All aspiring writers should read Slate’s Matt Yglesias. There’s no better way to stress the importance of not writing like Matt Yglesias.
Yglesias is Slate’s business and economics blogger, but his real utility is providing teachable moments for would-be opinion writers and high-level ESL students.
This isn’t to say Yglesias’ business and economics coverage is without its faults, but the Internet is already full of exhaustive lists and takedowns of his peculiar arguments. For our purposes, we’ll only be focusing on his ongoing abuse of the English language.
And what a wealth of material to work with! Even a casual stroll through Yglesias’ archives provides a textbook’s worth of malformed sentences and dreadful style.
Here’s the first sentence of one of Yglesias’ latest pieces, which he gave the exciting headline, “Uncontrolled Intersection In Siem Reap.”
“Something I find fascinating is the possibly misguided nature of the assumption that heavy street traffic necessitates the use of traffic lights and stop signs.”
Only 25 words, yet awful in so many ways.
Note the unnecessary use of first person, the weasel-worded “possibly misguided nature,” and the stuffy jargon of “necessitates the use of.” The thing that Yglesias finds fascinating—the presumable reason for his blog post—is buried beneath tripe and prepositional phrases.
Keep in mind, this is the first sentence of the article. Journalists call it the lead.*
“Leads should be clear and specific,” Rene J. Cappon writes in the Associated Press Guide to Newswriting. “They must not mumble.”
Yglesias isn’t a news writer in the strict sense. Neither are many folks who write for a living. But the importance of the first sentence is universal across the field.
There is a whole lot of mumblin’ going on in Yglesias’ lead. If we were to cut away the fat, we’d be left with this: “The idea that traffic lights and stop signs are not necessary is fascinating.” That doesn’t jump off the page, but at least it doesn’t appear to be written by a college sophomore on an Adderall jag.
Let’s suppose Yglesias wanted to take advantage of the fact that he happened to be in the very location he was writing about—something writers are generally encouraged to do. He could have incorporated that into the lead.
“I stood on a corner and watched the vans, motorcycles and bicycles weave through an intersection in Siem Reap, Cambodia without the guide of traffic lights.”
Now we have setting. Now we have action, not abstraction. The blogger’s overwhelming need to assert his existence is fulfilled. And now the writer can proceed with a textbook Slate pitch: Uncontrolled intersections may handle heavy traffic better than those with stop signs and traffic lights.**
This may seem pedantic, but left unchecked, inattentive writing like that above tends to creep like parasitic ivy, sucking the life out of entire blocks of text. For example, observe the first two paragraphs of another Yglesias clunker:
I’m at the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity conference and listening to a presentation from Michael Elsby, Bart Hobijn, and Aysegul Sahin that in my opinion is a bit of a blockbuster. They are looking at the reduction in the “labor share” of national income over the past 20-30 years and boring down into detail.
One thing that they find is that the headline decline in this indicator is actually a bit overstated due to technical issues with the treatment of self-employment income. About a third of the total decline, they think, can be attributed to miscalculation. The blockbuster finding, however, is that the remainder is very heavily concentrated in industries that are newly composed to import competition. In other words, the labor share of national income has fallen because many more industries are exposed to foreign competition in a way that’s systematically advantaged the owners of capital.
It takes two full paragraphs of steaming garbage before Yglesias tells the reader what the “blockbuster” finding is.
By the way, the headline for that article is: “Ooops! Foreign Trade Has Immiserated U.S. Workers After All.” “Immiserate” is a ten-dollar word. That is, writers should be fined $10 for using it in a headline.
Yglesias’ writing is also cluttered like a hoarder’s living room with instances of “I think,” “in my opinion,” “something I find,” and other redundant phrases. Readers can discern whose opinion is being presented by the name at the top of the article.
Here’s another recent example:
Larry Summers’ brief talk on the negative interest-rate problem has set of [sic] a crazy of [sic] econoblogosphere talk about “secular stagnation” and persistent economywide demand shortages. (Daniel Alpert, who published a good book called The Age of Oversupply, recently must be frustrated that he failed to kick off this craze.) I want to try to restate what the relevant puzzle is in a way that I think meets Tyler Cowen’s objections.
