Friday, January 25, 2019

How to improve writing (no. 79)

Fresca has posted photographs of signs, some of which she thinks need rewriting. And she mentioned my posts about how to improve writing. So here goes:

A sign in a YMCA:

We serve relentlessly with our community until all can thrive in each stage of life.
That’s an ugly sentence, the kind of sentence that likely results from the work of a committee. I can imagine the suggestions, one by one: “Work? How about We serve relentlessly ?” But relentlessly is a tad aggressive, and community makes an awkward rhyme. And does one serve with a community, or does one serve a community? Thrive makes me think of plants, or infants in distress. And if all can thrive, do they thrive? And if they can or do, would the work of the Y stop? Is there an end to this relentless service? Last night I flinched at “each stage of life,” which makes me think of a Y that offers hospice care. And I cringed some more this morning when I heard Sarah Huckabee Sanders tell CNN that our president cares about Americans at all stages of life. Yes, really.

A possible revision:
We work hard to help everyone in our community live a better life.
Why does the revision sound better? Not because it is markedly shorter: the revised sentence is just two words shorter than the original. But look: there are fewer prepositional phrases in the revision. Eight of the fifteen words in the original sentence form prepositional phrases. That’s why the sentence sounds so ponderous. If my revised sentence sounds trite, it may be because so many goods and services promise to improve our lives. But I think a Y should be able to make that promise.

A second piece of signage, from a bathroom stall in an art museum:
Please be considerate

If you administer medication by syringe, please remove the syringe from our premises in a protective container. When placed in bathroom garbage, used syringes can cause puncture wounds.

Thank you.
Fresca wonders if this sign is an attempt at gentility. I think so: medication and syringe point in that direction, and from our premises is, for me, the clincher. I’ll mention that I’ve seen this sort of sign just once, in a bookstore whose customers were wont to shoot up in the bathroom. At least that was according to an employee, who may have been putting me on. (But if so, why the sign?)

A possible revision:
Be safe

Used needles are dangerous. If you use a needle here, take it with you in a protective container and dispose of it safely.

Thank you.
Used needles can cause puncture wounds wherever they might be left, and they can cause far worse than puncture wounds. No need to be genteel in asking people to take their needles with them. Safe is a much wiser word than considerate here.

In a New York (City) state of mind, I’d suggest
Don’t even THINK of leaving your needles here.

2:35 p.m.: “Eight of the fifteen words in the original sentence form prepositional phrases”: and eight of the twelve words in this sentence form prepositional phrases. Why doesn’t this sentence sound clunky?

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

[This post is no. 79 in a series, dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

comments: 4

Fresca said...

Oh, fun!!! THanks, Michael, for taking on the wonky signs I'd posted.

Your rewrites are nicely balanced, as I would expect from you.

Here are my two rewrites.

1. I thought it was unnecessary to explain WHY to take syringes away. A clear request to do so seemed enough. Or more than a request: I like your New York version!
But this is a Fine Art Museum in Minnesota, where people are famously "nice", or, as T-shirt I saw the other day accurately translated it, passive-aggressive.
Bluntness won't do here.

What I wrote for the museum bathroom stalls:

Please take used sharps (needles/syringes) safely out of the building.
Do NOT put them in the bathroom trash.
Thank you!

2. The YM sign was harder--I wasn't exactly sure what they even meant!
I think you nailed it. They want to emphasize trying hard and community.

I'd say triteness is OK in this instance--they are a sincere nonprofit who DO want everyone to have a better life--that's their roots.

And the YMCA, unlike the YWCA, has retained religious language in their mission statement.
I looked it up:
"YMCA Mission: To put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all."

I tried several ways and they all sounded too corporate, so I went with an entirely different tone--one that doesn't really fit the place, I admit. (And I dropped "community"--I think it's unnecessary anyway.)

My rewrite for the YM:

"We won't stop striving till everybody's thriving."

Michael Leddy said...

I like your needle statement a lot. It’s more direct than mine and less bound to the original.

I went back and forth on community and decided to keep it in as part of a local statement.

There’s a business here with the slogan “Still a-growin’, still a-goin’,” or something like that. You do better by not droppin’ the gs. :)

Fresca said...

Thanks! I do think the YM would want "community" on its wall.

If I were on the Sign Committee, I'd suggest going in an entirely different direction.

Have you seen "The Good Place" on NBC?
People who have died and newly arrived in "the good place" (heaven, or so they think), sit on a couch facing a wall on which is written in huge type:

Everything is fine."

It's pretty brilliant, I'd say.

Michael Leddy said...

I don’t know that show, but there’s an art-supply store in a nearby city with something similar: “Everything will be okay.” The owners put it up during a final-exams week and kept it. Our fambly has invoked its message now and then.