Thursday, September 4, 2008

Assorted Writing Tips

Stiglitz the Omniscient;
When writing a novel, one of the things you have to decide is point of view. If you focus on one character, your point of view might be limited to what that character sees.

One point of view for the author to take is that of an omniscient observer. As you read, you know that the author knows what is coming (you keep getting hints) and understands all sorts of things that the characters are innocent about.

Stiglitz always writes as the omniscient observer. He knows exactly what should have been done to prevent or solve each of the 100 financial crises that he cites.

This omniscient-observer vantage point has its limits. It does not convey the uncertainty and trade-offs that policymakers face in real time. For example, as the housing bubble was inflating, there were not many Congressional voices raised against lending to first-time homebuyers.

From NYT's Paper Cuts;

The Economist article contained a passage that would never pass muster in an American news story:

“Recently, independent voters passed Republicans to become the biggest group in the state. Some of this is due to Colorado’s growing Hispanic population, some of it is due to Californians and some of it reflects the general unpopularity of the national Republican Party. But there is a more important reason for the Republicans’ woes: their elected representatives are bonkers.”

To most American readers, that last sentence certainly looks like an opinion, and should never be presented as news in a responsible publication. (As an editor, I’d never let it get through.) But consider this: what if Colorado’s congressional delegation really is bonkers, and the Economist correspondent was merely doing his job by informing his readers of that “fact.” Sometimes judgments, even if they aren’t as solid as hard facts, are more than merely matters of opinion.

A long goodbye;

It seems fitting to begin with the ancestors. One of the exceptional characteristics of this newspaper is the degree to which it still follows the principles and methods begun 163 years ago by its founder, James Wilson, and perfected by his son-in-law, Walter Bagehot. The Economist was launched to campaign for free trade and all forms of liberty, what proponents and detractors alike today call globalisation, blended with what George Bush likes to call “the freedom agenda”. It did so with a formula that was three parts factual description and one part strongly held opinion or argumentative analysis. That is what we continue to attempt today.

We do not do so merely out of loyalty to our founders: if those principles had turned out to be wrong, they would have been ditched long ago. And their application must always evolve. I, for one, had Bagehot grumbling in his grave when, in 1994, we declared the British monarchy to be “an idea whose time has passed”, in flat contradiction to his great 1867 book, “The English Constitution”. But in general what is striking about the past 13 years is how strongly this period has fitted Wilson's original view, how it made his principles feel more relevant than ever, and how in some respects our world is one whose issues he would have recognised.

Writing resources;
I would recommend them in the following order:

1. William I. Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, “The Elements of Style”

2. William Zinsser, “On Writing Well”

3. Deirdre N. McCloskey, “Economical Writing”

4. Keith Hjortshoj, “The Transition to College Writing“


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