Thursday, September 26, 2013

Obviating elaboration

Claire Kehrwald Cook:

Long sentences aren’t necessarily wordy, not if every word counts. As good writers know, leisurely sentences have their purposes — to contrast with short ones, say, or to establish a desired tone. A sentence can be too tight. Sometimes you need a clause instead of a phrase, a phrase instead of a word. What you’re after is a supple style; you don’t want to compact your language, trading looseness for density. But you’re not likely to run that risk unless you’re a compulsive polisher. Condensing to a fault is so rare a failing that it needs only passing mention. Of course, if you'd like to change the last sentence to The rarity of overtightness obviates elaboration, you have something to worry about.

Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985)
A 2005 New York Times death notice describes Claire Kehrwald Cook as “A brilliant editor and teacher whose devotion to clear thinking and clear writing inspired everyone who was lucky enough to work with her.” I believe it. Line by Line is smart, witty, and likely to prove enormously helpful to a reader with the patience to follow along as Cook sorts out tangled sentence after tangled sentence. (It’s hard work.) The book is still in print, now subtitled How to Edit Your Own Writing.

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