Big Data, Clear Prose?

I try not to do a lot of self-glorification (my favorite synonym for which is ‘autohagiography‘) here, but I got a compliment today that meant a lot to me. So I’m going to blow my own horn.

The new issue of Harvard Business Review has a spotlight section on Big Data. Erik Brynjolfsson and I wrote the ‘tentpole’ article for it, titled “Big Data: The Management Revolution” (I know, I know — everything is a ‘management revolution’ these days; we didn’t pick the title).

We were happy with the article when we turned it in, and HBR’s Eric Hellweg and Sarah Cliffe tightened it up further.

It hit the HBR site and newstands a few days ago, and today I got this email (which I’ll leave anonymous until I get permission to share the sender’s identity)


I just wanted to take a moment to commend you on your recent article in Harvard Business Review.  While I found the substance of the article to be extremely valuable, it is actually the style of the piece that led me to send you this note.

Thank you for writing with such clarity.  Perhaps it’s my own limitations, but it was nice to read something where the message was not obscured by the author’s compulsion to demonstrate his linguistic virtuosity.

I mean it as the highest compliment to say that I didn’t really take note of the writing until after I finished the article.

Thank you once again.  And job well done.

This is one of the favorite pieces of correspondence I’ve ever received. I make an effort to write well and clearly, and to resist the many temptations to show off with the written word. I love reading folk like Murray Kempton and Christopher Hitchens who do really ornate things with their work, but leave you feeling that it’s necessary to do so —  that it’s the best way to get the ideas across. Whenever I’ve tried something similar, though, I come across as a preening jerk.

So I try to write come closer to Hemingway, Paul Bowles, and my friend Jennifer Haigh, all of whom get their points across, even the most complex and subtle ones, without writing prose that’s tangled or ponderous. (and yes, Jennifer, I did just put you in the same group as Hemingway and Bowles…) It’s great to hear that we succeeded at least once, and at least in one person’s eyes.

One final thought: if you come across a great piece of writing, don’t hesitate to tell the author that you liked it. I’ll speak for the world’s ink-stained wretches: we really appreciate it.