How I revise a sentence

Let’s say my novel’s first draft has a sentence like this:

Sara awoke at four o’clock a.m. for the fifth time that night, and found herself slightly irritated when she discovered that John was still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

My first thought is that it’s a bit clunky. It’s longer and wordier and more complicated than it needs to be. I’d start by splitting it into two sentences.

Sara awoke at four o’clock a.m. for the fifth time that night. She found herself slightly irritated when she discovered that John was still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

Better, but still clunky. Here’s one example: “She found herself slightly irritated”. The adverb “slightly” contributes nothing. If her irritation is so slight, why mention it? On the other hand, if she’s significantly irritated, why qualify it with an adverb?

And “found herself” — does that phrase add anything? In this case, I’d say it’s just a longer version of “was” that offers no extra insight, meaning, or beauty.

“She found herself slightly irritated” becomes “She was irritated”. From five words to three, from ten syllables to six. (Syllables matter because we mentally read “out loud” even when we read silently.)

Sara awoke at four o’clock a.m. for the fifth time that night. She was irritated when she discovered that John was still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

Another clunky bit: “when she discovered that John was still sleeping peacefully”. This can be streamlined as well: “to find John still sleeping peacefully”. We’ve swapped the verb “discover” for “find” — there are times when the specialized meaning of “discover” justifies its extra length, but this isn’t one of them. “Find” conveys the meaning with perfect clarity. (Notice we’ve left the adverb “peacefully” for now. We should regard adverbs with suspicion, but not all adverbs are evil. This one conveys significant meaning, unlike our “slightly” from earlier.)

We’ve cut another three words, another five syllables.

Sara awoke at four o’clock a.m. for the fifth time that night. She was irritated to find John still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

Next up: “four o’clock a.m.” Assuming this is written from Sara’s point of view, “four o’clock a.m.” makes her sound a bit technical, even formal. If that’s not our intention, then we want something a little more relaxed: “four in the morning”. (If context makes it clear, we could even drop “in the morning,” but we’ll leave it for now.)

Sara awoke at four in the morning for the fifth time that night. She was irritated to find John still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

“Sara awoke” is slightly awkward because of the two consecutive “ah” sounds. If I were reading that aloud, I’d have to leave a slight pause to make it clear that they were separate words. It doesn’t flow. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: “Sara woke.” This has the pleasant side effect of cutting another syllable.

I’m also concerned about having “four” and “fifth” so close together. They’re both numbers, which may get the brain thinking numerically and comparing them and wondering (for a split-second) if there might be a connection between them. But there’s no connection, and there’s probably no need for such precision. Most likely, I’m just trying to say that it’s early, and Sara slept badly. If that’s the case, two numbers in one sentence are probably just a distraction.

So let’s try this:

Sara woke yet again. It was four in the morning. She was irritated to find John still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

We’re up to three sentences now, but that’s okay. We’ve cut our word count further. In fact, if we’re willing to be a bit informal for the sake of better sentence flow, we can even cut “It was”.

Sara woke yet again. Four in the morning. She was irritated to find John still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

Now I’m looking at “She was irritated to find”. It’s also a bit clunky (I say that a lot, don’t I?), but there’s another problem: I’m telling the reader that she’s irritated.

All new writers hear the advice “Show, don’t tell.” Now, as with most writing advice, you can take that too far. If it’s raining, you don’t need to show that it’s raining, you can just say it. The advice applies more to emotions and subjective judgments.

If your hero is a lazy slob, it’s better to show examples — “He slumped on the couch for another afternoon nap, wiping Dorito crumbs from his cheek” — than to just say he’s a lazy slob. Why? Because an observation has a stronger impact when readers deduce it themselves. When someone tells you something, they could be wrong, but when you see something, you know (or believe) it’s right.

So how can we show Sara’s irritation?

Sara woke yet again. Four in the morning. John was still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside. Seriously?

A one-word thought from Sara does the trick. There are a million other paths we could have chosen, of course. By the way, we’re now up to four sentences, but again, that doesn’t hurt anything.

I’m not crazy about “thunder rolled”. It’s a bit cliche. Not as cliche as “raining cats and dogs,” for example, but it’s still a very common (and boring) way to describe thunder. We can do better. The replacement we choose depends on context, the effect we’re trying to achieve, and personal preference. For today, let’s try “thunder growled” — a phrase I can’t remember ever hearing before.

Sara woke yet again. Four in the morning. John was still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder growled outside. Seriously?

