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Oldies but Goodies

Posted on Sunday, November 29, 2015 at 10:20 PM

Worthwhile books that deserve a place on your bookshelf.

By Peter P. Jacobi

These four old chestnuts still are worth having and using. Try on this list, a short but blessed one, for size.

--First copyright year 1959, The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

--First copyright year 1965, The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage by Theodore Bernstein

--First copyright year 1974, The Art of Writing Nonfiction by Andre Fontaine

--First copyright year 1976, On Writing Well by William Zinsser

These classic books on the craft of writing have earned newer editions, but the original versions retain full value. If you don't own them (first edition or otherwise), seek them out. If you do own them, take them from the bookshelf and remind yourself of the content; I hope they don't need to be dusted. Now, I don't like to refer to them as bibles, but I consider them as basic texts, designed to make us more knowing about what to do and what not as we go about our daily business of writing and editing.

Oldie No. 1

The Elements of Style: In an introduction, E.B. White explains that the origins of The Elements of Style go back to post–World War One years, when he was a student at Cornell and took an English course taught by Professor Strunk, who had self-published a slim volume titled The Elements of Style. White kept the book and was reminded of it when, in the 1950s, Macmillan, the publishing house, made contact and asked him to make more of a book out of the original. White did, but recognizing the values in his former professor's aide to students, he kept as close to the original as possible.

To tell you or remind you of what's in the book, let me just list the coverage in one bulging-with-advice chapter, "Elementary Principles of Composition": Choose a suitable design and hold to it; Make the paragraph the unit of composition; Use the active voice; Put statements in positive form; Use definite, specific, concrete language; Omit needless words; Avoid a succession of loose sentences; Express coordinate ideas in similar form; Keep related words together; In summaries, keep to one tense, and Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

Employ that list and you've solved a host of problems. There's much more to digest, however, and everything on the slender volume's menu is clear and concise.

Oldie No. 2

The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage: Theodore Bernstein's contribution covers almost 500 pages. In evaluation, on the jacket, Joseph Wood Krutch, the prominent writer and critic, noted: "In these days when many 'educators' and some dictionaries say that one way of speaking or writing is as good as any other, a book which maintains the contrary is very welcome." Fifty years after that assessment, it seems just as important to state in reaction as back then.

Bernstein, back then assistant managing editor of the New York Times, shaped his guide in the form of an alphabetical rundown that covers questions of word usage, meaning, grammar, punctuation, and structure. He supplies the reader with more than 2,000 entries starting with "A, An" and ending with "Zoom." The opener, covering more than a page, deals with which to use, with plurals, and with coordinate nouns. "Zoom," he writes, was "originally an aviation term" and "denotes rapid upward motion." It's wrong, Bernstein explains, to say that "twelve large hawks are making their homes atop city skyscrapers and zooming down to snatch pigeons." "Swoop" is the right word to use in that sentence because "swoop is usually down and zoom is always up."

I pause at one more entry: "Fulsome." Bernstein's comment goes this way: "It does not mean full, copious, or bounteous, as the writer of this passage seemed to think: 'Shai K. Ophir, a first-rate mime, offered last night a display of a fulsome repertory.' It means overfull and offensive because of insincerity, repulsive, odious. It most often appears -- and appears incorrectly, of course -- in the phrase 'fulsome praise.'"

Oldie No. 3

The Art of Writing Nonfiction: Andre Fontaine, a longtime practicing journalist and teacher, argues for journalists to offer their readers "interpretive writing." He explains why: "Most people don't act on the basis of things they perceive only with their minds. They react to things they know intellectually, intuitively, instinctually, as the result of an emotional conviction. The creative journalist involves these elements in his reader's personality; he knows that in doing it, emotions are usually more reliable than intellect."

In support of his proposal, Fontaine provides a straight news story about a child killed by a car: "Susan York, 7, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel York of 327 Livingston Street, was struck and killed yesterday afternoon when she ran in the path of a car driven by Charles Williamson, 42, 408 South George Street."

He follows that example with questions and analysis: "Have you ever seen it happen? Have you seen the little body lying in the street, still and shockingly wrong, because a body doesn't belong in the middle of a street, which is for cars. And like all bodies, it looks flat, empty, doll-like. And the face of the mother, who comes running out in a housedress and dirty sneakers she's been wearing to mop the kitchen floor, with none of her armor of makeup, and with her hair in rollers. And the way her face is stripped of the masks we all wear against the world as she kneels and picks up the child; the way disbelief, then shock, then flooding grief wash over her face so nakedly it is oddly embarrassing and you want to turn away from this too threatening emotion. And the dulled expression on the face of the man driving the car that hit the child as he gropes to comprehend this thing he has done.

"The first," says Fontaine, "you read and, unless you know the family, forget in ten minutes. In the second, you live the tragedy. It lives with you for years, becomes a part of your view of life.... The first is a typical newspaper story; it conveys information which you perceive intellectually. The second is creative journalism; it involves your emotions, as fiction writers have been doing for centuries."

Fontaine aims for intensified reader interest and loyalty. His book explores and explains and exploits a more intriguing approach, so to activate the reader's deeper involvement. He makes a strong case in a book laden with teachable points.

Oldie No. 4

On Writing Well: William Zinsser died recently, having left behind a number of useful and pleasant-to-read books on various aspects of writing. On Writing Well remains his best known. I think it is splendid.

He knew how to get into subjects, focusing immediately on the heart of the matter. His chapter on "Simplicity" begins: "Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon."

In a chapter on "Style," he insists: "Few people realize how badly they write. Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style and how it obstructs what they are trying to say. If you give me an eight-page article and I tell you to cut it to four pages, you'll howl and say it can't be done. Then you'll go home and do it, and it will be much better. After that comes the hard part: cutting it to three."

And in a chapter titled "The Lead and the Ending," Zinsser warms up with a basic thought: "The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn't induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn't induce him to continue to the third sentence, it's equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the 'lead.'"

Zinsser knew what he wanted to say and said it well.

All four books say things well. Return to them or look for them. They deserve a place in your office. And in the meantime, why not go ahead and use the lessons mentioned above?

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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