The Write Stuff
How to Write Like Tom Friedman
By Alan Crawford,
Even the most highly regarded analysts pepper their work with windy abstractions, marketing clichés and idiosyncrasies that often suggest not personal charm but an intellectual laziness. Maybe that’s why some of them are highly regarded: Intentionally or otherwise, they echo the thinking and even the language the rest of us already hear in our own cubicles.
In his Nov. 13 column, Thomas Freidman, for example, falls back on some of his favorite devices, which include canned quotes from anonymous sources that he invariably describes as “smart,” which is an important word in his world. So is “global.” The New York Times columnist holds forth on the need to “incentivize risk-taking” and the importance of “sustainable, inclusive growth.” He’s an enthusiast for “lifelong learning.” He looks toward “the frontiers of science.” He thinks it’s time “to recalibrate” U.S.-China relations, not least because our trade relations, properly structured, need not be a “zero-sum game.”
China’s “formula for success” he divides into three “pillars,” one of which is “hard work” supported by “smart” investments in infrastructure, education and research. But America’s “formula for success” also has “multiple components,” one of which has been present since the founding: our determination to educate our children “to take advantage of the prevailing technology of the day.”
The point is not to ridicule Friedman but to show how clichés of language so often reveal a lack of substantive thought. We rely on clichés when we don’t want to go to the trouble of figuring out how to express our ideas with specificity. We find it impossible to do so, however, when the ideas themselves aren’t ideas at all, but only fuzzy generalities, vague abstractions and sweeping and unsupportable assertions.
By the same token, when our ideas are clear and well thought-out, we are less likely to lean on trite language. When we really know what we want to say, the words usually aren’t hard to find. And a test of whether they are the best words is whether they are “simple and direct,” in Jacques Barzun’s phrase, rooted wherever possible in lived and concrete experience. Sometimes they can’t be, which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with abstractions per se, but they will have more power when they stand alone and give the reader the time and space to ponder them.
Annoying Word of the Month: Cognizant. “To be cognizant of the fact that” just means to know something. Seven words, or two? Unless you’re being paid by the word, I would go with two.