I began reading an essay in The New York Times and stopped after the first sentence:
There are many moments throughout my average day that, lacking print reading material in a previous era, were once occupied by thinking or observing my surroundings: walking or waiting somewhere, riding the subway, lying in bed unable to sleep or before mustering the energy to get up.It’s a bad sentence, in several ways. Tense blurs: there are moments that were . The phrase “lacking print reading material in a previous era” is awkward, and moments cannot lack reading material. Moments “once occupied by”: an ungainly passive-voice verb. There’s something at least slightly odd about the idea of having nothing to read while walking. And the order of the gerunds “thinking or observing” gives the momentary suggestion that the writer is thinking his surroundings. A possible revision:
Not that long ago, if I found myself with nothing to read — waiting for someone, riding the subway, lying in bed unable to sleep or not ready to get up — I would observe my surroundings or think.From forty-seven words to thirty-five.
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[This post is no. 64 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]