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GOOD WRITING: MUSIC TO THE EAR

by Paula LaRocque on November 8th, 2010

Flannery O’Connor was once asked if our university writing programs were squelching young writers, and she responded that they were not squelching enough of them.

A foray into media writing is bound to recall O’Connor’s quip. Not that there isn’t wonderful writing in the media. There is. But there’s also a lot of tin-ear writing—a jarring ugliness that goes beyond mechanical error and yet is written by professional wordsmiths. Take the following examples (please!):

“The man who blew away half of a woman’s face last week was released from a mental hospital several weeks earlier.”

He blew away half a woman’s face? What, he just huffed and he puffed and he blew her face in? Why write in such shoddy idiom? Also, considering the sequence of tenses, “was released” should be “had been released”—since that action precedes the sentence’s main action. More sensible: The man who shot a woman in the face last week had been released from a mental hospital several weeks earlier.

On the subject of being blown away, check this out: “She said that when she saw who it was, she was literally blown away.”

Really. Literally blown away?  Surely not.  Literally means . . . oh, never mind.

Read the following passage aloud, and you’ll hear what’s wrong immediately: “A 13-year-old girl was kidnapped by a group of youths and raped in a vacant apartment in East Hills complex on Friday—the latest reported attack in a series of sexual assaults in the neighborhood by teenaged boys since June.”

A plethora of prepositions leads to a sing-songy fuzziness. Most sentences can support only several prepositions—and the fewer the better. The following revision reduces nine prepositions to just two and improves clarity and rhythm: Teenaged boys kidnapped and raped a 13-year-old girl in a vacant East Hills complex apartment Friday. Police said it was the fourth such attack reported in that neighborhood since June.

More tin-ear: “A final deal hinges on ongoing talks. Company executives said they expect upcoming products to sell well in coming months.”

The echoes of “on/ongoing” and “upcoming/coming” are easily corrected: They will work out the final deal in ongoing talks. Company executives said they expected upcoming products to sell well.

Tin Ear: “Let’s take stock of those NFL aristocrats who have got one foot out the door and one eye on the waiver wire.  They have got themselves a new . . . .”

“Got” is an ugly word and doubly so when redundantly paired with “have.”  If you’ve got it, it’s better to just have it: Let’s take stock of those NFL aristocrats who have one foot out the door and one eye on the waiver wire.  They have a new . . . .

Tin Ear: “Not only did she have her friend murdered, but she also had to cope with three other tragedies at the same time.”

She had her friend murdered? Wow. Serves her right.  Better: Not only was her friend murdered, but she also had to cope with several other tragedies at the same time.

As that sentence shows, “had” structures can suggest the subject caused the action:  He had his car stolen. She had her leg broken. They had their house burned down.

You want to say: Why would they do this—for the insurance?

Here’s another example: “A laborer sentenced to the electric chair for the murder of a Portsmouth store manager in May 1985 had his death sentence overturned yesterday.”

He had his sentence overturned?  Bully for him.  Wonder why he didn’t do it sooner.  Better: A federal judge overturned the death sentence yesterday of George Wayne Thomas, convicted in . . . .

Tin Ear: “When they returned, they looked in the box and found the necklace gone.” They found the necklace gone? No. They didn’t find the necklace at all—gone or missing or otherwise. What did they find? They found the box empty.

What we learn from such examples as those above is that graceful prose comes from writing for the ear as well as for the eye—and that reading our writing aloud to ourselves will catch many graceless words and phrases the eye may miss.

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(Parts of this blog appeared in another form in LaRocque’s Quill magazine column.)

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