I learned writing from The Economist. Back home, it wasn’t easy to learn English. No one in my social circle was fluent in the language and I couldn’t afford a private tutor. The best I could do was to create my own syllabus. The kiosk near my house had, to my surprise, the newspaper1. I’d save my allowance to buy whatever issue was on the stand. I’d divide each issue into two units: New Vocabulary and Writing Tools. I’d then memorize the novel words and apply the newly-discovered sentence structures to my essays. I kept doing this for three years.
I like the writing style of The Economist for many reasons: the most important is that it’s easy to understand their point. Writing to be understood might be an obvious requirement of a readable article, but often I find myself occupied with deciphering form instead of digesting content. Not so with the British newspaper: its writers understand that form exists only to serve content. It’s okay to internally admire one’s word choices and sentence structures, but writers should be a little less selfish in their writing, especially nonfiction.
These are 6 writing tools I learned from The Economist. As you’ll see, they exist to serve, not confuse, the reader.
Getting to it
No writer wishes to get off their intended subject and yet it happens all the time. Losing the thread is the most predictable writing mistake: we stray from our point and dwell on what we think is worth mentioning at the moment. It’s so easy to start the first sentence with absolute nonsense even if you have your topic nailed down.
Getting to it doesn’t correlate with the writer’s talent or experience: we all do it occasionally. If it doesn't happen at the beginning of your essay, it'll happen somewhere else. That’s why it helps to rewrite and proofread—with the intentional goal of cutting what doesn’t belong to what you’re trying to say.
Here are three opening sentences from The Economist:
The predictions sounded like promises: in the future, working hours would be short and vacations long.
A lot can be learned about candidates from their speeches on the hustings: not what they say, but how they say it.
A 25-year-old American with a university degree can expect to live a decade longer than a contemporary who dropped out of high school.
It’s easy to know where the writer is going with these opening sentences. Three seconds took me to read each one and I can, right now, make the decision to continue reading or move on. Refreshing.
Successive Proofs of Evidence
This tool is more relevant when you’re convinced of an argument or at least exploring the validity of one. If you write that full employment is not a measurement of an economy’s performance, many will disagree with you. You’ll need to persuade them by providing evidence: what are your tangible proofs that such measurement is wrong?
If you start with evidence number 1, expand on it for a couple of minutes, move on to evidence number 2, analyze it even further before mentioning evidence number 3, readers won’t sense the strength of your reasoning. Scattered evidence, like objects in a spacious room, gives readers the impression they’re approaching a weak argument.
The Economist’s writers stack2 their supporting observations in one paragraph. This results in a more convincing essay: listing successive reasons why X is worth talking about increases the odds of believing so.
Here’s an example from Why is everyone so busy?—an essay trying to answer its title. The writer started the paragraph with an observation: we were confident we’d be working less by now.
The predictions sounded like promises: in the future, working hours would be short and vacations long.
Exactly how wrong were we? A successive run of evidence follows:
“Our grandchildren”, reckoned John Maynard Keynes in 1930, would work around “three hours a day”—and probably only by choice. Economic progress and technological advances had already shrunk working hours considerably by his day, and there was no reason to believe this trend would not continue. Whizzy cars and ever more time-saving tools and appliances guaranteed more speed and less drudgery in all parts of life. Social psychologists began to fret: whatever would people do with all their free time?
The first sentence summarizes; the following sentences explain
This tool is a general version of the previous one. Most of the paragraphs in The Economist clearly state their main idea in the first sentence and expand on it in the following ones.
I find this the most digestible, purpose-serving form of a paragraph. A paragraph exists to explain an idea that serves a broader one. Its best format, then, is to follow that of the article: start with a straightforward account of your idea, then use the next sentences to elaborate.
Here’s an example from How useful are vaccine passports?:
Vaccine passports have their uses, especially in international travel, but at home they are unlikely to be as helpful as their supporters imagine. To see why, consider two extremes.
When nobody is vaccinated, passports obviously serve no purpose. Yet, outside a dictatorship, they are not terribly useful at the end, when everyone who wants a jab has had one. If vaccines are free and widely available, unvaccinated people are choosing to risk infection. Those who cannot be vaccinated face extra risks from covid-19, just as they do from other diseases. Passports are most useful in the period when large numbers of people who want to be inoculated risk being infected because vaccine is scarce. That is also when passports are most unfair.
