Writers’ Workshop: Back to Exercise One, and Forward to Exercise Five

 

Here’s how I solved Exercise One. Recall the original:

In 1788 the kings advisers were warning him that the whole nation was about to be facing bankruptcy therefore he summoned a body called the states-general believing that it would authorize him to levy some more new taxes. The people of France however were suffering from burdensome taxation oppressive social injustice and acute scarcity of food and their representatives refused to consider projects of taxation until social and economic reforms should be granted going forward. And the king who did not realize the gravity of the situation tried to overawe them collecting soldiers in and about Versailles where currently the sessions were being held. The people of Paris seeing the danger organized militia companies as a way to defend their representatives. In order to supply themselves with offensive arms and weapons they attacked the invalides and the bastille which contained the principal supplies of arms and munitions in all of paris.

You’ll be amused to know that I lightly adapted this exercise from the 1918 edition of The Elements of Style. This was their version:

In 1788 the King’s advisers warned him that the nation was facing bankruptcy therefore he summoned a body called the States-General believing that it would authorize him to levy new taxes. The people of France however were suffering from burdensome taxation oppressive social injustice and acute scarcity of food and their representatives refused to consider projects of taxation until social and economic reforms should be granted. The King who did not realize the gravity of the situation tried to overawe them collecting soldiers in and about Versailles where the sessions were being held. The people of Paris seeing the danger organized militia companies to defend their representatives. In order to supply themselves with arms they attacked the Invalides and the Bastille which contained the principal supplies of arms and munitions in Paris.

I added a few annoying excess words to give you some extra red-pen satisfaction.

But note that Strunck’s version came with different instructions. I suggested you punctuate and edit it as you saw fit. The manual’s instructions were simply to “punctuate.” While this doesn’t logically forbid further editing, it suggests that punctuation errors apart, Strunck found it satisfactory.

I don’t. Neither do the tens of thousands of editors who’ve since read and argued about every word. (It’s something of a cult classic.) Even properly punctuated, the passage at the least contains unnecessary words. Obviously, the ones I added were completely unnecessary. Most of you got them out. Well done.

Before we get rid of the flab, let’s try punctuating Strunck’s version –not mine — without otherwise editing it in any other way. This, in my view, is the only solution, particularly because we’ve not been offered the option of capitalization:

In 1788, the King’s advisers warned him that the nation was facing bankruptcy; therefore he summoned a body called the States-General, believing that it would authorize him to levy new taxes. The people of France, however, were suffering from burdensome taxation, oppressive social injustice, and acute scarcity of food; and their representatives refused to consider projects of taxation until social and economic reforms should be granted. The King, who did not realize the gravity of the situation, tried to overawe them, collecting soldiers in and about Versailles, where the sessions were being held. The people of Paris, seeing the danger, organized militia companies to defend their representatives. In order to supply themselves with arms, they attacked the Invalides and the Bastille, which contained the principal supplies of arms and munitions in Paris.

If our only tools are punctuation marks, that’s the best we can do.

Fortunately, those aren’t our only tools. Now let’s fix the over-long sentences and strike out words that serve no function:

In 1788, the King’s advisers warned him the nation was facing bankruptcy. He therefore summoned the States General, believing it would authorize him to levy new taxes. But the people of France were suffering from burdensome taxation, injustice, and acute food scarcity. Their representatives refused to consider taxation absent social and economic reform. Failing to grasp the gravity of the situation, the King tried to overawe them by assembling soldiers in and about Versailles, where the sessions were being held. Seeing the danger, the people of Paris organized militias to defend their representatives. The militias attacked the Invalides and the Bastille, which contained the principal supplies of arms and munitions in Paris.

That’s my solution. If you Google the passage, you’ll find others, but that’s the one I favor. There are many other ways I could write this, but it isn’t my paragraph. I’ve added none of my own style. When editing posts on Ricochet, I try my best not to change anyone’s style, and above all not to change anyone’s meaning. It wouldn’t be right to change a writer’s words a great deal more than this.

But for fun, let’s go beyond the boundaries of editorial propriety. There’s nothing wrong with the paragraph above. It’s spelled and punctuated properly. It isn’t excessively wordy. It says what it means and it means what it says. But goodness, it’s boring. After all, that’s one of the most dramatic scenes in human history. Why is that paragraph such a snoozer?

Thus Exercise Five: Without adding many words — although you may add a few, if they really help — can you make that paragraph as gripping as it ought to be?

 

There are 12 comments.
But you can't read them because you're not signed in!

Become a member to read the comments and join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.