Editing Work, Thoughts on Writing

Learning the ABCs of persuasive writing from 陳茂波’s WSJ letter

Many people in Hong Kong cheered when the Wall Street Journal branded Paul Chan Mo-po (陳茂波) an “illusionist” for bothering to write to the paper to persuade its readers that Hong Kong should have been included in the Heritage Foundation’s Freedom Index.   A sense of vindication, however, is far from the only positive thing we can get out of the WSJ-Chan exchange. For Chan’s op-ed is a bad example of persuasive writing; dissecting its weaknesses can therefore give budding English writers an idea of the kind of forethought that is required if one is to write effective communication.

We can extract writing lessons from Chan’s letter just by examining its first paragraph. Study it closely, and you’ll understand the rationale of Mark Twain’s admonition “when you catch an adjective, kill it”:

“Edwin Feulner’s explanation of Hong Kong’s exclusion from the Heritage Foundation’s latest Index of Economic Freedom is flawed and inexplicable.”

The problem with adjectives is when they aren’t used in conjunction with supporting evidence, readers have to make a wild guess on what’s exactly on the author’s mind – just how “inexplicable” does something have to be for it to merit that label? Given the toughness of Chan’s task – he has to, as WSJ notes, “deny what everyone clearly sees: the Chinese Communist Party is transforming Hong Kong into its own image of the mainland” – the last thing he should have done is to rest the burden of making his case in his opening paragraph on two adjectives.

What should Chan have done then? Actually, further down in his letter, in the third last paragraph, are facts he could have cited in his introduction: 

“Last year Hong Kong was the second-largest IPO market, recorded a net capital inflow of U.S. $50 billion.”

I would have incorporated this material in the opening paragraph and come up with this:

“It is not immediately clear to us why Edwin Feulner would exclude Hong Kong from the Freedom Index, but what is clear is companies and investors have continued to have confidence in Hong Kong: in 2020, we attracted a net capital inflow of U$50 billion and proudly assumed our place as the world’s second-largest IPO market.

So you see: by the simple act of rearranging the order in which Chan’s content is presented, I have given his piece a compelling-enough introduction. Granted, those in the know would still be able to poke holes my version: companies rushed to get listed because of fears that the US-China relationship might deteriorate further and dim the prospects of companies tied to China growth story; companies flocked to Hong Kong because Trump had made it more difficult for them to go public in the US. But my rewrite, objective-sounding in tone, should succeed in deceiving the less informed.

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