Thursday, November 19, 2009

How to improve writing (no. 25)

From a book on design, a sentence about the look of a royal spouse’s “consort throne”:

It was gilded to look as if it were made of gold, the metal that is still the universal signifier of durability and status in almost every culture.
One way to improve this sentence: trust the reader to know what gilded means.

A second: clear up the inconsistency of “universal” and “almost every.”

A third: find a precise alternative to durability. That word might be associated with, say, long-wearing fabrics. But gold doesn’t resist wear; it doesn’t wear.

A fourth: rethink status. Yes, status does mean “high rank,” but I’d rather see the word with a modifier, for the same reason that I’m opposed to “quality” education.

A better sentence:
It was gilded, as gold still signifies high status and abiding value in almost every culture.
I’ve omitted the names of writer and book: neither should be judged by a single sentence. But many sentences in this book are in need of revision: cuts, breaks, rearrangement of parts, and plain old correction (of subject-verb disagreement, for instance). It makes sense that there is no note of thanks to an editor. W.W. Norton & Company, you’re slipping.

The moral of the story: Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. And many more are to be borrowed from the library. Try before you buy.

[This post is no. 25 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose. With apologies to Francis Bacon.]

Related reading
All How to improve writing posts (Pinboard)

comments: 4

Slywy said...

I see authors complain about editors "ruining" their prose through stupidity and miscomprehension; it seems to be the rare author who admits a good editor can make him or her look like a good writer vs. a mere subject matter expert.

Michael Leddy said...

It can go both ways, I imagine. I’m still grateful to the editor at the British Journal of Aesthetics who years ago (long before Dan Brown) silently changed a “da Vinci” to “Leonardo” and kept me from looking dopey.

Elaine said...

My index for "good prose" is that I can sail along (think of a pelican skimming over water's surface) without having to stop and re-read or interpret because of awkward or ambiguous construction. I don't mean it must be a simple topic--just that good writing makes less work for the reader who is trying to learn from (or just enjoy)what he or she is reading.

One writer that I hold up as a prose master: Ernie Pyle.

I agree that some writers are extremely touchy about editing, but in my experience confident writers understand that the process can be valuable. I am seeing more and more books with egregious errors--and I think publishers are saving money by skipping this important step. It's a shame.

Michael Leddy said...

I like difficulty when it offers genuine rewards (as in reading, say, Proust). But there it’s a matter of a reader’s rising to the occasion, not struggling through someone else’s mess.

I’ll have to look at Ernie Pyle, whom I’ve never read.

Sorry for the lateness of this response — I lost track of a couple of comments.