Here (and why not?) is the evolution of a sentence from yesterday’s post on Palomino Blackwing non-users. My first effort:
There is a reference to “boxes of Blackwing pencils” from White’s office in Martha White’s introduction to In the Words of E. B. White (2011).That’s one ungainly sentence. Notice the long chain of prepositional phrases: to boxes, of Blackwing pencils, from White’s office, in Martha White’s introduction. The sequence from White’s office in Martha White’s introduction is especially clumsy. (It must have been a small office.) Embedding the book title’s two prepositional phrases in yet another prepositional phrase adds a final awkward touch. What I think happened here: having taken a quick look at the book, I was concerned more with getting the data in one place — the quotation, the writer’s name, the book’s part and title, the date of publication — than with writing a good sentence.
I saw right away that I needed to rethink the sequence of elements in the sentence: it’s appropriate to put what’s most important at the end, right? So here’s an improvement:
In Martha White’s introduction to In the Words of E. B. White (2011), there is a reference to “boxes of Blackwing pencils” from White’s office.Better, yes. And notice that the three references to Whites are better distributed in the sentence. But look at “There is a reference.” It should be easy to make the sentence shorter and livelier by cutting the verb to be and the nominalization reference and adding a transitive verb in the active voice:
Martha White’s introduction to In the Words of E. B. White (2011) mentions “boxes of Blackwing pencils” from White’s office.Much better. Notice that dropping is and a reference means fewer prepositional phrases. Minus the two of the title, the sentence drops from five to three, and from twenty-five words to twenty.
This rewriting stuff, it really works.
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[This post is no. 41 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose. This post is the first to improve my writing. Many guides to writing suggest replacing to be (when appropriate) with a transitive verb in the active voice. The advice appears in The Elements of Style, or “Strunk and White”: “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.”]