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Writing Critique for "Community Banking and Fintech"

This is analysis and critique of the writing (not content) from the first two sections of patio11’s new article Community Banking and Fintech.

One of the best things about the Internet is that it both provides infrastructure for society but also demystifies that infrastructure.

It’s saying “both provides [x] … but also [does] [y]”. It’s problematic to conjoin two “both” things with “but” rather than “and”.

It also says “one [thing] … is that it both”. This is awkward because “both” means two things, not one. It’s not necessarily strictly wrong because if you conjoin two things then they become one group, but it’s bad.

It’s not necessary to make a complex sentence with the main information structurally nested (imagine the sentence as a dependency grammar tree diagram) below modifier information (that the internet is awesome). The sentence could be written more directly like:

The Internet is great. It both provides infrastructure for society and demystifies that infrastructure.

Or putting the emphasis more on what I think is the main content:

The Internet both provides infrastructure for society and demystifies that infrastructure, which is great.

Or using a simple adjective:

The wonderful Internet both provides infrastructure for society and demystifies that infrastructure.

Moving on to the second sentence which completes the first paragraph:

I’ve spent the last few years going deep on financial infrastructure while working at Stripe, and thought it might be useful to geek out about finance with software people and software with finance people.

I suspect he means geek out by writing this newsletter (this is from the first issue of a new newsletter). But he doesn’t say that. He doesn’t write down how he intends to geek out.

There’s no section label to help you out. It doesn’t say like “welcome to the new newsletter” or have any other heading to tell you what this paragraph is for, other than the article title “Community Banking and Fintech” which is a misleading label for this content. Before now, I thought it was the first paragraph of the article, not a meta note about the newsletter itself. But, looking ahead, next is a brief disclaimer paragraph and then there’s a new header which is a longer version of the title. So now I think the real article starts later.

I see that in the email version it’s framed a little better because it says “Hiya! Patrick McKenzie (patio11) here.” at the start of the section. That helps make it seem less like the start of the article, though it’s pretty unclear.

So I think what he meant to say is that the internet is great for providing certain types of information and he’s going to contribute to doing that with this newsletter. But he didn’t explicitly say that. He hints at it, avoids directly saying what he means, and moves on. Maybe he thought it’d be too large of a brag? But he could have toned the rhetoric down to fix that. E.g., instead of “best” he could have said it’s one of his personal favorites, or it’s something he thinks provides a lot of value.

Moving on to the end of the first main article paragraph:

One reason for this is that the U.S. is dependent on community banks throughout much of the nation.

The start of this sentence is a boring mouthful. You don’t learn anything significant from “One reason for this is that”. Those are glue/structure words, not meat/content words. And it’s easy to trim. “One reason is that” would work without the “for this”.

Even with two words deleted it’s still awkward. How can we do better? The point is that it’s just one reason out of multiple reasons. That’d be better as a modifier or side note, rather than as the lead of the sentence that the main point is structurally nested under (imagine the sentence as a dependency grammar tree diagram).

Here’s a simple restructuring which puts the key information upfront and makes the minor information a modifier:

The U.S. is dependent on community banks throughout much of the nation, which is one reason there are so many.

We could also do a larger rewrite:

Many U.S. banks are small community banks. The U.S. depends on those in many regions.

The original text “throughout much of the nation” would work instead of “in many regions” but it’s longer and less clear: I think the point is that some but not all regions depend on community banks, so I tried to communicate that in the rewrite.

A community bank is a locally-oriented financial institution, generally much smaller than regional or national banks, focused largely on the “traditional business of banking” (taking deposits and lending) versus the capital markets functions that the “money center” banks also engage in.

This is too long for one sentence. It’s trying to say too many things at once. It says four things: what a community bank is, its size, its focus, and a contrast to its focus. It’s easy to split:

A community bank is a locally-oriented financial institution, generally much smaller than regional or national banks, focused largely on the “traditional business of banking” (taking deposits and lending). It doesn’t focus on the capital markets functions that the “money center” banks also engage in.

or

A community bank is a locally-oriented financial institution that’s generally much smaller than regional or national banks. It focuses largely on the “traditional business of banking” (taking deposits and lending) rather than the capital markets functions that the “money center” banks also engage in.

I also changed the “versus” because I think it’s confusing. Some people will think there’s a conflict or fight rather than reading it as “as opposed to”. People may misread something about one type of bank against another, rather than one business strategy instead of another.

And I think the “versus” is problematic with the “also”. The sentence contrasts DL (deposits and lending) versus CMF (capital markets functions). The sentence simultaneously presents two types of banks. Community banks focus on DL, while other (“money center”) banks do both. So the contrast is not DL vs. CMF (the two strategies the “versus” part applies to), it’s DL vs. DL+CMF. (the two contrasting strategies that the “also” part indicates).

Community banks are actually financial dark matter; their market impact and the policy regime supporting them influence all Americans’ access to banking services and many fintech product offerings.

The “many” is bad. It harms the parallelism of “fintech product offerings” with “banking services” and it’s an unnecessary extra word. No qualifier is needed to indicate that this doesn’t affect all fintech products because of the context: it’s just saying access is influenced. Influence on access would already be expected to have only a partial, not total, effect. Even if it only influences access to some fintech products, saying it influences access to fintech products, without a “many” qualifier, is still right.

Putting in unnecessary qualifiers is distracting, particularly for the sharpest readers. They may wonder why it’s there and try to think of a reason that it’s included. Each word should have a purpose, so a reader has to either judge that it’s a writing error or try to come up with a purpose. “Redundancy” is not a very compelling guess about the intended purpose here because I don’t think it’s an important point worth repeating at all, let alone repeating within one sentence, and there’s no similar qualifier for “banking services”.

Also, I’d guess that “fintech products” is better than “fintech product offerings” but there may be a subject-specific reason to use the word “offerings” here that I don’t know. (I’m trying to leave subject-specific stuff alone, e.g. the choice of “capital markets functions” with the double plural, which is unusual but is not wrong and may be best depending on information that I don’t know.)

I’ll stop here because analyzing the whole article like this would take a long time.


Elliot Temple on October 26, 2021

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