Putting words to work: Phrasing, images, metaphors and style


30 June 2023
An exclusive extract from Writing with Style: The Economist Guide by Lane Greene

In recent years researchers in artificial intelligence have unveiled systems that seem to “write” without any human involvement. The best of these churn out remarkably convincing prose. It can take quite a while—as long as a few paragraphs—before a reader realises that what such machines “write” doesn’t always seem to cohere: that ideas don’t follow logically and arguments don’t make sense.

Machine-learning systems are trained on data. Feed them years of articles from, say, a newspaper and they detect patterns in the combinations of words that tend to appear. Train two identical systems, one on the New Yorker, say, and the other on The Economist (both experiments have, in fact, been tried) and the machines will churn out prose that distinctly resembles the styles of the two publications.

Before you are tempted to scoff, here is a disquieting thought: human writers are not so different from machine-learning systems. Writing may seem to be the ultimate creative act. But every time you put fingers to keyboard, you too have been “trained”: by everything you have ever read, influencing subtly or unsubtly what you write.

To be influenced by other writers is inevitable and even a good thing. But many writers go beyond being influenced. They write on automatic pilot, in a style that imitates the kind of writing they read most often. The result is at best unoriginal. At worst, it is thoughtless,
even meaningless.

Your aim as a writer should not only be to avoid mistakes by keeping your prose safe. You are also seeking to grab your readers’ attention and, with luck, even influence them. The first step is necessary for the second—and to succeed, your language will need to be original and fresh.

The last chapter looked at pretentious words like learnings in place of lessons. But equally pervasive are longer figures of speech: the worn-out idioms and metaphors that are all too common in meetingrooms. Blue-sky thinking or thinking out of the box for creativity. Going
and at the end of the day to link ideas in a loose way. The elephant in the room or, elsewhere in the zoo, the 800-pound gorilla or simply big beast to describe office personalities and dramas. Lowhanging fruit and quick wins for short-term goals. Let’s take this offline,
put a pin in it or put it in the parking lot for let’s talk about this later, and reach out or circle back for communication plans.

Some of these clichés are already old enough to have been mocked into obsolescence. But the stock of catchphrases is constantly being refreshed. Here are some examples of business jargon noted down by a long-suffering correspondent at The Economist who was sent on a
management-training course:

Chunking up to a meta-level
The other side of the visionary coin
Taking up some of that limited bandwidth fruitfully
When we’re joining the dots we want to be walking the walk
From soup to nuts across our organisation and beyond
We can suck it and see, let a thousand flowers bloom, water our
strategic shoots
One of the thrust-lines we like to look down when decisionmaking

When first coined, new expressions by definition cannot be clichés. Perhaps they are even witty. For a while they are limited to a small circle: if you’re the first one to use a new phrase, you may seem (in another cliché) ahead of the curve. It won’t last. Clichés are like invasive species, quickly taking over if not ruthlessly culled.

While each generation’s tropes are new, the problem isn’t. Every age has clichés, and writing commentators to bemoan them. But Orwell went beyond complaining, to do some analysis. He
distinguished usefully between figures of speech that were “dead” and those that were “dying”.

The “dead” group, he thought, were not a problem. They have become so common that they barely evoke the original referent: iron will, his example, no longer calls to mind images of the grey metal.

Orwell’s real target was the figures of speech that have enough life left in them to make writers and speakers think they are more vivid than they are. Here are his examples:

Ring the changes on, take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed.

The problem with such ready-made phrases, he argued, is that they can be strung together without conscious effort. This saves the writer the work of first thinking of what to say, and then saying it with the most effective possible language.

But writing afresh, though more difficult, is worth the effort. Original imagery seizes your reader’s imagination. The first person to say the elephant in the room undoubtedly made listeners picture an awkwardly placed pachyderm. Today, it evokes nothing much. You
must come up with a new elephant.

Consider another image, again from Orwell, describing someone spouting predictable propaganda:

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One often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.

You probably involuntarily pictured what Orwell was talking about. He could have stopped at describing the man as a dummy (today we would say a puppet), but this would have left little impression. Instead the extra effort made, to give the striking detail of the light on the spectacles, leaves an impression that lasts even after you have finished the essay. Fresh imagery is effective because it gives the reader two ways to process what you are saying: one logical and linguistic, and another visual.

Indeed, his essay on the dangers of hackneyed language is full of striking images:

The writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea-leaves blocking a sink.

If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church.

When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow.

Coming up with fresh phrasings like these takes effort and time. But the effort, and whatever time you have available, are well worth it.


Writing with Style: The Economist Guide by Lane Greene is published by Profile Books (£10.99)


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