The Economist’s coequal humo(u)r

From time to time, I like to regale you with tiny anecdotes from our daily routine at The Economist, especially when they display our quirky side.

For instance, an editor might remark, as she anglicizes an acronym I use, that a word “either has to look odd to us [Brits] or odd to them [Yanks], and we opt for them.”

Well, this week I woke up on Monday to get a message from our editor-in-chief that he would quite like a three-page (3,000-word) Briefing on California’s water wars, since the piece that was meant for that slot was not ready to run this week. Due to the inhumanely inconvenient times zone I am in (ie, California, when my bosses are in London), this meant I had to deliver the piece the following day (Tuesday) for London to be able to wake up to it on Wednesday and publish it on Thursday, ie today. This is the piece.

So I wrote the piece in quite a hurry and sent it. Then, on Wednesday, I worked with the fact-checker and map guy, Phil Kenny. He came up with a great map, the clearest depiction of California’s water infrastructure I have yet seen:

CA Water map

The editors are then supposed to send me the “subbed” (jargon for edited) “copy” (jargon for text) and, this being The Economist, forgot to do so. So I went to a yoga class. By the time I came back, it was late at night in London.

In our process, a correspondent sends his article to a section editor, who subs the piece and then sends it on to the editor-in-chief or a deputy, who then sends it through to a “night editor“.

I had heard that our night editor last night was Johnny Grimmond, the author of our style guide. Johnny guards our quaint British usage as Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the underworld, watches over Hades. You can call him, as you can call me, a pedant, and we would be proud of it.

I immediately knew that Johnny would pounce on one particular phrase of linguistic interest. The water legislation currently being negotiated in California contains a very important phrase that is also ugly and stupid in a characteristically American way. Which is to say that, in the same way that Americans gave the Anglophone world the word proactive (why not active?), the legislators in Sacramento now want to impose on the state’s environmentalists, farmers and urban water users

co-equal goals.

While doing my interviews for this story, I had kept a straight face every time the phrase came up, because I am keen not to appear, you know, loony or snippy. In my article I refrained from any overt pedantry. But I knew that Johnny, in the safety of his London office in the wee hours, would not. His cursor, I was sure, would find the pompous American redundancy faster than you can swat a greasy Hamburger with a cricket bat.

And so I asked a colleague with access to the system to send me the copy. My eyes skipped over the paragraphs until they alit on the one in question. I started grinning even before I read the new sentence:

The details of the legislation negotiated so far are complex, but its main feature is a phrase, “coequal goals”—though how coequal goals differ from equal ones is not clear.

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A peek under the New Yorker’s kimono


For many sophisticated people, heaven is “an uninterrupted day or five to go through my … pile of The New Yorker magazines.” The publication has a special cachet: very different from–though no greater or less than–The Economist‘s, and indeed highly complementary. (We know from research that many coffee tables in many homes have both the New Yorker and The Economist on it.)

So I found myself fascinated by a rare lifting of the New Yorker’s kimono, as Dan Baum, a writer who got fired from the magazine, told his tale. (Thanks to Jag for pointing me to it.)

The first thing of interest is that Baum did this on Twitter. Yes, he tweeted his story in 140-character increments. If I may say so (redoubling my skepticism about Twitter), that part did not work. Twitter may be a great medium for some things, but not for storytelling. But Baum then consolidated the tweets here.

And what a very different culture the New Yorker‘s is from the one I live in at The Economist. First of all, the writers do not make a good living:

you’re not an employee, but rather a contractor. So there’s no health insurance, no 401K, and most of all, no guarantee of a job beyond one year. My gig was a straight dollars-for-words arrangement: 30,000 words a year for $90,000. And the contract was year-to-Year. Every September, I was up for review. Turns out, all New Yorker writers work this way, even the bigfeet.

Why do they put up with it? Apparently, because they are all convinced that

writing for the New Yorker is the ne plus ultra of journalism gigs.

This it may be. Certainly, the New Yorker’s writers can expect to rise to fame with their bylines and become stars, selling books and going on lecture tours. We at The Economist, of course, have no bylines. As a result, we ‘don’t do’ the star thing.