Readers, in my opinion, recently must be of a crazy of frustration trying to navigate the possibly misguided nature behind the assumption that this is passable prose for a professional writer.
All of this is what happens when you’ve never had an editor or never checked your ego enough to consider that readers have better things to do with their time than slog through your unfiltered keyboard mashings.
At its best, Yglesias’ writing manages a simple utilitarianism reminiscent of an AP English essay. At its worst, it falls into an uncanny valley that makes readers wonder if the article was translated back and forth through multiple languages before being published.
Among Yglesias watchers—a large and jolly group of fans—some favorites have emerged. The Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last flagged this classic, where the Slate blogger gripes about conservatives giving his book a one-star review on Amazon:
“For example, it’s a book largely dedicated to making the case for less regulation of urban and suburban land. The kind of thing that conservatives might be open to, were they need just in a fury of rage [all the sics].”
A fury of rage. A fury of rage. The more times you read “this self-serving, sub-literate, word tangle,” as Last coins it, the better it becomes.
Yglesias’ own Wikipedia page notes his troubles: “Yglesias is also somewhat infamous for the often poor spelling of his blog posts, a weakness to which he frankly admits.”
Here’s the frank admission: “As for the homonym mixups […] I put out a lot of content here, don’t have an editor, and that sort of thing isn’t my strong suit,” Yglesias wrote on his personal blog some years ago. “ I think you’ll see if you look around that a large portion of my generation (i.e., those of us who learned to write after the dawn of the spell checker but before the dawn of the grammar checker) have this problem.”
(Yglesias went to Harvard.)
So Yglesias is a writer who doesn’t count spelling, grammar—y’know, those sorts of things—among his strong suits.
I can sympathize. I used to be a guitar player who didn’t consider finger dexterity my strong suit. Eventually I stopped taking guitar lessons and pursued something I was good at.
In fairness, Yglesias comes from a blogging tradition that has never put a high value on punchy leads or editing. On the other hand, many bloggers have made the leap to newsrooms and flourished. Slate has a whole stable of them, excluding Yglesias. So what gives?
“Writing is the art of the second thought,” Cappon says in The Associated Press Guide to News Writing.
There’s a profound carelessness that pervades most of Yglesias’ work—an impression that he rarely gives a second thought to what he’s typing, and sometimes not even a first thought.
This might account for some of his less enlightened moments, such as when he tweeted, “Conventions around dead people are ridiculous. The world outlook is slightly improved with @AndrewBrietbart [sic] dead.”
When asked for comment about its blogger applauding the death of a man with a wife and four children, Slate responded: “Matt is a very passionate journalist and Slate values that passion.”
Clearly Slate values passion, because Yglesias isn’t bringing much else to the table, but passion is perhaps the second-worst quality for a writer to have when drafting a story, behind carelessness. It clouds judgment and taste. It muffles the critical voice.
And it’s not like passion is a precious commodity in a blogosphere populated by shrill partisans and cut-rate clowns. As The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake knows, passion is something to be mocked, not celebrated.
In a recent essay, the American Conservative’s Micah Mattix writes that he fell in love with writing because of its similarities to boxing—a sport where the fury of rage is a sure way to lose a bout.
“It was the jab of the short, biting phrase, the body blow of just the right word, and the uppercut of proof,” Mattix writes. “Like boxing, writing is a skill that has little to do with how angry (or emotionally honest) you may or may not be.”
In boxing lingo, a washed-up or talentless fighter is known as a “tomato can.” (Imagine knocking over an open can of Campbell’s, and the meaning becomes clear.)
Like a flabby boxer who steps into the ring, a careless writer is soon revealed for all to see. The tomato cans of the writing world can’t hide a bad argument behind good writing. Worse, even their good ideas are dragged down by ham-fisted execution.
Clear, forceful writing is not hard or beyond the reach of most of us. It just requires attention to detail and a level head. Don’t be a tomato can, or, as I prefer to call it, an Yglesias.
* Many journalists spell it “lede,” but that’s reporter jargon. Jargon is the worst.
** Despite Yglesias’ observation that uncontrolled intersections in Cambodia “seem to work perfectly fine” based on a video he took with his iPhone, traffic deaths in the country have doubled since 2005.