Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Four-Fifths the Words, Four Times the Clarity

Our muscles slaked their lactic acids and we stopped our thirst with long draughts of sweet water still almost as cold as the mountain stream from which we had drawn it at lunchtime.

The sentence above, one of several doozies from Paul Gruchow's book The Necessity of Empty Places, tripped me so badly that I decided to write an entire post about it.

Nobody's perfect. If one or two sentences like this survives in your manuscript, fine. You'll confuse your readers, but they'll forgive you. However, if you leave a few dozen sentences like this in your book, your readers won't forgive you. This kind of writing--sloppy, wordy, convoluted--communicates active disdain for your audience.

Let's fix it.

Our muscles slaked their lactic acids: Let's start with the obvious mistake here: lactic acid is a mass noun. It isn't pluralized.

Less obvious: this clause dangles without context. The reader must contemplate entire the sentence to understand what Gruchow means by Our muscles slaked. Which means the reader has to read the sentence twice to understand it. Yes, nature writing is supposed to be relaxed and meandering, but this goes too far.

draughts: This word grows more and more archaic by the day. Use drinks.

still almost as cold as: Omit needless words. Replace with as cold as.

the mountain stream from which we had drawn it at lunchtime: This author is trying to obey the rule to never end a sentence in a preposition--when his sentence doesn't end in a preposition! Replace with the mountain stream we'd drawn it from at lunchtime.

Finally, please add a comma somewhere--anywhere--to allow your readers to breathe.

Here's a tighter version of the sentence, with four-fifths the words and four times the clarity:

We stopped our thirst and slaked our muscles with long drinks of sweet water, as cold as the mountain stream from which we'd drawn it at lunchtime.