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Classic and Contemporary

Posted on Wednesday, July 28, 2010 at 2:51 PM

Two books that equal a complete guide to better copy.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Let this serve as a re-introduction to a classic and an invitation to become familiar with a flamboyant, worthy-of-your-attention contemporaneous response.

The classic: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White (4th edition, Longman).

The response: Spunk & Bite, A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style, by Arthur Plotnik (Random House).

A Complete Guide

Separately, each provides a multitude of useful hints to make you stronger, as writers and editors. Together, they're as complete a guide to better copy as you're likely to find. And, in totality, they're really not contradictory, despite Plotnik's stance that Elements is "geriatric." He may argue with one or another of the rules that dominate Strunk and White's short and informative handbook, but he also validates them by using his predecessors' wisdoms as a springboard for his own musings. He simply begs for the addition of "ambience" in the use of language, as supplement to "correctness," which he judges is the principal lesson imparted in Elements.


Plotnik also points out that Strunk, White's English teacher at Cornell, determined that "the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however," he continued, "the readers will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation." And White would later admit, this years after he added his thoughts to the Strunk original (a compressive text that he used to hand out to his students): "I felt uneasy at posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood."

Read the Classic Again

You would do yourself good as writer or editor by reading or re-reading The Elements of Style. You will remind yourself to "omit needless words;" to aim for "definite, specific, concrete language;" to "avoid a succession of loose sentences;" to "choose a suitable design and hold to it;" to "write in a way that comes naturally;" to "write with nouns and verbs;" to not "explain too much;" to "make sure the reader knows who is speaking;" to "be clear," and to "not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity."

By sifting through the pages, you will come upon this passage, as part of White's summation: "Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition, for, as an elderly practitioner once remarked, 'Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.'

This moral observation would have no place in a rule book were it not that style is the writer, and therefore what you are, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style. If you write, you must believe -- in the truth and worth of the scrawl, in the ability of the reader to receive and decode the message. No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing."

Locution, Freshness, Diction

Plotnik's emphasis is on "locution" ("a particular mode of speech -- the use of a word, the turning of a phrase in some stylistic manner"). It is on "freshness" ("Readers love surprise. They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another. They love the boing of a jack-in-the-box word. They adore images that trot by like a unicorn in pajamas."). He addresses diction (for writers "always purposeful, always a costume donned for one effect or another"). He spends a chapter on the thesaurus, how to find a good one, how to use it (and not use it).

Attribution gets a chapter, too, focused sharply on attribution and the verb "said." Plotnik counsels flexibility: yes, "said" is probably the most useful way to attach a quote or piece of dialogue to its speaker, but he is accepting of other verbs, depending on situation and appropriateness.

Leads and Closings

He gets around to leads ("'I promise that something will stimulate you if you continue reading.' Do your opening sentences make that promise? Do they wow to scratch the reader's eternal itch for sensation?"). And to closings, too, he gets (he urges a "three-point landing").

Punctuation and Grammar

Like Strunk and White, Plotnik deals with matters of punctuation and grammar: hyphens, semicolons, sentence fragments, and the shape of sentences ("Like the protagonist of a moral tale, a sentence sets out in earnest pursuit of truth and beauty. But soon it finds itself set upon by corruptive elements, which must be vanquished before the glorious end punctuation is attained.").

Two Books That Complement Each Other

Plotnik strays occasionally into the hyperbolic, but Spunk & Bite in execution matches the book's title. It complements The Elements of Style, even when in contradiction. I'd therefore recommend the combination for acquaintance and re-acquaintance.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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