A few weeks ago, I was a bit frustrated with one of my college-attending sons. He had emailed a term paper for me to edit that was due the following day. As I started reading, it became clear the paper wasn't ready for final review. As best I could figure, he'd spent the previous 24 hours feverishly drafting the 15 page document, probably realizing at the end it needed more work than he had time remaining. My review was less edit than critique, indicating I thought it still needed work, which I'm sure didn't please the harried student. The main take-away chide: for a paper this length, always allow at least of week of aggregate writing time to include a minimum of three separate writing sessions. Each session provides a “new” set of eyes, much like a peer review. My son muddled through, actually turning out a pretty good piece, even as I conceded his next paper would suffer a similar fate.
Though I doubt there'll be much long-term benefit for my son, the exchange did convince me it was time for a short personal writing retreat. It'd been over two years since I dusted off my trusty writing books. I could sense I needed a refresher: I seemed to be getting stuck more often, struggling with what to say and how to say it. I was laboring with my blogs and articles.
I keep three writing references handy in my home office. The first is The McGraw-Hill College Handbook, a basic but important introductory college composition text that details a methodology for writing themes and research papers. The book is an encyclopedic reference for structure, grammar and usage, often suggesting ideas for organizing and expressing thoughts in different ways. The cues for chapters 1-3 help me get into the writing mode when I'm stuck or unfocused.
I grew up with William Strunk's timeless seventy-five page gem, The Elements of Style, and I still learn something every time I consult it. I've always envisioned Strunk as a language scold, an Andy Rooney-like curmudgeon of the written word. In fact though, Strunk is less doctrinaire than he sounds, opining that writers must know the rules to break them.
For me, the Strunk message is one of simplicity: Write concisely, use positive statements with active voice, and don't misuse words. I routinely eliminate 5% of my words when I edit with a Strunk lens. And my sons fret when they lose an entire page of a 10 page paper to my Strunkian knife. I also recast most passive voice, generally finding it necessary only for deliberate obfuscation. I literally love Strunk's admonitions on word abuse. Should he be alive today, I'd ask him a plethora of questions on writing style!
Of all the writing books I've consulted, I don't think any hit the mark quite like Joseph M. Williams' Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Style differs from many other writing texts by offering more than bromides for effective writing. “Telling me to 'Be clear' is like telling me to 'Hit the ball squarely'. I know that. What I don't know is how to do it.”
Williams shows his readers precisely how to do it. Each of the beautifully-written chapters explores an important dimension of writing – Cause, Clarity, Cohesion, Emphasis, Coherence, Concision, Length, Elegance and Usage. Williams writes and revises, offering his readers countless illustrations of the process of putting his principles to work. He's quite provocative with many of his examples, taking on not only easy student mistakes, but also highly-regarded published writings – and is able to pull it off. To demonstrate his ideas, Williams often “edits” great prose, juxtaposing his perfectly acceptable versions unfavorably with the elegance of the masters. His points on cohesion driven from the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence are nothing short of outstanding.
The author's chapter on concision has probably had as much impact on my writing as any I've read. He takes very seriously the advice of Sydney Smith, “In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigour it will give your style.” The examples he cites, especially those from government and legal, are almost comically helpful. I've told my college kids that if they master the ideas of this chapter, they'll never receive a failing grade in a paper, even if it's devoid of substance.
Williams is not dogmatic on the rules of usage. He distinguishes mortal sins of standard and nonstandard speech from the venial sins of what “some grammarians try to impose on those who already write educated standard English”. Among the latter is the deplorable use of “and” or “but” to open a sentence. Citing a conservative usage guide's observation: “That it is a solecism to begin a sentence with and is a faintly lingering superstition”, Williams notes, “If we look through the prose of our most highly respected writers, we will find sentence after sentence beginning with and or but....We must reject as folklore any rule that is regularly ignored by otherwise careful, educated, and intelligent writers of first-rate prose.”
My retreat is completed for 2009. I'm not sure whether I'm comforted or humbled.
Steve Miller's blog can also be found at miller.openbi.com.