February 28, 2006

I like to buy books on writing. You can find a list of some of my favorites here.

One type of writing text, the rule-driven variety, doesn’t do much for me, however. It’s like mastering the AP Stylebook, and its academic cousin, the MLA Handbook. I can never remember the rules and I don’t like to stop writing, or even revising, to plunge into that thick manual to find out, “Do I put quotes around books? Italicize magazine titles? And what about that last comma in a series?”

I admire and am deeply grateful to copy editors who are to the style-guide-born; they have saved me from embarrassment more times than I can count.

There’s one guide in particular that has, frankly, always left me a little cold. Yes, I know it’s sold 10 million copies and is usually billed as “the one book that belongs on every writer’s desk.”

Bless me, Strunk and White, for I am bored. I find your mega-seller “The Elements of Style” full of rigid prescriptions that hinder rather than help my writing.

So my hopes were high when Arthur Plotnik’s “Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language and Style” crossed my desk.

Plotnik is a former publishing executive and author of “The Elements of Editing” and “The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts into Words.” I’m a regular reader of his “Syntax” column in The Writer, and was glad for this book-length treatment, especially when I read this passage in the introduction:

With so many gifted authors already sniffing their way to publication, with so many diversions grabbing mass attention, no writer can afford a writing-as-usual attitude. Language or style that is less engaging, less stimulating than the competition, is, frankly, dead on arrival.

“Spunk & Bite” is aimed at those “whose basic composition skills are as adequate as the next writer’s, but who itch for creative ideas, smart locutions, and realistic takes on language for today’s media.”

What impressed me most about “Spunk & Bite,” besides our mutual antipathy for what Plotnik calls Strunk & White’s “geriatric” inflexibility, is the way it worms its way into my writing.

Like today. I e-mailed my buddy, Sree Sreenivasan, that I was “Monday tired.”

“i love ‘monday tired’ — your invention?” he lower-cased me back.

“Probably not,” I replied. “Whenever I think I have (created a term) … I need to only Google and learn I’m late to the party.”

Google fetched up 537 hits for variations of “Monday tired.” Even so, I’m convinced that Plotnik’s section on coining new words, known as neologisms, had already insinuated its way into my writing, inspiring me to relax and take risks with words.

Instead of rules, “Spunk & Bite” offers choices bolstered with real-world examples, along with litanies of rhetorical devices that were new to me, although once described and exampled, plant seeds that may
flower in stories to come.

For instance, I’m sure many of us have relied on “enallage,” which “uses one part of speech for another, such as a noun or adjective for a verb” as in “Grammar?” “I’ll grammar you!” But who knew, other than copy editors, English teachers and other style police, what we were up to?

Plotnik also leaves Strunk & White choking on cyber-dust by providing Internet resources and interactive opportunities, such as offering writers the chance to create their own words. I tried it with the first prompt in the list: a terse rejection note (how about a “no-gram”?).

You try it:

A great idea you forgot to write down

An inept muse

Plotnik’s most important contribution is the way he zooms in close, helping writers deconstruct their prose from the ground floor — word to clause to sentence — up to paragraphs and chapters to our Holy Grail, a finished piece of writing.

In that way it reminds me of the framed message on my desk, a formula devised by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Richard Rhodes:

If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter.

If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page.

If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph.

If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence.

If writing a sentence is impossible, write a word and teach yourself everything there is to know about that word and then write another, connected word and see where the connection leads.

Unlike Strunk & White’s catalogue of abstractions and rhetorical ruler slaps, Plotnik’s “Spunk & Bite” is refreshingly concrete. Its author know his linguistic stuff and so can you.

I learned more about the books and its author in the following e-mail exchange:

Chip Scanlan: Why did you write this book?

Arthur Plotnik: Partly to feed the usual fantasies — money! renown! adoration! — and partly to smuggle ambitious writers past the borders of a restrictive, 47-year-old rulebook. 

I refer to “The Elements of Style,” that coddled little thing known as “Strunk & White” after its authors, William Strunk Jr., and E. B. White. White, of course, was the New Yorker writer who charmed readers with his airy, puckish, opinionated, and highly figurative style. But in “The Elements,” he advised writers to stifle opinions, breeziness, and even figures of speech. He warned them to avoid the offbeat. “In the stream of English,” he said, “do not thrash about.”

The father-figures Strunk & White remind me of my own father, a one-time flashy sparring partner for pro boxers. Would he teach me his moves? No; he didn’t want me to seek trouble and get pummeled. Well, Dad had his virtues and so do Strunk & White, champions of clarity and concision. But, obsessed with “correctness,” “The Elements” shuns the spunky moves by which writers distinguish themselves — especially in the clamor of 21st-century communications. I’ve tried to identify such moves and pass them along — with examples — so that writers can pummel the competition.

