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.”
All OCA How to improve writing posts (Pinboard)
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.]