Monday, March 8, 2010

Mantra overload (6) – David Brooks

Mantra overload – the excessive use of trendy, vague expressions – is a widespread habit among writers. For some reason, newspaper columnists are especially susceptible.

David Brooks is a typical example. Here are the first two paragraphs of a column of his (subscription required), titled “The Cognitive Age.” (Boldface added, to highlight mantras.)

“If you go into a good library, you will find thousands of books on globalization. Some will laud it. Some will warn about its dangers. But they’ll agree that globalization is the chief process driving our age. Our lives are being transformed by the increasing movement of goods, people and capital across borders.

“The globalization paradigm has led, in the political arena, to a certain historical narrative: There were once nation-states like the U.S. and the European powers, whose economies could be secured within borders. But now capital flows freely. Technology has leveled the playing field. Competition is global and fierce.”

The Takeaway: In writing, and especially in formal writing, use mantras sparingly or not at all. Mantra overload can make you look too stupid to know what you mean or too lazy to express it precisely. Mantra overload can even make you look slippery, because readers will mentally associate you with politicians. Think consciously about the words you utter and write. Especially when editing, keep asking yourself, “What do I really mean?” Over time, this diligent habit will make your writing more precise and more honest.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this blog is to show and explain examples of clear and unclear writing and speech. Accordingly, I select examples for the diction they contain, not the ideas they express. I promote no political position – unless you consider clarity a political position.

Update, Sunday, March 14, 2010: I deleted an irrelevant ad hominem reference from The Takeaway.

1 comment:

  1. Of course, describing Mr. Brooks as a toady may qualify has expressing a political opinion, though I hesitate to suggest your opinion is ambiguous.