A passage from a piece in the October 10 New Yorker:
But, just five weeks before the election, the race remains close. There are a number of reasons for this, one of them having to do with millennial voters, a demographic that overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama and has shown some allegiance toward Clinton but not much enthusiasm for her.The phrasing in the second sentence is ponderous: “There are a number of reasons for this,” “one of them having to do with,” “some allegiance toward Clinton but not much enthusiasm for her.” And it’s unnecessary to identify millennial voters as a demographic: the phrase “millennial voters” itself does so. A possible revision:
But with five weeks before the election, the race remains close, for several reasons. One is that millennial voters, who overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama, have shown far less enthusiasm for Clinton.The passage shrinks from forty-eight words to thirty-one. One more:
The journalist Jonathan Rauch has noted that candidates typically have fourteen years from the time they are elected to a major public office — the Senate, a governorship — to achieve the Presidency. Beyond that, a sort of expiration date is reached, owing, at least in part, to the fact that the longer one’s résumé the more likely it is that one will be whipsawed by past positions and changing values.Here, too, the phrasing in the second sentence is ponderous: “a sort of expiration date,” “at least in part, to the fact that.” And I’m not sure that whipsaw works. Merriam-Webster’s definition: “to beset or victimize in two opposite ways at once, by a two-phase operation, or by the collusive action of two opponents.” In the sentence above, a candidate risks being attacked not in two opposite ways but in one way, because her or his past positions are no longer acceptable. A possible revision:
The journalist Jonathan Rauch has noted that candidates typically have fourteen years from the time they are elected to a major public office — the Senate, a governorship — to achieve the Presidency. After fourteen years, it’s a greater challenge, in part because changing values will make it likely that a candidate’s past positions have become difficult to defend.The second sentence shrinks from thirty-eight words to twenty-six.
An observation I used to share with my students, from Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage (1966):
Wherever we can make twenty-five words do the work of fifty, we halve the area in which looseness and disorganization can flourish, and by reducing the span of attention required we increase the force of the thought.My revisions cut by a third — not a half-price sale, but still a pretty deep discount.
I don’t read New Yorker prose (or any prose I’m not editing) looking for things to change: these passages presented themselves to me (or to my bad-sentence radar) as prose in need of repair.
All OCA How to improve writing posts (Pinboard)
[This post is no. 68 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]