Thursday, February 23, 2017

How to improve writing (no. 70)

The page-ninety test was a Ford Madox Ford habit: “turning to page ninety of any edition of an author . . . and then quoting the first paragraph of reasonable length” as a way to gauge a writer’s prose. Here is the first paragraph of reasonable length from page ninety of a recent book about the history of handwriting. “James” is the novelist Henry:

By the 1890s, James began dictating all his novels to a secretary, who typed the author’s words as he said them aloud. At first James found it hard to find such an amanuensis who would understand his words. As he put it, “The young typists are mainly barbarians, and the civilized here are not typists,” he declared, noting that hiring a woman was “an economy” over his previously male secretary.
I see a number of problems:

~ The use of by with began with is an odd way to mark the onset of action. For instance: “By the 1980s, I began to use an Apple computer.” “By the 1980s, I was using” or “In the 1980s, I began using” sounds more natural.

~ “All his novels”: all is unnecessary.

~ There is no difference between saying and saying aloud, and no other way to dictate than by speaking (or using sign language).

~ “James found it hard to find”: awkward repetition.

~ Amanuensis, though a word James favored, looks like an inelegant variation on the word secretary. And there is no difference between an amanuensis and “such an amanuensis.”

~ “As he put it” and “he declared”: putting the one before the quotation and the other after suggests a need for more careful copyediting.

~ “His previously male secretary”: yikes. I’m afraid to ask what happened to the guy.

Here again is the original paragraph and a revised version (which adds another phrase from the letter in which James refers to his new secretary as “an economy”):
Original: By the 1890s, James began dictating all his novels to a secretary, who typed the author’s words as he said them aloud. At first James found it hard to find such an amanuensis who would understand his words. As he put it, “The young typists are mainly barbarians, and the civilized here are not typists,” he declared, noting that hiring a woman was “an economy” over his previously male secretary.

My revision: By the 1890s, James was dictating his novels to a secretary, who typed as James spoke. At first James had difficulty finding someone who could understand his words. “The young typists are mainly barbarians, and the civilized here are not typists,” he complained. James found that hiring a woman to replace a male secretary was both “an improvement” and “an economy.”
The page-ninety test gives a fair representation of this book, which is not especially well written. For instance: “Graphologists had a steady business counseling people before answering marriage proposals as well.” Or: “A recent stylometric analysis of Double Falsehood, a disputed play by William Shakespeare, was proved to be partially the work of the Bard after it was run through computers.” Were graphologists answering marriage proposals as a sideline? Did the analysis turn out to be partly by Shakespeare? Was the play by Shakespeare partly by Shakespeare? Was it the analysis or the play that was run through computers? Whatever.

Related reading
All OCA “How to improve writing” posts (Pinboard)
Ford Madox Ford’s page-ninety test
Handwriting, pro and con
My Salinger Year, a page-ninety test
Nature and music, a page-ninety test

[This post is no. 70 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

comments: 1

Diane Schirf said...

As I'm sure I've mentioned a million times, I couldn't get past Stephen King talking about a weasel "gnawing."

The paragraph you quote is awful in a different way.