Wednesday, September 3, 2008

How to improve writing (no. 22 in a series)

Novice writers often want their writing to "flow," mistaking result for process. Sentences whose movement seems inevitable and right usually result not from easy spontaneity but from careful rethinking. Here for instance is a sentence that could be greatly improved with a little more thought. From a library's monthly newsletter:

For those people who live outside the city limits, even if it is only by one house, two feet, etc., they have to pay an annual fee of $45 for their library card.
What's wrong with this sentence? The "one house, two feet" details are unneeded, and seem to hint at a history of argument with cranky residents. There's also a problem with agreement: people need to pay for their library cards. The main problem with the sentence though is the clumsy syntax: "For those people," "they have to pay." Better:
Anyone who lives beyond the city limits must pay a $45 annual fee for a library card.
From 33 words to 17: almost 50% off!

[Update: There's a better way, and so obvious:
Anyone living beyond the city limits must pay a $45 annual fee for a library card.
From 33 to 16: over 50% off!]

[This post is no. 22 in a very occasional series, "How to improve writing," dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

All "How to improve writing" posts (via Delicious)

comments: 2

Rachel Leddy said...

I am so thankful you posted this.

The first sentence makes my eyes hurt.

Michael Leddy said...

Thank you for leaving a comment, RL. : )