Tuesday, April 20, 2010

No more fancy-pants prose, please

"The writer who indulges in fancy-pants prose sometimes has too large an ego, and sometimes one that's too small," says Francis Flaherty, author of The Elements of Story.

Fancy-pants prose--in other words, highfalutin, multisyllabic words--rarely serve writers well. Instead, as Flaherty suggests, they're evidence that the author is trying to impress his or her audience.

In the investment and wealth management world, this shows up in the use of words such as "mitigate" when "reduce" or "cut" would serve the purpose. 

Can you think of fancy-pants words you'd like to eliminate from our industry's publications? Please leave a comment.
Susan B. Weiner, CFA
Check out my website at www.InvestmentWriting.com or sign up for my free monthly e-newsletter.
Copyright 2010 by Susan B. Weiner All rights reserved


  1. What about peppering one's prose with an occasional literary quotation, and/or veiled reference to a pertinent remark by some famous authority?

  2. Jon,

    My personal opinion is that they're okay in moderation as long as they are relevant to the topic under discussion. I prefer that veiled references not be too hard to grasp.

  3. Maybe I'm not cut out for this profession after all.

    Recently I was awestruck with admiration upon seeing someone's Twitter bio (forget who) that went something like, "I have an elegant message about social media which however is too long to fit within 200 characters."
    (I think Twitter bios can be longer than a tweet-length 140 characters, but not much longer).

    Reason it blew me away is because I recognized the reference to how Fermat announced his famous Last Theorem via a handwritten note in the margin of a book ("I have discovered an elegant proof which however is too lengthy to write in this margin").... Especially because I figured I was probably the only person in the whole Twitterverse to pick up that reference.

  4. Jon,

    I'm impressed by how well read you are!

    There are some financial communicators who are known and loved for their distinctive style.

  5. Actually I'm not especially well-read; just a former math geek. But I do get a special kick out of deploying on-the-mark quotations in the unlikeliest of places.

    The classic prototype: "In the Red Light," Norman Mailer's account of the 1964 GOP presidential convention (the Goldwater convention)...which still stands as perhaps the best-written political essay in U.S. history. Interspersing his reportage with a series of horror film-like quotes from Edmund Burke -- the quintessential conservative philosopher -- to illuminate by contrast the profoundly un-conservative character of Goldwater's ideas, was just one of the powerful techniques Mailer used to amplify the power of his own luminous prose.

    The lengthy quotation that opened the essay, pulled from the concluding page of Nathaniel West's novella The Day of the Locust, still brings tears to my eyes. That passages details another horror-film-like scene: a torch-carrying mob of "screwballs and screwboxes (out) to purify the land" has conquered the streets, transforming LA into something out of I Am Legend plus bonfires. It concludes: "No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames." A fitting evocation (written some 30 years prior) of what the Goldwater convention must have felt like to a thinking person.

  6. Very creative and the opposite of humdrum writing.

  7. Susan, I think "mitigate" is one of those words the folks in the RP's office and Compliance have grown fond of. Personally, I have been encouraged to use the expression "managing" risk, because it more accurately describes what the PM does, and it is typically a phrase used in the fund's prospectus. Most portolio managers don't want to "reduce" risk exposure per se. What they really want to do is manage it. Remember, risk = opportunity. In my experience, the lawyers always overrule the writers when it comes to creating advertising or marketing materials, and as painful as it is to admit right now, that might be a good thing.

  8. I like the idea of "managing" risk if it more accurately describes what the PM does. The problem with "mitigate" is that I don't know what the heck it means.

    Thank you for your contribution!

  9. Ah, right. Good point. On a separate note, I have been following a story in our local newspaper that discusses the possible "deconstruction" of a GE plant nearby. While I think the meaning of the word is self-explanatory (maybe?), I wonder how it differs from the more commonly understood phrases "demolish" or "dismantle". Seems to be one of those platitudes PR folks are fond of using in order to make something more palatable.

  10. Anonymous,

    "Deconstruction" makes me think of fancy shmancy literary analysis rather than tearing down a building, if that's what it means in the case of the GE plant. "Deconstruction" is vague. "Demolition" or "tearing down" summon more vivid images.

    Thanks for your comments!


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