I've been reading and re-reading the first sentence of the lead editorial in the 2/13 issue of our local school newspaper. It was written by the student Editor-in Chief, a senior who is no doubt headed for college next year.
No one worked on this sentence with her, which is too bad, because she had a sincere thought and was trying her best to express it. I've been struggling with her words myself, doing revision after revision. Perhaps the process might be of some academic interest: First, the sentence --
"It is unfortunate that it takes a tragedy to force one to slow down and realize what is most important to them, myself included."
It's heartfelt, but clumsy and hastily composed. So, how do you fix it? First of all, let's keep it personal -- the "one" and ''them" usages have to go ...
"It's unfortunate that it took a tragedy to make me slow down and realize what was most important to me."
That's a start, but its still awkward. Too many "me"s!
The thought here is sad, but it's also ironic ... maybe we could bring that out, when we fix the 'me' repitition problem:
"The sad irony of the recent tragic suicides at our school is that it took someone else's untimely death to make me stop and appreciate the value of my own life."
Getting there. Still too wordy. Let's try again, move those adjectives around, expand it, generalize it:
"The tragic irony of the recent suicides at Nantucket High School is that it can take another person's untimely death to make us stop and appreciate the value of our own lives."
Nope. That didn't work. Now we've lost the personal again -- it's starting to feel stilted. That can happen sometimes on the way to the proper phrasing. Time to 'drop back and punt', as my old boss used to say. Maybe we should start with something more specific: the thought itself, and the particular moment that triggered it:
"Standing in the chilly drizzle at William Soverino's funeral last week, with the rain on my face the the community of my friends and teachers all around me, I was struck by a sad and ironic thought: it can sometimes take another person's untimely death to make us realize the value and beauty of our own lives."
That's better. It can probably still be improved but let's leave it there, for now.
I didn't attend the funeral; I don't know for sure if it was raining or not. The sentence still needs to be corrected for a respectful accuracy. The details are important, of course -- but it's the importance of details in general that we need to stress -- the concrete facts and specifics that anchor thoughts in reality and make feelings vivid. It may seem petty and even disrespectful to fiddle with words in the face of such a bitter-sweet epiphany. But it's just the opposite. There's no greater tribute you can pay to a thought or an emotion than the rigorous effort to express it well.
Untangling sentences like this is a struggle, but it's also fun. It's good exercise for the mind. It helps create the mental stamina and fitness we need, if we want to communicate clearly. In the end, it's like dragging yourself out of bed for an early morning run. When you're standing in the shower afterwards, buzzed with endorphins, you think to yourself: I should really do this more often.
Well, pick another sentence and go to work. It gets easier every time.