A Martyr for Clear Writing

Paul Romer’s dismissal from the World Bank’s Development Economics Group raises valid points about professional writing. While the media have focused mostly on his tongue-in-cheek limit on using ‘and’, Romer’s advice is worth looking at in more detail. He outlines his ideas about clear writing on his blog.

Clarity

Make statements that are falsifiable. Scientific and professional writing should make some sort of claim. Don’t sit on the fence, hedge your bets and try to have it both ways. Sloppy writers obfuscate so they can avoid the consequences of their opinions. Obscure and opaque prose also hides the fact that there is often no particular reason to write.

Use Technology as a Tool

I see the future of editing in using NLP tools to assist human editors. It is trivial to use a computer to highlight nominalizations, passive voice and sentences without clear subjects and main verbs. Furthermore, statistical anomalies such as a high rate of ‘and’ relative to texts in the same genre can be flagged. A human editor can then use this information to more consistently apply a style guide that favors clear, strong prose. Of course, there are valid reasons to use passive and nominalization in good prose; assisting a human editor is a more realistic goal than replacing one — sorry, Grammarly.

The Fight for Vernacular

This debate is nothing new. Tyndale was executed for translating the Bible into vernacular English. I view this attempt to write in unnatural and unnecessarily complex prose as a way to close off writing to those without a certain background — typically upper class and highly educated. That people are regularly able to express complex ideas in 140 characters is something to celebrate.

Keep writing clear, concise and understandable prose.