To Make Writing Clearer, Use Flesh-and-Blood "Characters"

Probably the best book on writing expository, professional prose is Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph K. Williams and Joseph Bizup. The first lesson is "characters as subjects." What does that mean?

Williams and Bizup explain that readers prefer to read about people rather than things, especially when those things are abstractions. What that means is that if you want to write clearly, your grammatical subjects should normally be people, or as Williams and Bizup put it, flesh-and-blood "characters." 

To see what this looks like in practice, consider the following sentence:

In a situation where the economy is in recession, inflation is below target, and the policy rate has been lowered to its effective lower bound (ELB), macroeconomic stabilization by means of conventional monetary policy becomes more challenging. 

Now, there are a few things that make this sentence less clear than it could be. One is the long dependent clause at the beginning. Another is the grammatical subject. First of all, the complete subject is long: macroeconomic stabilization by means of conventional monetary policy. Second--and relevant to Williams and Bizup's first lesson--the simple subject is not a person but an abstraction: macroeconomic stabilization

The first step to making this sentence clearer is to replace the abstract subject with a flesh-and-blood character. Is there a flesh-and-blood character who conducts monetary policy? Yes: a central banker. Let's make central bankers the subject of the sentence. Revising accordingly--admittedly a more complicated process than I can show here--we might come up with something like this for the opening sentence:

Normally, central bankers turn to conventional monetary policy to stabilize the economy. 

We now have a flesh-and-blood character as our grammatical subject, making the sentence much easier for most readers to understand.

 

 

Get to the Main Verb Quickly

Readers love to quickly get past the grammatical subject to the main verb. For that reason, writers would do well to avoid long grammatical subjects. The occasional one may not be a problem; but if you habitually write sentences with long grammatical subjects, readers will find your writing difficult.

Here is a sentence with a long grammatical subject, which I have boldfaced:

The reason why Keynesian economics had come to dominate macroeconomic theory to such an extent that reappraising Keynesian theory could be seen as close to synonymous with reappraising the foundations of macroeconomics was not that his book bore no relation to previous economic thinking; it was that it brought together . . .

In this sentence, the reader has to get through thirty-two words before coming to the main verb (was). All the while, he or she is casting forward, looking for a finite verb.

How can we fix this?

There are several solutions, but one is to dispense with the reason why and begin with the important element here, Keynesian economics:

Keynesian economics had come to dominate macroeconomic theory to such an extent that reappraising Keynesian theory could be seen as close to synonymous with reappraising the foundations of macroeconomics, not because his book bore no relation to previous economic thinking but because it brought together . . .

We now have a sentence with a short complete grammatical subject--Keynesian economics--that gets to the main verb quickly.

Now, I'm cheating here a bit, because in the sentence before, the authors had established that reappraising Keynesian economics meant reappraising macroeconomics. In other words, the long grammatical subject repeats the substance of the preceding sentence. I want to be fair to the context, so let me present the entire passage:

Much of the literature on disequilibrium microfoundations, therefore, was about reappraising the Keynesian economics that had come to dominate economic thinking since the Second World War. The reason why Keynesian economics had come to dominate macroeconomic theory to such an extent that reappraising Keynesian theory could be seen as close to synonymous with reappraising the foundations of macroeconomics was not that his book bore no relation to previous economic thinking; it was that it brought together . . .

Working now with the original context, let's again revise the sentence, turning the long grammatical subject into a short subject. One solution is to turn it into an interrogative sentence:

Why had Keynesian economics come to dominate macroeconomic theory to such an extent that reappraising Keynesian theory could be seen as close to synonymous with reappraising the foundations of macroeconomics? The answer was not that his book bore no relation to previous economic thinking; it was that it brought together . . .

Another is to refer back to the main idea of the preceding sentence with a summarizing phrase, repeating a word (in this case, literature) in the first sentence:

The literature had reached that state not because his book bore no relation  . . .

But there is another way to approach this. Long grammatical subjects are often difficult because they force readers to shift their expectations: readers begin by expecting to come across the main verb quickly; when they don't, they have to reassess and figure out just what kind of grammatical construction they are in the middle of. (Oh, yes, this is a long grammatical subject that I need to get through before coming to the verb.) The extra effort required can be distracting.

So let's tip them off. Let's get them to a place where they can almost anticipate a long grammatical subject.

How can we do that? By inviting them to dwell a bit longer on the first sentence. That can be done with simple interrogatory statements introduced between the two sentences, ones that keep the reader's attention on the first:

But how had that come to be? How had the literature reached such a state? The reason why Keynesian economics had come to dominate macroeconomic theory to such an extent that reappraising Keynesian theory could be seen as close to synonymous with reappraising the foundations of macroeconomics was not that his book bore no relation to previous economic thinking; it was that it brought together . . .

Of course, one could still argue that the long grammatical subject is undesirable. But at least now the reader will likely have an easier time handling it when it arrives.