From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

How to Write Better, According to Me

A hard-to-read sentence in a newspaper article

The quotation below is a sentence from an AP article about J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. It was written by Jill Lawless, a busy foreign correspondent whose editor should have intervened here, but didn't.

Just try reading this aloud.

Rowling (her name rhymes with bowling, rather than howling), looking relaxed in jeans and a sweater, shoulder-length blonde hair stylishly cut, has wildly mixed emotions at leaving behind the character she conjured up during a train journey across England in 1990: a neglected, bespectacled orphan who learns on his 11th birthday that he is a wizard.

If I were her editor, that long sentence would have been broken into two sentences. I would have slightly reworded it to get rid of two awkward phrases and an adjective that looks better than it sounds. The result would be something like this:

Rowling, whose name rhymes with bowling, looked relaxed in jeans and a sweater, shoulder-length blonde hair stylishly cut. She has wildly mixed emotions at leaving behind the character she conjured up during a 1990 train journey across England: a neglected orphan with spectacles who learns on his 11th birthday that he is a wizard.

Isaac says, "Well, Mom, your version's not as journalistic." Maybe not, but it's easier to read. He does have a point, though. I'm not a journalist. I'm just a woman with a blog.

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Collagemama said...

You aren't just a blogger. You are a writer. Writing is a craft. Its aim is clarity and communication. Thank you for practicing the craft of writing everyday.

Genevieve said...

You're right, Collagemama. So are you, by the way. Thanks for reminding me.

RunAwayImagination said...

I vote for your version. You are one of best writers in blogland. I like your style - typically short and compact posts with great photos.

Genevieve said...

Runaway, I always am afraid that my posts ramble on and become far too long! As for photos -- I am REALLY HOPING to get my computer out of the shop tomorrow so I can post a photo again! I can't get photos to upload from this computer I've been using. I think it's just so slow, with an old modem and a dial-up connection, that it times out before it completes the upload.

ptg said...

Are you sure Jill's first language isn't German? The example sentence would be just right for Teutonic grammarians.

I know a cat that takes in editing, like ladies used to take in ironing.

Mark said...

You may be just a woman with a blog (although I don't believe that) but you write better than the foreign correspondent.

Michael Leddy said...

Genevieve, I thought I left a comment here a couple of days ago, but I guess it didn't take. Anyway, I agree: your revision is far better. The original tries to juggle too many unrelated elements. Do you think the writer tried hearing the original sentence in her head? I doubt it.

Mourningdove's Serendipity said...

The reason I read YOU is because you are a GREAT writer! Your writing is clear, concise, interesting and uncluttered. (I used to work for a newspaper and bad writing drives me nuts)

Genevieve said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone.

PTG, you must have had some experience with German. I can say one thing about German after my own experience with it -- it was not as easy a language to pick up as Spanish was.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.