We could keep going, tweaking and adjusting forever in pursuit of that perfect sentence. (I’m not thrilled with “even as”, for instance.) But I’m reasonably happy with what I’ve done, so we’ll stop there.

Let’s compare.

Our original sentence:

Sara awoke at four o’clock a.m. for the fifth time that night, and found herself slightly irritated when she discovered that John was still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

Our revision:

Sara woke yet again. Four in the morning. John was still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder growled outside. Seriously?

From 31 words to 19. From 48 syllables to 31. The result is clearer, simpler, and more convincing, with no significant loss of meaning.

At this point, you may think I’m kinda crazy. So let me address three possible objections you might have to the process above.

Objection #1: This isn’t necessary. The sentence was fine to begin with. It was grammatical, and I understood it. We’re obsessing over minutiae that will never matter to a typical reader.

Okay. Let’s say you’re an architect, and the plan for a house has a four-inch step up from the living room to the kitchen, for no particular reason.

You could say the step is “fine.” It’s practically no extra effort to lift your foot an extra four inches. If someone visits your house for an evening, they’ll surely remember the time they spent talking with you, rather than a slight architectural oddity.

All true.

But the step is a tripping hazard. It’s a distraction, making people devote just a bit of extra brainpower to navigating the house. That might not be a big deal if you only use the step once, but if the problem repeats thousands of times, it gets to be a drag.

Above all, it’s unnecessary — good craftsmanship demands simplicity (unless you’re trying for a certain stylistic effect on purpose). To an architect, the step calls out to be removed.

I assume. I’m not an architect.

Objection #2: This is too much work. You could spend five or ten minutes working through the changes above. Are you really asking an author to do this kind of thing for every single sentence?

Yes and no.

Yes, every sentence requires a careful eye, and revision if necessary. But no, it doesn’t have to be an arduous process. The more you revise, the more it becomes second nature. Your first drafts will also get cleaner over time. These days, it’d be pretty unusual for me to write a sentence like the original one above, even in a first draft.

It’s kind of like driving. If you make a list of everything you have to do for a quick trip to the store — buckle seat belt, check mirrors, start engine, check dash, foot on brake, put car in reverse, foot on gas, look at signs, look for pedestrians, on and on — it sounds like a lot. And maybe it is, when you first learn to drive. But after a while, you barely even think about it.

Objection #3: You’re dumbing down your writing. Readers should be willing to read carefully and think carefully. By streamlining and simplifying this way, you’re making readers lazy and stripping away all the subtle stylistic touches that make writing great.

Nope.

A book is sort of like a contract between reader and writer. The reader agrees to expend time and mental energy to listen to (and think about) what the writer has to say. In return, the writer conveys their message as simply as possible, imposing as little burden on the reader as they can.

If your message is inherently difficult or complex, and the reader won’t take the time to think it through, then perhaps you can call the reader lazy. But if you’re making your message more complicated than it needs to be, then it’s you, the author, who is lazy. (Notice, again, that the original and revised versions above convey almost exactly the same meaning.)

As for style — if you’re trying for a particular style, and your style demands some complexity, then by all means, go for it. But that’s not a violation of the “simple as possible” law. We’re still trying to reach our goal as simply as possible — it’s just that our goal now includes this particular style, so as simply as possible is more complex than it was before.

Anyway.

Questions? Comments? More objections? Thoughts? Invective? Fire away.

The U.S. federal court system: A brief introduction

One of the great advantages of a Trump presidency is that I’ve learned so much about how the government works. Never before in my life have I been able to tell you who the name of the appointee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, or the difference between an executive order and memorandum, or the precise mechanism by which the Constitution was ratified.

When something works, you can be content to let it run in the background. When it breaks, you suddenly have to be an expert. Government is no different.

So.

The U.S. federal court system consists of three levels. From lowest to highest, they are:

  1. District courts
  2. Circuit courts
  3. The Supreme Court

The district courts are the front lines of the federal court system — trial courts that typically issue the first judgment on a case. There are 94 districts in the U.S. I live in the Northern District of Ohio, which is roughly half of the state.

The circuit courts are appellate courts, that is, courts of appeal. If you’re not happy with a district court’s decision, you can appeal to a circuit court, and they can either accept the lower court’s ruling, or decide something else. There are 13 circuits in the U.S. I live in the Sixth Circuit.

circuits-and-districts

Click to enlarge. Colored regions are circuits. (There are 11 numbered circuits, plus a D.C. Circuit and a Federal Circuit.) Dotted lines are district borders. Source: uscourts.gov

If you disagree with a circuit court’s decision, you can appeal to the Supreme Court. They probably won’t take your case — apparently they’re “really busy” or some nonsense — but if they do, they’ll have the final say in the matter.

