Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How to improve writing (no. 67)

Ford Madox Ford’s page-ninety test (and it is page ninety, not ninety-nine), can yield amazing results. The Ford practice: open a book to page ninety and consider the first full paragraph of any length. How’s the prose?

This past Sunday I applied the test to a book Elaine and I bought at a library sale. Was this book, about nature and music, worth our time? Here’s the first full paragraph on page ninety:

The first thing I noticed at each location was how much emphasis the other researchers on-site — each concentrating on a narrow topic — placed on the visual aspects of their study animals. For those whose scope of work involved sound at any level, the biophony — and in many cases even the individual species’ sounds — was completely overlooked. Yet I realized quickly just how varied and rich the natural soundscapes were.
The first two sentences are ponderous. Dashes are part of the problem: the first two separate placed from researchers ; the next two may have convinced the writer that sounds was not part of a compound subject. An error in subject-verb agreement results: biophony and sounds was overlooked. But were overlooked wouldn’t be much of an improvement: the passive-voice verb is a dull choice, especially if the writer wants to emphasize that other researchers missed something. Elsewhere, an overreliance on to be minimizes the writer’s agency: “The first thing I noticed . . . was.”

Reading the paragraph a third or fourth time, I noticed that an overabundance of prepositional phrases adds to the first sentence’s ponderousness: “at each location,” “on-site” (where else could the researchers be?), “on a narrow topic,” “on the visual aspects,” “of their study animals.” And I began to wonder what it might mean to describe an animal’s “visual aspects.” Do they have something to do with a creature’s ability to see? Or are we speaking of a creature’s appearance? One more thing: the paragraph’s final sentence seems to me a bit too self-congratulatory.

My best revision:
At each location, I found that other researchers did little more than look at animals. Even those whose work involved some attention to sound failed to notice the biophony and the distinctive vocalizations of individual species. It was as if these researchers were deaf to the richness and variety of natural soundscapes.
My revision takes this paragraph from seventy words to fifty-two, with no dashes. The dash problem, as I discovered by turning pages, is everywhere: 236 pages, and only twenty-odd are dashless.

The book, by the way, is from Little, Brown. The writer thanks his editor for a “finely tuned combo of eye and ear for proper voice and structure.”


3:35 p.m.: One more change: from “distinctive sounds” to “distinctive vocalizations.” I didn’t like the repetition of “some attention to sound” and “distinctive sounds.”

Related reading
All OCA How to improve writing posts (Pinboard)
The page-ninety-nine test
The test applied to My Salinger Year

[Biophony? The writer defines it as “sounds originating from nonhuman, nondomestic biological sources.” This post is no. 67 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

comments: 10

Elaine Fine said...

This blog post makes the 70 (or so) cents we paid for the book worthwhile. I admit that I judged the book by its cover and subject matter (the cover is indeed very nice) and failed to perform the page 90 test. When I attempted to read it in the coffee area of the library I found the book unreadable. I was tempted to just leave it on the table for the next victim.

Michael Leddy said...

At least now the book can do no harm. :)

Fresca said...

“finely tuned combo of eye and ear for proper voice and structure”

I'd like to see an illustration... maybe musical instruments building a house of cards?

Michael Leddy said...

Yeah. You notice even there the prepositional phrases? How about just “a great ear for what sounds right”? Get me rewrite!

Geo-B said...

You're lucky you're married. After 67 installments of "How to Improve Writing," I don't think anyone would dare write you a love letter. :)

Michael Leddy said...

Hey wait a minute: these posts are about public prose. :)

The Arthurian said...

Great. Now I have to go looking for ponderousness every time I use a dash.

Good post.

Michael Leddy said...

I wish I could remember who points out that dashes can proliferate in ways that damage prose. One pair, another, one more, so that they become easier and easier to rely on and end up doing what commas could do (as on many pages of this book).

The Arthurian said...

See something, say something. I just found this sentence in my econ reading:

In its rush to grow, China has simply built far too many buildings—witness the many ghost towns—and produced far too much steel, iron, and other commodities—and made far too many bad loans in the process.

Three dashes. That's outrageous. I think the writer got lost in his sentence.

Michael Leddy said...

The writer could replace the first two dashes with parentheses, replace the first and with a comma, and replace the third dash with a comma. I agree with you that the sentence needs work.