Saturday, November 29, 2008

Everybody Needs an Editor!

Let me start by saying I admire William F. Buckley, Jr., and was sad at his passing. We have subscribed to National Review Magazine since before we could afford it, as I am fond of telling people. But I have a love-hate relationship with WFB's writing. He is famous for his impressive vocabulary, and that is kind of fun, but I think he writes some of the worst sentences I have seen in print. In the excerpt below describing the religious background of the Reagans' son Ron, who became an atheist in his teens, the first sentence is perfectly fine, but I'm not sure what he means by the second. Does the "it is popular" suggest that the belief so described is faulty? What risk are people assured of being eliminated? Which people?

We do not need to assume that a familiarity with history recalls the Ninety-Five Theses of Luther, or the causes of the Thirty Years’ War. It is popular in quarters of young America to believe that deference to individual religious inclinations eliminates any risk of submitting to indoctrination.

The next sentence, in the next paragraph, is also fine. But the final sentence is just poor, violating my teacher sensibilities about the need to enliven prose and to use more active verbs and clear nouns, and not to turn verb phrases into noun phrases. Note WFB's use of the passive voice, which has its place, but in sparing doses:

When Ron Jr. went on to reject his father’s political positions, ruing the Reagan presidency, it was not necessarily the result of alienation from the family per se. Weight by the son to his father’s principles is here given, here withheld, after thought is paid to them, cursory or profound, and how they figured in the allegiances of the parent.

From The Reagan I Knew, by William F. Buckley, Jr.
At the National Review website November 26, 2008

So how would YOU fix that last sentence? Here is my try, preserving much of the language of the original:

The son thought-- sometimes cursorily, sometimes profoundly-- about his father's principles and about how they figured in his allegiances, and he gave them weight or withheld it accordingly.

I still don't like it much, though, so here's another try, with more freedom of vocabulary:

Ron Reagan watched his father's principles at work, especially in his allegiances, and, with a teenager's alternating deep and shallow thought, respected or cast off those principles accordingly.

So can you do better? I probably can, though the exercise shows me that WFB's words "principles," "allegiances," "figured," "weight," and "accordingly" were very carefully chosen! :-)

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