All federal judges, at all levels, are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

Let’s see it in action, kids!

The President’s extremely controversial travel ban, issued as an executive order, was challenged in a number of courts around the country. Most significantly, the state of Washington challenged the ban in a district court — the Court for the Western District of Washington — where Judge James Robart issued a temporary block on the order, giving the judicial branch time to consider the case more carefully. He wasn’t saying the order was illegal or unconstitutional, only that it was likely enough to be illegal or unconstitutional that it should be put on hold for the moment.

Naturally, the Trump administration — the Justice Department — went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. This appellate court decided to leave Robart’s temporary block in place for now, but it will render a further decision soon. That, too, will surely be appealed, and the case seems certain to land in the Supreme Court — which still only has eight justices at the moment.

All ethical issues aside, it’s kinda neat to watch the gears of justice in action.

Incidentally, I was not able to discover the basis for the President’s statement — carefully reasoned and considered, I am sure — that Robart is a “so-called judge.” There does not seem to be a provision for revoking a judge’s authority when he disagrees with the executive branch. Something about the judicial branch being independent, a check on executive power, or whatever — I’m sure it’s not important.

Having a baby: Before and after

1-6-evan

Evan is four months old.

What’s it like having a baby? Is it like I thought it would be? Better? Worse? Different? What did I think about babies before he was born, and what do I think about them afterward?

Let’s break it down.

Before:

A crying baby is one of the most annoying sounds in the universe.

After:

Surprisingly, my brain has learned to tune out the crying, for the most part. Obviously I still hear it, and still respond if needed, but it doesn’t bother me like it used to. I think it’s partly because I know how to respond, and I can usually get him to stop, so there’s more of a feeling of control. But partly, you just get used to things.

Before:

Parents who talk about nothing but babies are the worst.

After:

I still think so, but I have a different perspective on it now.

Having a baby is like moving to Mars — permanently. You still have all your old plans and goals and interests, but they all take a bit of a back seat to the fact that you’re on Mars now.

If you’re talking to friends who think Mars is boring, you should respect that, and not let it dominate the conversation. On the other hand, if your friends aren’t willing to at least ask “How’s life in that Martian colony?” and devote, say, 20%-30% of the conversation to the answer, they’re kinda being dicks.

Before:

You change his diaper when it’s wet or dirty.

After:

You change his diaper when it’s dirty, or if it’s been a while since the last change. The diaper is always wet.

Before:

Changing a diaper is gross.

After:

Eh. I mean, it’s not the greatest thing in the world, but it’s quick and easy and you get used to it in a matter of days. Of all the baby-related chores, diaper changing is probably the one I mind least. Feeding is actually a lot worse, in terms of inconvenience, because it takes ten times as long.

Before:

Babies need some help going to sleep sometimes.

After:

Babies are utterly incapable of going to sleep, ever, without a parent’s help. Betsy and I actually call it “the sleep dragon” because he seems so afraid it’s going to get him. Even thought it gets him half a dozen times per day.

Before:

Babies are helpless. If we quantify it, a baby’s ability to take care of himself is a flat zero.

After:

A baby’s ability to take care of himself is a negative number. Why? Because not only can a baby not care for itself, it will actively fight your attempts on every front. Rocking him to sleep? No, we must scream bloody murder to scare off the sleep dragon. Changing his diaper? We must flail and wiggle through the whole procedure. Feeding? We must turn away, block the bottle with our hands, and spit up everything we drank. Choking hazard in a ten-mile radius? Into the mouth it goes.

There aren’t many times when I side with the Book of Genesis over scientific theory. But the theory of evolution says babies were designed for survival, and Genesis says babies are a punishment for adults, and I can tell you right now which one makes more sense.

Before:

I have no opinion about baby sneezes or baby hiccups. Kind of cute, I guess?

After:

Baby sneezes are kind of cute. Baby hiccups are an affliction devised by Beelzebub in the Eighth Circle of Torment as penance for some transgression in a former life. Why? Because a hiccuping baby is a baby that will not go to sleep, no matter how tired he (or you) may be. So you’re in limbo, holding this child who is too cranky to do anything but receive constant soothing, just waiting for either the end of the hiccups or the sweet release of death.

Maybe they’re over. *hic* Maybe that was the last one. (pause) I think that was the last — *hic* Dammit. Okay, it’s been ten minutes, maybe now — *hic* AAAHHHHHHHHHHHH

Before:

I’ll feel bad for him when he gets hurt.

