What The Economist can teach us about great writing

In The Economist, nothing ever spreads like wildfire

In The Economist, nothing ever spreads like wildfire

It’s often said that good writers should read often and read widely. One source of consistently strong writing is The Economist.

Although you can find superb prose on its website, the magazine is well worth its £5 cover price.

At face value, you might expect it to be a dry, sober read. But The Economist brings complex subjects to life through writing that’s exceptionally clear and instantly engaging. Here are a couple of examples.

Using unnecessary words

Published recently, this moving piece examines how Northern Ireland is dealing with crimes committed during the troubles.

It includes an interview with June McMullen, whose husband was shot in 1981.

The first quote in the piece ends with three words that hint at the human cost of political wrangling and help the reader paint a picture of the interview in their mind (the emphasis is mine):

‘“I knew he couldn’t have survived it,” she recalls, over tea in her spotless kitchen. “Johnny was pronounced dead at the scene, so he was.”’

That ‘so he was’ is a typically Northern Irish turn of phrase. Including it in the piece seems to contradict a key rule of The Economist Style Guide (‘if it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out’). Yet it adds detail and introduces some emotion, drawing you into the piece and enticing you to read further.

Knowing when to break the rules is, it seems, an important part of crafting articles fit for The Economist.

Putting a new twist on an old cliché

In the same edition, there’s a fascinating article about how new crop strains could help pull millions of people out of poverty.

The style guide’s first rule is ‘never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’ The opening paragraph of this piece is notable for following it:

‘Borlaug’s varieties put out more, heavier seeds instead. They caught on like smartphones.’

In The Economist, good ideas don’t spread like wildfire, sell like hotcakes or grow like weeds.

They do something more original, because clichés should be avoided like the plague. Ahem.

For more writing inspiration, check out The Economist Style Guide and website.

Image: Flickr user woodleywonderworks under a Creative Commons licence.

Why more choice isn’t always a good thing

I’m a bit of a fan of Bristol-based Chemical, a self-proclaimed ‘music lifestyle store’ offering music, clothing, CDs, vinyl and more to its customers.

However, I’m not convinced the fashion-and-more retailer has quite got its online checkout process licked. Just have a look at this bemusing range of delivery options:

(See this image full-size in a new window.)

It reminds me slightly of the Trainline’s bonkers ticket selection screen, which I wrote about way back in 2007. In any case, the options presented are confusing and unnecessary, particularly if you want to get your order in a hurry.

With six next-day delivery options to choose from, how do you tell which is best? This comparison chart is less-than-helpful, because each of the options has exactly the same columns ticked.

Rule number one of creating an online checkout process is to keep it as simple as possible. Adding complexity makes it harder for people to complete their order, meaning fewer people manage to get to the end of the process.

Sure, it’s good to offer some choice of delivery options, but too much choice creates uncertainty: how do you know which is the best option for you?

I think Chemical would do well to chop their bemusing range of delivery services down to three: standard, guaranteed next-day and guaranteed Saturday. If they did, I bet they’d see a decrease in the number of visitors dropping out before completing their online orders.

Here’s the IT Donut: my latest project is live

Remember this? Well, here’s a quick heads-up for you: the IT Donut is now live. I’ve been working on this new small business advice website for a while now, and it’s nice to have it out the door.

We’re really pleased with how it’s turned out, but like all the best websites, that’s not to say it’s finished, of course.

If you browse it at the moment (and please do check the site out), you’ll see that the breadth of information is huge, but the depth is, well, still to come in some areas.

We’re working hard to put that right – and if you know a bit about IT, you might be able to help us and the small businesses that use the site. So get in touch and I’ll explain more.