Friday, April 27, 2018

How to improve writing (no. 75)

Every time I look at Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, I end up rewriting one or more sentences. Consider this sentence:

The fact that this taxicab family that is joined at the hip to Michael Cohen and his people is getting into the legal weed business is immaterial to me.
The fact that makes a bad start. The two instances of that don’t help. The three instances of is don’t help. Joined at the hip, his people, weed: all tiresome phrasing. (And his people turns out to refer only to Cohen’s father-in-law.) And the syntactic jumble of Michael Cohen and his people is getting into the legal weed business needs sorting out.

A larger issue: the question of agency in this sentence. Applying Richard Lanham’s command for sentence revision — “Find the action” — makes clear that nothing happens here. All we know is that the fact is immaterial.

A possible revision:
I don’t care that Semyon “Sam” Shtayner, a taxi baron close to Michael Cohen’s father-in-law, is entering the legalized cannabis industry.
Marshall uses the first-person pronoun later in his paragraph, so beginning with I makes sense: I don’t care. . . . But there’s new information. . . . I’ll follow up later. But no one needs to follow up with what Marshall calls “an explainer on what it seems to mean.” What else would an explanation seek to explain?

Related reading
All OCA “How to improve writing” posts (Pinboard) : E.B. White and the fact that

[“Find the action”: from Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose (2007). The AP calls Shtayner a taxi mogul; I chose baron in honor of the old Trump pseudonym John Baron (or Barron). This post is no. 75 in a series, dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

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