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Something Old, Something New...

Posted on Tuesday, April 29, 2014 at 4:14 PM

Useful advice from a variety of sources: an old book, a newer one, and a few writers.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Something Old

The old book: Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing, The one book that shows you how to make what you say as good as what you mean (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by Claire Kehrwald Cook. The author worked long and successfully as editor and editorial director for the Modern Language Association. She knows the craft and generously shares it in this book.

Cook's purpose for writing Line by Line is stated in the opening paragraph of the opening chapter: "Authors whose writing has been professionally edited often marvel at the improvement, apparently regarding a blue pencil as some sort of magic wand. But those of us in the business of wielding that pencil know that most of the wonders we work are the routine adjustments of trained specialists. This book aims at demystifying the copy-editing process, at showing writers how to polish their own prose."

Chapter titles suggest wide and thorough coverage, and deliver: "Loose, Baggy Sentences," "Faulty Connections," "Ill-matched Partners," "Mismanaged Numbers and References," and "Problems with Punctuation." Cook adds two extended appendices: "The Parts of a Sentence" and "A Glossary of Questionable Usage."

Early in her chapter on sentences, for instance, she offers a profile of a wordy one. "You can almost detect a wordy sentence," she says, "by looking at it -- at least if you can recognize weak verbs, ponderous nouns, and strings of prepositional phrases. Each of these features typifies prolixity, and they often occur in combination." Such pronouncements throughout the book are helpfully followed with supporting advice and evidentiary samples.

Tackling "Faulty Connections," Cook analyzes how a sentence can fall apart if its elements are out of order. "To get your meaning across," she explains, "you not only have to choose the right words, you have to put them in the right order. Words in disarray produce only nonsense." In support, she covers modifiers, various types of phrases (verbal, appositive, contrasting, prepositional), clauses, and aspects of structure. You'll benefit from in-depth coverage chapter after chapter. The lessons are many. This is a no-nonsense book. You don't read it for pleasure; you read it to be taught or reminded.

Something Newer

The newer book: The Dictionary of Worthless Words, 3,000 Words to Stop Using Now (Marion Street Press), by Dave Dowling, who earlier authored The Wrong Word Dictionary.

Here, alphabetically, are 250 pages of words Dowling suggests you should shun, from "abdicate" ("Abandon, renounce, or resign are simpler word choices") to "zoom up" ("Zoom in and zoom out make sense, but zoom up is not logical") Follow the dictionary's advice, and you'll question writing "do a draft of" rather than "draft" and "most recent" rather than "latest" or "newest." "Physical appearance" is redundant. "It goes without saying" is "overkill. If 'it goes without saying,' why say it?" And why, we're asked, use "essential" with words like condition, core, necessity, and prerequisite? "Essential" becomes "a needless modifier."

This dictionary tells us that although "down" can be a well-chosen word, it should not be affixed as a "needless ending preposition," such as with a host of verbs like burn, crouch, fall, plummet, shut, swoop, and winnow. Similarly "up" adds nothing to verbs from add to write.

As for "very," says Dowling, it is a "much overused intensifier that can be deleted and often replaced with a synonym." His list of replacement covers two pages, all of which reminds me of advice from Mark Twain: "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very.' Your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be."

Something Borrowed ... from the Writers

Kurt Vonnegut, journalist-turned-novelist of importance: "Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style. I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way -- although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do."

C.S. Lewis, distinguished Irish author of books on matters of faith and fantasy: "Don't say it was delightful; make us say delightful when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are like saying to your reader: Please, will you do the job for me?"

Elmore Leonard, notable creator of mysteries and thrillers: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Bill Wasik, nonfiction author and senior editor of Wired: "Hone your outline and then cling to it as a lifeline. You can adjust it in mid-stream, but don't try to just write your way into a better structure: think about the right structure and then write to it."

Scott Adams, cartoonist of Dilbert and author of business-themed books: "I went from being a bad writer to a good writer after taking a one-day course in 'business writing' ... Business writing is about clarity and persuasion. The main technique is keeping things simple. Simple writing is persuasive. A good argument in five sentences will sway more people than a brilliant argument in a hundred sentences. Don't fight it."

Hilary Mantel, prize-winning British memoirist, essayist, and historical novelist: "If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient."

Tracy Kidder, Pulitzer Prize winner for nonfiction, and Richard Todd, executive editor of The Atlantic: "The reader wants to see you not trying to impress, but trying to get somewhere." And, "Try to attune yourself to the sound of your own writing. If you can't imagine yourself saying something aloud, then you probably shouldn't write it." And, "Use words wantonly and you disappear before your own eyes. Use them well and you create yourself."

Joyce Carol Oates, acclaimed novelist and short story writer: "Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!"

Stephen King, famed purveyor of horror, suspense, and science-fiction tales: "You can't please all of the readers all of the time; you can't please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time."

There's practical wisdom for you in each of the above. Take heed.

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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