Thursday, November 6, 2014

How to improve writing (no. 51)

I noticed this sentence while browsing:

Thus, in order to understand why Apple has been so successful in previous partnerships — and, looking forward, to better estimate the chances of Apple Pay becoming widespread — it is essential to understand how the company acquires and uses leverage.
Twenty-seven of the sentence’s thirty-nine words precede its subject (it ): that’s a case of what Richard Lanham calls the “slow windup,” the ponderous start. Reading the sentence aloud is a good way to hear the problem. Other problems:

Needless words. Successful partnerships must already exist, so there’s no need for previous. “Looking forward” is unnecessary, as there is no place else to look if one is gauging prospects for success. I see little difference between estimating and better estimating: one would want one’s estimates to be good ones.

Lifelessness. “It is essential to understand” is boilerplate term-paper language, lacking in agency. Here again, Richard Lanham is helpful: “Find the action,” he suggests. Who does (or did, or will do) what? The fix here: a transitive verb in the active voice.

My revised sentence:
To understand Apple’s success in partnerships and to estimate the chances for Apple Pay’s success, we must understand how Apple gains and uses leverage.
Twenty-four words, fifteen of them preceding the subject. I’ve condensed and rewritten in several other ways, which I’ll leave to speak for themselves.

Revising this sentence took perhaps a minute. Explaining in this post, revising my sentences while doing so, much longer.

Related reading
All OCA How to improve writing posts (Pinboard)

[Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose (2007) is an immensely helpful, absurdly expensive book. (Blame the textbook publisher Pearson Longman). A presentation of the book’s core, the Paramedic Method of revision, may be found at Purdue OWL. This post is no. 51 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

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