After:

I’ve been amazed at how strongly I feel pain when he’s hurting. Whether he’s going through physical pain (from needles, for instance), or fear, or loneliness, it isn’t just that I feel sympathy — it actually hurts me.

Before:

Toys that light up or make loud noises or sing chirpy, obnoxious songs are the absolute worst.

After:

This is still 100% true.

The biggest mystery, to me, is why parents sing or play chirpy, obnoxious songs for their kids when the kids are too young to pick their own music (or care much either way). When kids are older, and have preferences of their own, it might make more sense. But when they’re really little, they’ll listen to (and enjoy) pretty much any kind of music. So at that point, it’s really just you — the adult — that’s actively choosing this crap.

Before:

Childbirth is awful.

After:

This is true.

Yes, you have a baby at the end of it, and yes, that’s wonderful. But wonderful and horrific aren’t like acid and alkaline, where they cancel out. They’re separate. They’re both there, despite each other.

The pain of childbirth makes me really, really angry, because of the way people act like it’s fine, that’s just how life is. Because apparently, if something just happens often enough, it must be okay, right? See, I have this weird idea that if something utterly horrible and agonizingly painful happens more often, that’s not better, it’s worse. Crazy, I know.

The thing is, Betsy had a very easy delivery, relatively speaking. The pain medications worked relatively well. Labor wasn’t extremely long. There were no major complications. And even so, it was horrific and agonizing. So many people have gone through so much worse, and I can’t even imagine.

Guys (or girls, anyone who’s going to be a birth partner), listen to me. Labor and birth are very complicated and very difficult, no matter how often you may hear things like “Her body will naturally know what to do.” It is your job, your responsibility, your duty, your requirement, to learn everything you can about this process and be as prepared as possible. She needs you. The doctors and nurses may be great (they were for us), but she needs you.

Before:

Taking care of a baby is really hard work.

After:

Yes and no.

Yes, the first six weeks or so are truly exhausting. The lack of sleep isn’t like in college, where you pull an all-nighter and you’re dragging the next day — it’s more like you’re pulling ten consecutive all-nighters with some naps sprinkled in, and oh by the way, the baby’s hungry again because it’s been like two hours since the last feeding. And I’m the father — I had the easy job.

On the other hand, once you get past the initial Wall of Insanity, it’s really not that bad. Once nice thing about baby care is that it’s impossible to procrastinate. If the baby’s hungry, you’re feeding him right now. If his diaper is dirty, it’s time to change it. Baby care is mostly reactive. There’s not a whole lot of strategic planning, and frankly, you don’t have to be all that smart to do it. You just have to be willing to get up and do whatever’s needed — over, and over, and over, and over.

Of course, I’m very lucky in the sense that Betsy’s working and I can devote most of my time to taking care of Evan. If I were trying to work part-time and take care of him full-time, things would be much crazier.

Before:

It’ll be great when he can learn how to smile at me.

After:

I completely underestimated just how great this development would be. Not just because I like seeing him smile (which I do) or because I like to know he’s happy (which I also do), but because it’s the first time he can really give something back.

In the very early days, parenting is especially selfless because, as a parent, you don’t get much in return for the endless hours of care, aside from the satisfaction that you’re taking care of your child. But when he learns how to smile, it’s this wonderful reward, and it means you get a little something in return. It means you get to be a little bit selfish. And that’s nice, sometimes.

Every now and then, the news is good

headline

[source]

This happened just last night. A federal judge — appointed by George W. Bush, no less — temporarily blocked the travel ban across the entire country.

Our biggest victory so far, but not our last.

In case you’re wondering why people are so upset about the travel ban: This is why.

Happy Groundhog Day!

ghog-day

Still one of my favorite movies of all time.

I’m just now realizing that Bill Murray stars in no fewer than four of the films in my cinematic pantheon, the other three being The Man Who Knew Too LittleMoonrise Kingdom, and What About Bob? You’d almost think he was super talented, or something.

The Federalist Capers — Issue no. 3

eagle

Here’s issue 3.

Topics include:

  • How Trump is consolidating power. I’ve seen a lot of articles that say Trump is starting a “coup.” It’s too early to claim that. But the signs are not encouraging.
  • Executive orders so far. Especially the travel ban. Mr. Burns wrote this section (my friend Paul, not the Simpsons character).
  • The resistance. It’s not futile.
  • What you can do. Two exciting events in April, among other things.

Those of you who subscribe to the paper edition, you should get your copy in the next day or two.

Enjoy!

Is the March for Science a “terrible idea”?

