear writing is orderly and uncluttered. As we have covered previously, rhetorical clutter can confuse your readers and hide your main point. It can also signal to astute readers that you are resorting to clutter because you don’t know what you’re talking about.

In recent days, economically illiterate reporters (i.e., most reporters) have outdone themselves with rhetorical clutter. Let’s look at one story that the Associated Press (AP) ran today.

In the story, Jeannine Aversa, an “AP Economics Writer,” writes that credit is clogged, tight, dried up, in a meltdown, and in a lockup.

She writes that the government is thawing the credit markets, trying to jolt them back to life, and providing a backstop. Apparently the credit markets are frozen (but also melting) and dead – but somehow able to move so forcefully that a backstop, as in baseball, is needed lest they go out of control and maybe even hurt somebody.

Or did she mean a backstop in the sense of a bolster (a cushion or pillow that can prop something up)? If so, what’s the use of propping up something that is frozen, melting and dead?

There is much more clutter in the article, but I’m sure you get the idea.

Please understand: I am not picking on Ms. Aversa or the AP. Almost all reporters who cover economics write fatuous nonsense like this, and almost all news outlets publish it.

If you think I’m overstating, just read the first two paragraphs of Henry Hazlitt’s enlightening book Economics in One Lesson and you’ll immediately perceive, by contrast, how absurd the financial pages of newspapers really are. By the way, those two paragraphs also explain why most economics writers write so poorly. The reasons are interesting.

The Takeaway: If you don’t know much about your topic, you will not produce clear writing. Don’t make matters worse by using metaphors promiscuously. Study your topic and start over.

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