Saturday, April 25, 2009

Birthday bashing

The New York Times gives some space to experts on the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Elements of Style, an American phenomenon most often known simply as “Strunk and White,” and still often used as a sort of bible in high school and college composition classes. They hammer it.

I’ve always thought that it’s the ruleyness of the book that bugs people. Mere suggestions can be accepted or rejected. Rules, especially writing rules, have to be rebelled against, especially by writers.

I’ve spent a good part of my working life editing the work of others, mostly informed non-professionals, some workaday pros (prose pros?), and a few really fine stylists. Some needed my help, some really didn’t. For those who did, I came up with my own set of non-rules. Some are Strunk and Whitish, some are not. Here’s a chunk. Take ’em or leave ’em.

Be yourself. More than anything else, this is the key to good writing. Don’t get formal, pompous, or prissy just because your thoughts are going down on paper. Let your personality come through. Simply put, write in your own voice. Read your text out loud to yourself. If it doesn’t sound like you, fix it. A few little tips here:
    • Where you have a choice, use the short word instead of the long one.
    • Try to find nouns and verbs that are precise enough not to need too many modifiers. Avoid thickets of adjectives and adverbs.
    • Keep your paragraphs relatively short.
    • Use the active voice. This is old advice, but it’s good all the same. Don’t say, “It can be observed....” Say, “You can see....” or “Working with these numbers, I noticed....” In short, sound confident, not mealy-mouthed.

Have a point. One. You’re writing an article, not a book. This of course, requires that you know exactly what your point is. Sounds obvious, I know, but it’s surprising how fuzzy a lot of us are on defining exactly what we’re up to. Try explaining your point in a brief sentence. If you can’t, you’ve probably got a problem.

Answer a question, don’t confirm a prejudice. A colorfully expressed point of view is great, but we need it to be based on all the facts available, not on a determined marshaling of only one side of the case.

Pare extraneous material. This is tough, but not all the good stories or pithy observations will fit your work’s purpose.

Don’t strain for your opening sentence or paragraph. This probably contradicts advice you’ve read elsewhere, but I’ve found time after time that good ledes emerge later in an article, and that heavily-worked and strained-for opening paragraphs simply get lopped off because they’re too artificial. Try jumping right into your topic. Just say what it is you’ve found, or what you want to demonstrate, or what historical event you want to describe. This opening may not ultimately remain your article’s first paragraph, but it lets you get into your writing smoothly and easily, and it saves you a lot of mental anguish. Chances are, a natural lead will emerge as you write.

Imagine you’re writing a letter to a friend. This helps a lot if you’re having trouble getting going, or if you’re just a little intimidated by the idea of being published. In fact, this approach often results in the very best sort of writing—personal, colorful and idiomatic.

Rewrite. Your first draft is just that. Go through it to make sure that your organization makes sense. This is also the time to make sure you sound like you and that your sentences really say what you want them to say.

Stop when you’ve said what you need to say. A great concluding sentence or two sets off an article like the cherry on top of a hot fudge sundae, but remember that dessert tastes pretty good even without the topping. If you’ve got a quick, catchy conclusion, by all means use it. But if you’re straining to be funny or simply summarizing or restating what you’ve already written, forget it. (As with your article’s lead, your true conclusion is likely to be lurking somewhere else in your manuscript.)

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