Wednesday, June 27, 2012

How to improve writing (no. 38)

I’ve been reading cereal boxes at breakfast since childhood. But it’s only in recent years that I’ve started to edit while eating. Consider this sentence, from a list of “simple things to feel good each day” on a box of Post Shredded Wheat:¹

Show thanks to your local neighborhood by picking up one piece of trash every day.
This sentence invites small- and large-scale rethinking. Small-scale:
Show thanks to your local neighborhood by picking up one piece of trash every day.
But there’s a larger problem: this recommendation makes little sense. If there’s lots of trash to be had, picking up one piece per day hardly seems like an expression of gratitude. If anything, the gesture seems a bit passive-aggressive. Imagine this sort of effort in a different context:
Show thanks to your local spouse by picking up one piece of clothing from the pile on the floor every day.
I think the local spouse would feel that she is being baited.

Here’s a more helpful recommendation:
Care for your neighborhood by picking up trash.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to remove some items from a nearby floor — books, not clothes.

¹ Yes, “simple things to do to feel good each day” makes better sense. But here too there’s a larger problem, because the list includes things to do only occasionally — babysitting a friend’s children, for instance.

[This post is no. 38 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose. Post is a cereal offender when it comes to lousy writing.]

Related reading

All How to improve writing posts

comments: 3

Jazzbumpa said...

Wow - you're really strict!

Maybe the inclusion of things one does occasionally is justified if one does one thing from the list each day, and thus can be a cereal feel-gooder without excessive effort.


Michael Leddy said...

Not a matter of strictness, just of paying attention, taking care with language. I think anyone who writes for a reader has that obligation.

Jazzbumpa said...

It was an obscure Blazing Saddles reference.