Another one from The pandemic has changed the shape of global happiness:
The pervasive lack of trust made it harder for Latin American countries to tackle covid-19 in a comprehensive way. People can and do keep their distance from each other, but that is emotionally tough in countries where people are normally so sociable. Mexicans have been deprived of their leisurely Friday lunches and Sunday family gatherings (though some carry on anyway). “The pandemic has changed a lot,” laments Edmilson de Souza Santos, a builder in Barueri, a São Paulo suburb. ‘You have to stop living your life.'
I like this tool because it’s easy to find relevant examples; this means it’s an essential part of why I, and many others, enjoy reading the newspaper.
Using precise words
When I started learning English the only adjectives I used were good and bad. It was hilarious: the weather was good, the game was bad. As I acquired more words, I realized the importance of nailing down the meaning. There’s a night and day difference between entered a building and thundered into one. Words manipulate our understanding of reality to an extraordinary degree.
The Economist’s choice of verbs, nouns, and adjectives creates a strong mental picture and explains exactly what’s at stake.
Let’s look at the following sentences and pay special attention to the highlighted words:
That feat has since been repeated with getting on for 1m different samples of SARS-CoV-2 in the hunt for fearsome variants like the one ravaging Brazil.
Ravaging is an indication of how bad the situation is in Brazil. Other gerunds, like spreading (in) communicate a different mental picture.
He believes that the real royals have been traduced by Netflix, which makes the drama, and has demanded that the company issue a health warning before future episodes, pointing out that the program is fiction.
Traduced means to speak badly of or tell lies about someone to damage their reputation. Disparaged, ridiculed, and other synonyms don’t indicate the intention to damage someone’s reputation.
He scuppered Barack Obama’s environmental agenda and voted to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Scuppered means to prevent from succeeding—also to sink a ship deliberately. If voted down was used, no one would bat an eye. But now that you read the original sentence, you appreciate the value of precise words.
Invoking the past
If you’re trying to understand the context of nearly anything, knowing its history is essential. Same goes for explaining. When writing for your own sake or others’, you’ll undoubtedly go back.
Here’s an experiment: revisit the last article you read. I’m willing to bet that it mentions a past event or idea. Now that you’re aware of this, I expect your upcoming article to have at least one historical reference.
Invoking history is a basic standard in journalism, yet most handle it poorly. When I used to work as a journalist we often mentioned past events in passing—at the bottom of the article.
The Economist takes the opposite approach: in most of its articles, the past, be it recent or distant, is where it starts. It makes sense from a chronological aspect and to my brain.
Examples are ample. This is the start of What China wants, an essay on the contemporary ambitions of the Asian country:
Matthew Boulton, James Watt’s partner in the development of the steam engine and one of the 18th century’s greatest industrialists, was in no doubt about the importance of Britain’s first embassy to the court of the Chinese emperor.
Another from Why’s everyone so busy?:
Writing in the first century, Seneca was startled by how little people seemed to value their lives as they were living them—how busy, terribly busy, everyone seemed to be, mortal in their fears, immortal in their desires and wasteful of their time.
Getting with the beat
Rhythm delights the brain. It’s the sort of luxury writers turn to after feeling confident enough in what they wrote.
Human brains enjoy certain rhythms. We differ culturally in our appreciation of musical patterns, but we can agree on the simplest of all: equal beats separated by equal intervals.
When The Economist's writers decide to have some fun, they tuck a rhythmic structure into a paragraph.
Here’s a passage from Is Libra doomed?
In the subsequent four months, Libra has had a bruising time. Many of its partner firms have got cold feet. Politicians and regulators around the world have made disapproving noises.
Similar to when people shift their attention to a satisfying beat, adding a rhythmic structure captures readers and tickles their brains. It’s kind of similar to the parallel structure technique, which is to repeat a gerund, for example, within a sentence.
But that’s boring. Instead you can take it up a notch by adapting parallelism to consecutive sentences. And thus we conclude our 6 tools.
There are more tools I learned from The Economist, but enough for now. I hope these observations make sense to you as they do to me. I also hope they prove that thinking about writing, what works and what doesn’t, is a high-yield activity that will reward you— on paper and in life.
Speaking of using precise words: in my second editing round, I replaced couple with stack.