Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Other People’s Writerly Advice Tip #1

Speaking of Strunk and White, they make a great starting point for a regular feature: Other People’s Writerly Advice. The Elements of Style was, of course, the result of E. B. White revising and adding to a book by his professor William Strunk, Jr. It’s very short (my edition has 105 pages). Here is a piece of advice that I find particularly pertinent:

9. Do not affect a breezy manner

The volume of writing is enormous, these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it, almost as though the author were in a state of euphoria. "Spontaneous me," sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribblers who would one day confuse spontaneity with genius.

The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day. Open any alumni magazine, turn to the class notes, and you are quite likely to encounter old Spontaneous Me at work — an aging collegian who writes something like this:

Well, guys, here I am again dishing the dirt about your disorderly classmates, after pa$$ing a weekend in the Big Apple trying to catch the Columbia hoops tilt and then a cab-ride from hell through the West Side casbah. And speaking of news, howzabout tossing a few primo items this way?

This is an extreme example, but the same wind blows, at lesser velocities, across vast expanses of journalistic prose. The author in this case has managed in two sentences to commit most of the unpardonable sins: he obviously has nothing to say, he is showing off and directing the attention of the reader to himself, he is using slang with neither provocation nor ingenuity, he adopts a patronizing air by throwing in the word primo, he is humorless (though full of fun), dull, and empty. He has not done his work. Compare his opening remarks with the following — a plunge directly into the news:

Clyde Crawford, who stroked the varsity shell in 1958, is swinging an oar again after a lapse of forty years. Clyde resigned last spring as executive sales manager of the Indiana Flotex Company and is now a gondolier in Venice.

This, although conventional, is compact, informative, unpretentious. The writer has dug up an item of news and presented it in a straightforward manner. What the first writer tried to accomplish by cutting rhetorical capers and by breeziness, the second writer managed to achieve by good reporting, by keeping a tight rein on his material, and by staying out of the act.

Is there a breeze in here? I fear Strunk & White might not like my blog.


MEL said...

Fuck Strunk...is that breezy?

I think he just summarized me as a person:

... obviously has nothing to say {yep..never..I figured that was the point of writing fiction..making it up...pretending to have something to say}, ....is showing off and directing the attention of the reader to himself {why else would one write? ME ME ME}, he is using slang with neither provocation nor ingenuity {that's how me liky}, he adopts a patronizing air by throwing in the word primo {damn patronizing slang}, he is humorless (though full of fun), dull, and empty {yep}.

Well, dudes this here might be the last word from easy breezy me for I have just discovered the that primo actor Heath Ledger is dead and my life is now over.

MEL said...

I'm like totally over Ledger. What does Strunk have to say about melodrama?