Wednesday, October 5, 2016

How to improve writing (no. 68)

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.

Related reading
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.]

comments: 6

The Arthurian said...

"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."

I like it.

Someone -- I thought it was Jonathan Rauch, but I think I'm wrong about that -- said: "Words dilute meaning."

It took me a few years of daily blogging to get to the point where I could delete whole chunks of what I'd written. I find it useful now, especially at the end of a post when I'm trying to wrap things up. Now I just cut things off.

Michael Leddy said...

As you can imagine, I am always cutting and adjusting.

I know Jonathan Rauch’s great piece on introversion but not that remark (from him or anyone else). I’m resisting the impulse to enter the Google and try to find a source. :)

Diane Schirf said...

Why not "Journalist Jonathan Rauch"? "The journalist Jonathan Rauch" is stilted.

Michael Leddy said...

“Journalist Jonathan Rauch”: that’s what some people call a false title. The Associated Press approves. The New York Times disapproves. I would assume that The New Yorker disapproves. Garner’s Modern English Usage has an entry about it, “Titular Tomfoolery.” I began using the the after reading Garner and noticing the word in the mid-day BBC (via NPR) news.

The Arthurian said...

Michael, I got both the speaker and the quote wrong.

"Don't say things that go without saying... Explicitly stating the implied words dilutes emphasis... Respect definitions and let them do the work." - Richard Lauchman in Plain Style, American Management Association, New York, 1993.

(From notes on my old computer.)

Some other quotes from the book, in no particular order:

"Give yourself permission to use ordinary words. Clarity will follow."

"Qualify only when necessary. Suggest no distinctions where no distinctions exist."

"Reveal the verb early."

"Never use effect and impact as verbs..."

Michael Leddy said...

All good advice! Christopher Lasch also wrote a Plain Style — a terrific book.