Planning is underway for a protest rally in Washington, D.C., and across the country. Just as the Women’s March focused on women’s issues, the March for Science will promote scientific research as an indispensable guide to government policy, and will protest various anti-science actions of the current administration. No date has been set yet, but their Twitter account — @ScienceMarchDC — has about 300,000 followers already.

I’m one of them. I was excited about the march from the moment I first heard about it. I doubt I’ll be able to join them in person, but I plan to support them and spread the word.

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm, it seems.

An op-ed in today’s New York Times, written by someone named Robert S. Young, calls the march “a terrible idea.” Young is a scientist himself. What are his objections?

The biggest one seems to be that he’s against politicizing science. He writes:

A march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.

I sympathize with his concern … a little. But I don’t think there’s much justification for it.

For starters, I’m not sure it’s possible to politicize science any more than it already has been. Scientists are already caught up in the culture wars. The wedge between them and “a certain segment of the American electorate” could hardly be much deeper.

More importantly, if “politicizing science” means that researchers — and those who feel passionately about science — are getting more involved in the political process, I think that’s a wonderful idea.

(Incidentally, this isn’t just “a march by scientists,” it’s a march for anyone who supports science. I’d guess that actual scientists will be in the minority, and that’s fine.)

Getting political has a bad reputation. The political process is widely seen as dirty, corrupt, dishonest, and ineffective — and it is all those things, to varying degrees. But it is the machinery of democracy. It is the least bad system we’ve come up with so far. Getting political means participating in democracy, and democracy, as we well know, must not be a spectator sport.

I’m always puzzled when people say things like “Actors shouldn’t talk about politics.” This has roughly the same internal logic as “Accountants shouldn’t talk about skiing.” You’re not barred from talking about something just because you aren’t an expert.

How much more, then, should scientists — who are experts in matters critical to government decisions — have at least an equal voice in public debate? If politics is dishonest, who better to shine some truth on it? Conversely, if you believe that a certain course of action will literally kill every human being on earth, how can you justify keeping out of the process that could change it?

Of course, it goes without saying that scientific research itself should be (or try to be) nonpolitical and nonpartisan. Scientific papers are about presenting data and deriving factual conclusions. Political opinions don’t belong in scientific papers for roughly the same reason that Locutus of Borg doesn’t belong on Dancing with the Stars (although, now that I say that, I’m kind of intrigued). But that doesn’t mean scientists themselves, who are humans and voters and parents and taxpayers, have any reason to stay out of an arena that affects our humanity and our representatives and our children and our tax-funded projects.

Will the march make scientists seem partisan? Probably. But then, we’re living in an age when making factual statements is a partisan act. And in fact, telling the truth has always been partisan. “Cigarettes cause cancer.” “Women and men have equal intelligence.” “The earth revolves around the sun.” These are all factual, verifiable statements that are (mostly) uncontroversial today, but at one time or another, each of these statements would have placed you firmly on one side or another of the culture wars. So if we’re in the battle anyway, shouldn’t we at least be able to march?

Young also writes:

Scientists marching in opposition to a newly elected Republican president will only cement the divide. The solution here is not mass spectacle, but an increased effort to communicate directly with those who do not understand the degree to which the changing climate is already affecting their lives. We need storytellers, not marchers.

He suggests honest, open, face-to-face conversation with those in the community who may not understand what science is all about.

And that, of course, is also a wonderful idea. So much of the conflict in politics, government, and life is fueled by misunderstanding. Conversation helps. My opinions have changed countless times over the years — for the better, I hope — and that’s largely because of conversations.

But conversations and marches are not mutually exclusive. We can do both. And we should. His argument against the Science March — that it will be a mass spectacle, likely to further polarize an already divided nation — could be applied to almost any large political rally. When Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech to hundreds of thousands of supporters in Washington, wasn’t that a “mass spectacle”? Didn’t that “further drive the wedge between” civil rights supporters and opponents? Yes — but it had positive effects too.

(I am not, of course, comparing the Science March to Dr. King’s speech in any way, except for the specific parallel above.)

Marches are useful. Those who already love science may get even more excited — and more likely to vote, write to Senators, or seek public office. Those without a strong opinion may do a little more reading. Elected officials will notice that a sizable chunk of their constituency feels a certain way, and isn’t shy about saying so. Even among those vehemently opposed to certain scientific conclusions — or science itself — it will at least stir up some conversation.

The op-ed is fairly thoughtful, worth reading and considering. But as for me, “politicizing science” means armoring truth to step into the fray. And I say, bring it on!