It’s an apt label for missteps in writing that defy the mantra “Make what you write say what you mean.”
Here are a few examples, and ways to rescue clarity.
1. The New York Review of Books wrote about Ronan Farrow’s contention that NBC News thwarted his investigation of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged rapes and sexual harassment of women. Farrow was so frustrated by NBC’s killing his story that he eventually landed it at the New Yorker magazine.
The New York Review’s essay contained this sentence: “Farrow shot an interview with Ally Canosa, a producer who claimed Weinstein raped her, on his own dime.”
That sounds like Weinstein’s dime. To figure out that it was really Farrow’s dime, we have to work hard — a burden no writer should put on a reader.
Far better to write: “Farrow, on his own dime, shot an interview with Ally Canosa, who claimed Weinstein raped her.”
2. From a news story about a consultant on corporate reorganization: “Mr. Robertson needed to demonstrate the urgency of making repairs to senior executives.” Oh? Were senior executives leaking from their knees? Their ears?
The fix: “He needed to demonstrate to senior executives the urgency of making repairs.”
3. The New York Times ran a story about traumatic brain damage in football, focusing on a player who suffered from depression and pain, and who shot and killed himself. The problem sentence: “A 21-year-old senior at Wabash College, he had a ticket to France to see his girlfriend at Christmas break, his future pregnant with possibility.”
How uncomfortable can clumsy writing make us? That sentence suffers from the notion that the visit to his girlfriend might result in a pregnancy. Fix it by dropping “pregnant with possibility.” Substitute something like “his future bursting with possibility.”
That goof reminds me of what many consider the most notorious headline in Minnesota newspaper history, citing the names of two towns: “Fertile Man Dies in Climax.” I doubt that the headline writer intended to make us laugh. Or cringe. Remember the value of reading aloud what you have written. If it sounds goofy, it probably is.
Twin Cities writing coach Gary Gilson can be reached at www.writebetterwithgary.com.