Another contrast: The offices of the New Yorker, according to Baum, are an eerie place where

Everybody whispers. It’s not exactly like being in a library; it’s more like being in a hospital room where somebody is dying. Like someone’s dying, and everybody feels a little guilty about it. There’s a weird tension to the place. If you raise your voice to normal level, heads pop up from cubicles.

That is not how I would describe the merrily eccentric and light-flooded Tower that serves as our head office in London. Is it the time the science correspondent came into the editorial meeting in drag, with nobody even batting an eyelid, that springs to mind? Or the time I had to duck as I passed a senior editor’s office to evade a flying object, dispatched with a scream that made the windows vibrate, only to hear the same editor invite me in with a cheerful and jovial demeanor, since he had just loosened up a bit and now felt envigorated?

The whole way they pitch stories at the New Yorker is one I do not recognize. They apparently write elaborate treatises just for the pitch, then wait to have it rejected or accepted. Baum even puts his successful and failed pitches up on his site. We on the other hand might casually mention or email a half-formed and tongue-in-cheek phrase (something that I might shout through a closing Tube door), and off we go. The other day I was skyping with my editor and said two words (“whither [name]”) under my breath. I just saw it on the official planning list.

But the most subtle and interesting bit in Baum’s account was the psychological tension between him and his editor, which he blames for his firing. They were discussing story ideas, and the writer knew more about his subject than the editor (which is inevitable). Baum thinks he made a mistake, because

I made him feel uninformed.

Granted: Baum got fired and is looking for reasons to apportion blame. But he is not slinging mud. This is the closest he gets to it.

In my twelve years, I cannot remember a single conversation at The Economist where one party felt threatened if the other ‘knew more’ about something. We thrive on talking to people who know more. How boring the obverse tends to be.

I am a fan of The New Yorker. It is a special place. So are we.

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Finding my third voice

My first follow-up to my recent brainstorm on the pros and cons of blogging would be to list one clear benefit: It has already helped me to find my “voice”.

What is voice? I’m not talking about anything to do with my vocal cords. I’m talking about that subtle quality of tone that a writer has and needs.

I suppose it was inevitable that, after eleven years at The Economist, I would internalize its voice and default to writing in it. Cosmopolitan and British in spelling, humor, irony and worldview. Witty, incisive and subtle at its best; snide-sounding when it goes awry. Not necessarily my voice, but by habit and daily routine my first voice.

When I wrote my book proposal, that turned out to be inadequate. That first voice was only masquerading as my authentic voice, which in fact I still had to find, or re-discover, in order to take the reader through my 200 pages. I had assumed that it would be a matter of snapping my metaphorical finger and, voilà, suddenly I’m writing in my own voice. Instead, it took a while longer to sound genuinely like myself and nobody else.

Where does the blog come in? I haven’t been blogging long. But already I’ve noticed that a blogger’s voice is by default ultra-casual, ultra-personal, occasionally sloppy, but always from the gut. It is not the right voice for an entire book. But it represents an antipode to my usual pole, The Economist. It is a natural second voice.

So sometimes I’m using that second voice as a sort of hooligan to rough up my first voice, a sort of Jeeves butler who needs to loosen up a bit, in order to find my third voice, which is the ideal tone for a book. After a day of writing for The Economist, I might unwind with a blog post, then forget about it and settle into a pleasant evening of writing in a tone that is genuine and relaxed but still disciplined and clean. In short, what I’ve wanted all along.
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The treacherous First Person

I’ve been meaning to share a tidbit of a conversation I recently had with my colleague at The Economist, Tom Standage, while we were having lunch at Zuni in San Francisco. Both of us are writing books, both of which are not traditional “histories” but have a strong element of history, and indeed assume a reader intellectually curious about history and open to seeing its timeless legacies in the world around us today. Tom’s is about food throughout history and to our own day. Mine is about life, specifically success and failure, throughout history and to our own day.

The interesting tidbit for writers, however, was our spontaneous and passionate agreement on a matter of literary fashion: the First Person. We were not entirely against it, but extremely skeptical.

American publishers tend to push writers into “personalizing” their non-fiction stories. Journalists, especially columnists, are increasingly doing the same thing. Personalizing can indeed be a good thing, in the sense that good stories need characters, and writers need to present them colorfully. The problem is that “I” tends to be the wrong character to put into the story.

