At dinner two night ago, a friend reminded me that I had told him he had made me a better writer with a single piece of advice a few years ago. He had read a paper I had written for school and ridiculed me: “Do you ever write a sentence with fewer than seven clauses?” Point taken. Now I try to write shorter sentences and think about sentence rhythm, and I make sure no sentence has seven clauses.
A few other, similarly pithy and equally valuable lessons have come my way via my peers. One of the three great editors I have worked under at The Yale Globalist once educated me: “Most of what people call ‘their style’ is actually just bad writing.” When Sean told me that, early in my sophomore year, it both gave me confidence to be a forceful editor and the humility to let others modify my manuscripts. My “style,” I quickly internalized, was not special, nor so clever it should override established rules of clear and concise writing. I’ve since shared that lesson with other Globalist editors, and I’ve applied it to many writers. No writer successful defends against my editing pen by saying something is “her style.”
But the lesson is not as dramatic as Sean conveyed it, or as I once understood it. Some elements of personal style do little but obscure clarity or add unnecessary length. Many others, however, add flair and capture readers, even if the unorthodox additions are objectively unnecessary or even against the rules. I came this see this middle ground over my year of daily editing at the Yale Daily News, and I tried to reach a balance between style and objectively “good” writing in most of the pieces I edited in the spring.
It became easy for me to edit by default: I’d strip unnecessary words (“in order to” became “to” every time, etc.), tighten up meandering sentences, bring arguments to the front, and encourage writers to make their points with as much force as comfort allowed. A lot of editing, especially when I didn’t slow down to think, was almost mathematical. I did a lot of subtraction, and I cut out nuance that didn’t have an obvious point. Most of the time, I think I improved pieces. But I was concerned that sometimes I was not improving pieces as much as I was making them uniform, just more like each other, and more like how I would have written them.
My struggle (which has to be a common struggle among editors) is illustrated colorfully, though not purposefully, in this feature in Vanity Fair. The magazine’s editors have taken their pens to Sarah Palin’s disastrous resignation speech, correcting errors of grammar, punctuation, and fact. But they’ve also done a lot of what I did to columns I edited: They’ve stripped sentences down to the fewest words necessary, and they’ve removed all the personal quirks of Palin’s speech that lend it character, that make it her speech and not anybody else’s. The nonsense she spews is painful to listen to and more so to read, but need it be removed entirely? I’m not sure. Only now that I see the speech edited do I think maybe there was a reason to give it in original form.
Update 8/4/09: This Slate piece by a grammarian, which I just refound in my bookmarks, shows how Sarah Palin’s sentences are complete, nearly indecipherable nonsense. Here’s a taste: “To me, [her speech is] not English—it’s a collection of words strung together to elicit a reaction, floating ands and prepositional phrases (“with that vote of the American people”) be damned. It requires not a diagram but a selection of push buttons.”