What lessons in the book are most important for journalists?

Here are three:

  1. Inherent in every lede should be this mantra-like pledge to readers: “I promise that something will stimulate you if you keep reading.” In an era when words are up against HDTV, iPods, IMAX, and Xboxes, that promise had better be there — and be quickly delivered — whether as enlightenment, surprise, shock, amusement, fright, personal gain or even sorrow.

  2. Have faith in the power of language to compete with anything. Does language still matter in this supposedly dumbed-down world? You bet it does — and will, until people stop using words to symbolize everything that stimulates them. Nothing has ever stirred juices and roused souls more than well-chosen words. Almost always you will soar above the crowd or be lost in it depending on how you use language.

  3. Freshness rules. The surprising locution lights up everything, even the murk associated with adjectives and adverbs. A critic describes someone’s hair as “defiantly limp” — adverb.  A writer speaks of “setasideable sex, as setasideable as a floppy disk” — adjective. Whatever the part of speech, if it’s inventive and unexpected, go with it.
How did you get into this field?

Of giving advice on expression? Years of writing led to editorial posts, and editing allowed me to help other writers express what I wanted to say. Ostensibly what they wanted to say, but you know how editors are.

Either way, editing got me thinking about expressiveness — what deadened it, what enlivened it. My own expressiveness erupted on the junior page of the hometown paper and progressed to school journalism, creative writing, newspaper reporting, ghosted paperbacks (22 potboilers), public information, trade/professional writing and editing, writing nonfiction books and doing columns for editors and writers. Practice was a good teacher, but not the only source of lessons to pass along.  

Where and how did you learn these lessons?

Readings, writing instructors, mentors, chewings-out, self-flagellation. For example, at the Iowa Graduate Writers Workshop, Philip Roth and other instructors were inspirational; but it was classmates who put the fear in one’s bones. In drafty barracks classrooms you read your works to snarls of “Show — don’t tell!” “Particularize!” “Less is more!” “Not credible!” Hard lessons but good ones — as were humiliations at a city desk, where a bearish editor mangled this cub reporter for such sins as fudging minor details.

In local reporting as in specialized journalism, one learns that language can transform the commonplace  into the engaging. My own specialized field posed a special challenge: to make a professional library magazine stimulating enough to engage librarians surrounded by great reading. Working that out gave me the confidence to write “The Elements of Editing,” an attempt at lively advice to editors. When that book took off there was no stopping me as an advice-giver — but one who never forgets that he, too, is a struggler after expression, a stumbler who bleeds over every sentence and pounds walls at the frustration of expressing the most elemental thought. Even now.

What surprised you writing this book?

That there was anything new left to say about expression. Didn’t the classical rhetoricians say it all, sorting out every expressive device? Doesn’t a shower of writers’ guides appear after every solar flare? But new contexts call for tweaking of old concepts, and today’s culture — global, digital, diverse — serves up a Mahabharata of new contexts every week.

So while the classicists and last year’s guides had their says about writing, they didn’t say what I say about applying feng shui principles to contemporary prose; about achieving edge; reaching Generation Y; using today’s ephemeral imagery; mixing high diction with low; choosing word resources on the Web; finding flashy new uses of adverbs; exploring alternative trends in dialogue; and bucking Strunk & White à la scores of the most exciting contemporary stylists — as illustrated. These were some of my new takes, and there was no end to the possibilities. 
What was the most important lesson you learned?

How the lines between levels of diction have blurred or evaporated in contemporary writing. The most engaging writers are mixing standard with street English, pompous with pop, yin with yang, pulling in words and phrases from every subculture. Salon’s Arianna Huffington writes of “an anti-establishment wackjob,” while The New Yorker‘s David Denby describes a movie whose leading man “transcends Everyman schmuckiness and attains acting immortality,” and so on.

White advised that writing should have a certain dignity; he warned against such seductive influences as slang, advertising lingo and foreign borrowings. He failed (except in his own writing) to credit the power of a spirited locution, whatever its source, predicting in 1959 that dude, psyched, nerd, ripoff, geek and funky would soon “be the words of yesteryear.” But because writers have embraced the funky force of those terms, they are still very much in play.  
I find I can’t hold style rules in my head. What’s the best way to use a book like yours?

Simply enjoy a writer who loves to riff and monologue on the most interesting topic in town — how language moves us. This is not a book of rules, but of avidly-shared findings and observations. The real work was in gathering examples that were pointed, diverting — and brief. But that labor was mine; you are now free to savor the fruits.

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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