If you are writing a book about an earth-shattering event, conspiracy, cover-up, war, disease or what have you, and you were genuinely a protagonist in that story, by all means, personalize away. Tell us what happened to you. That is the story.

But if you’re just telling a good story, and then looking for ways to use the word I, please stop. Why do we have entire paragraphs in The Atlantic (otherwise one of my favorite magazines) whose sole purpose is to say that so-and-so “told me” such-and-such, which was probably utterly banal? Well, because the writer wants to prove to us that he was there, you see. At The Economist, we believe that readers already assume that we were there and, besides, don’t much care either way, because they just want a cracking good story or analysis. So by I-ing and me-ing, you’re really just getting in the way of the story. You’re turning sophisticated readers off.

Once you try writing without the First Person, you may find it surprisingly difficult. Which is why it is such excellent discipline! Without the I, you can’t fake it. You can’t give us the three-paragraph “color” opening about how “I was walking into his office on a sunny March day” and so forth. You actually have to deliver a detail or observation that is telling. Much harder to do!

So I kept telling my students at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism to try leaving the First Person out. They kept ignoring me. Through blogs and email and all those columns, it has seeped into our writing culture. It’s just so much easier.

The result is reams and reams of writing that is narcissistic. I could highlight one or two high-profile books and articles, but I know better. (Also, I admit that some of them do become best-sellers, which may be why publishers push the First Person so hard.) But next time you’re reading an I piece, try stripping out the First Person and seeing what content or substance is left. If a lot, good article. If not a lot, it was a narcissist.

But I did say that neither Tom nor I was* completely against the First Person. I’m using it in this blog, obviously. (Then again, a blog is by definition an ultra-personal medium.) And I’ve also, after agonizing about it, decided to use it in my book, which I am–yes–“personalizing.”

The challenge I see is to do this without being narcissistic and interrupting a cracking good story for the heck of it. In short, it is about finding an authentic voice or tone. That, of course, is true whether you’re using the First Person or not.

(*Bonus: did the was surprise you? Did you think it should be were? Nope, was is correct. More to come in future posts.)
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China cliches: Hu knows Wen?

An amusing missive from Kaiser Kuo, at least for those of us who have lived in, or reported from, China.

It’s a sort of dirge from a weary soul who’s just seen too many bad articles/headlines/captions by foreigners about China. Just a few excerpts:

Welcome to Beijing, friends from the foreign press! I greet you on behalf of the many expatriates who’ve lived in Beijing for years. …

Please do not write “Beijing is a city of stark contrasts” and refrain from using any variation thereof — “a city of startling juxtapositions,” or (needless to say) “a city of yin and yang.” Not that it isn’t a city of, um, rather pronounced differences; it’s just too damned lazy an observation to make. A special enjoinder to photographers: please resist the temptation to position yourself in a hutong with a decrepit but charming tile-roofed courtyard home in the foreground and a shiny, hyper-modern steel-and-glass skyscraper rising behind. No using Blade Runner comparisons for Beijing. You’ll want to save those for Shanghai, believe me.

The bureaus of reputable western papers here in China have a rule against quoting taxi drivers. But since Beijing’s cabbies are so fabulously colorful, you will be permitted one exception. Make it a good one. Helpful hint: That story about efforts by our city’s cabbies to learn English phrases? That one’s been written several thousand times so please, anything but that one…

No writing “There is an ancient Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.’” There isn’t such a curse. No writing “the Chinese word for crisis includes the character for opportunity and the character for danger.” That it may be true doesn’t reduce my aggravation each time I see it in print. In fact, just to be safe, avoid anything involving “an ancient Chinese saying.” This will save you, anyhow, from having to Google for choice quotes from Sun Tzu or Confucius’s Analects.

Try your best to avoid phrases like “China’s rising middle class,” “the Little Emperors” and “ideological (or moral) vacuum.” Find a descriptive for security personnel other than “stone-faced.” And only use “Great Leap Forward” if you’re covering events like the triple jump or pole-vaulting….

While we’re on puns, some common ones to avoid include pander/panda and the always irksome Peking/peeking. And no using “your average Zhou” or “Zhou Sixpack.” There will be absolutely no punning on the interrogatives “who” or “when” and the family names of the Chinese president and premier, respectively. I know you’re thinking, “Hu knows Wen I’ll get another chance like this?” and I feel for you, but just resist it, okay?

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