Thursday, June 18, 2015

How to improve writing (no. 60)

My son Ben thought I would like writing about this first sentence of a Reuters article:

A San Francisco-based driver for smartphone-based ride-hailing service Uber is an employee, not a contractor, according to a ruling by the California Labor Commission.
I see four problems:

1. The pile of phrasal adjectives. “San Francisco-based driver for smartphone-based ride-hailing service Uber” has the ungainliness of Hammacher Schlemmer headlines, though Reuters at least uses hyphens.

2. The repetition of -based with different meanings, which is at least slightly jarring. A driver may be based in a city, but the service isn’t based in a phone.

3. The lack of agency. Michael Harvey’s The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing suggests a crucial question to ask about a sentence: Who did what? Here the action — that a commission ruled — is buried in a phrase at the sentence’s end.

4. Too much material for a single sentence. The overloaded opening sentence is a symptom of journalese. (See also this post.)

My attempt at improvement:
The California Labor Commission ruled today that Uber driver Barbara Ann Berwick is an employee, not a contractor. Uber, a San Francisco-based company, markets a mobile app that allows users to arrange for transportation with drivers.
Some news stories describe the ruling as applying to all drivers. But it applies only to Berwick. Adding her name adds clarity. I’m not happy about “San Francisco-based.” I’d prefer “a San Francisco company,” but that phrasing might suggest that Uber is a local business. “San Francisco-based” at least beats “headquartered in San Francisco.” I thought it more important to identify Uber (rather than Berwick) as based in San Francisco. The driver’s location could come in later in the story.

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

[This post is no. 60 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

comments: 3

Fresca said...

I thought it was the *driver* that was based in SF?

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, but Uber has its headquarters in SF. I thought it was more important to have that info (rather than the driver’s location) in the first sentence. I’ll revise the post to clear it up.

Frex said...

Yes, that's another thing wrong with the original text: its emphasis on the driver being SF-based, and not the company.
Frex = Fresca, free-based (Ha. Not really.)