(Writing) Style Wars: A New Hope

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is a classic style guide, and it’s useful in many ways. Arguably one of its biggest contributions is that it gets us to think about the way we put words together. William Strunk demanded mindfulness, and that’s a good thing.

But it’s also a lot to live up to. For many would-be writers, Strunk and White can be downright intimidating. And that’s not a good thing.

Strunk doesn’t help things by using his signature voice, which even I find forbidding. Have you ever checked out his rant against the word “hopefully,” for example? Nine times out of ten, idiomatic American English speakers use “hopefully” to mean roughly “I hope,” as in “Hopefully, I’ll finish this report today.”

Strunk sneers at this usage. “Hopefully” is an adverb that means “in a hopeful manner,” as in “The dog looked hopefully at the table scraps.”

Of course, Strunk’s own castigation of misusers of hopefully is a little, ah, less charitable, and it exemplifies the voice problem that I describe above:

This once-useful adverb meaning “with hope has been distorted and is now widely used to mean “I hope” or “it is to be hoped.” Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly. To say, “Hopefully, I’ll leave on the noon plane” is to talk nonsense. Do you mean you’ll leave on the noon plane in a hopeful frame of mind? Or do you mean you hope you’ll leave on the noon plane? Whichever you mean, you haven’t said it clearly. Although the word in its new, free-floating capacity may be pleasurable and even useful to many, it offends the ear of many others, who do not like to see words dulled or eroded, particularly when the erosion leads to ambiguity, softness, or nonsense. (William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style. Fourth ed. New York: Longman, 2000. 48)

Ouch. Just listen to that accusatory “you” in the passage. Let me clarify that it’s not a matter of whether Strunk is right. He is. My objection is to the tone. The message implicit in The Elements of Style is that writing well is a hopelessly complex endeavor, fraught with pitfalls and rife with opportunities to make yourself look like a fool.

We all know that writing is hard work. But you’re looking to a style guide for help, not contempt. This holier-than-thou attitude is why I see so many creative, bright people who say they can’t write because they don’t know what a comma splice is.

If only there were a more friendly style guide that also focuses on making thoughtful choices as a writer. Turns out there is. It’s my pleasure to introduce you to John R Trimble and his book Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing.

Trimble provides sound advice, and his book is a pleasure to read. His opening section, “Fundamentals,” focuses on large-scale issues like structure and readability. He attacks the purveyors of the “religion of Formal English” in a thought-provoking chapter entitled “Superstitions.” And of course, he includes a lot of specific guidance on matters of style, usage, and punctuation.

What do you think are the most important qualities to have in a writing style guide? Let me know in the comments.

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Writing Power’s Writers’ Circle: Git ‘R Done Edition

Okay, Writing Power Writers’ Circle members, I’ve given us all some time in May to finish our April goals. (Sometimes you need just one more weekend, right?) How did you do? Let us know in the comments. We’re eager to hear.

Those of you who haven’t introduced yourselves, please join our intrepid band of writers today! All you have to do is introduce yourself and set some writing-related goals for the next month. So far, I have been amazed at how well public accountability works to shore up weakening motivation or to stave off that little procrastinating voice.

I am fairly happy with my progress: I have drafted my article. (I should note that I did use the weekend of May 2 and 3 to finish up.) It has since been marinating: I have taken a week or so away from it in order to get perspective. Now, I have to go back and see whether it’s any good. Gulp.

I have at least two other versions of this project floating around. One I completed several years ago for a graduate seminar, and the other is my first attempt at a rewrite. I am going to mine these drafts for useful bits, but I don’t think they’ll be very helpful at this stage. Even though they deal with the same topic, neither has the argumentative goal that my current draft has.

I don’t regard these two failed attempts as wasted work at all, by the way. Sometimes you can’t see a project clearly without going down a couple of promising paths that end up in dead ends. They help clarify where you need to go. Who knows, though: maybe I’ll find a usable sub-point. That’d be like finding ten dollars in an old jacket pocket. I don’t expect it, but you never know.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll devote some time to revision of this article. Revision is in many ways the real work of writing. In order to maximize my time, I am not going to look for large blocks of time to devote to it: it’s just not realistic at the end of the semester. Instead, I will employ my old dissertation-writing strategy: write a little bit at a designated time every day.

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Cut The Cleverness

You have really outdone yourself this time. I mean, you knew you were a good writer, but this – this is great. You have just crafted the perfect analogy (or description, thesis statement, blog post): it’s punchy, it’s tongue-in-cheek, and most of all, it’s just so clever! You giggle every time you read it.

I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you should seriously consider taking that thing out behind the shed and putting it down. Yep, I’m talking about deletion.

I will never forget the day that I got this advice. I felt as though I had been slapped. What?! Why would I want to cut it? It’s the best writing in the whole piece! This guy obviously just doesn’t get it. Apparently, he can’t recognize good – no, great – writing when he sees it. It must be over his head. It’s just so clever.

Considering that my reader – the guy who “didn’t get it” – was a distinguished professor of English at a top research university and I was a first year PhD student, I am glad I didn’t say any of those things out loud. But I was stunned.

He then shared a line that has stayed with me ever since. When it comes to writing, he said, “Murder your darlings.”

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The “So What?” Question

As I was working my way through a stack of twenty-six literary analysis papers this weekend (I know – don’t ask. It’s my own fault for letting students in over the enrollment cap.), I spent a lot of time thinking about what I and many other English teachers refer to as “the so what question.”

The so what question distinguishes the outstanding papers from the competent ones. The so what question, as its name implies, simply looks at the interpretive claim you’re making and asks, “So what?”

Three other ways to phrase the so what question are as follows: What is significant about your claim? How does this enrich my understanding? What are the implications of your claim? In each case, the reader is asking the writer to look beyond his or her own navel and connect the paper’s idea to a larger conversation in which both the writer and the reader are stakeholders.

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Writing Power Writers’ Circle April Update: Reality Check Edition

In my last Writers’ Circle post, I asked our writers to report on whether they achieved their March writing goals and what they had planned for April. Writers’ Circle member Adam kindly reminded me that I hadn’t updated the group on my own progress.

So here goes. I have met my goal, but that’s not saying much. My goal’s phrasing was way too vague to be helpful: it was “refine my argument.” I will update you on my progress, set a new, more focused goal, and announce some other changes I’ll be making in order to make this goal more of a priority.

As you may remember, I’ve been working on a scholarly article on seventeenth-century English poet John Donne. I have an academic journal in mind, and I have reviewed some of their recent issues to get a sense of the kind of work being published by that venue.

One of the challenges of this article is that I’m applying a particular theological concept to one of Donne’s devotional poems. As you know, I am a literary scholar, not a theologian. Literary studies as an academic discipline regularly pulls theories from other disciplines to inform our readings of literary texts. However, it can be daunting to try to understand another discipline well enough to use a certain theory appropriately.

If you don’t do enough research, you risk misusing your material and constructing a flawed argument. On the other hand, it’s easy to sink months into reading, reading, reading background material until your mind is so filled with other people’s ideas that your own project becomes more conceptually remote than when you had the initial idea. In a strange way, too much research can be an academic’s way of procrastinating.

So, I have boned up on some of the theological material that I didn’t feel comfortable with, and I have copies to refer to and citations to find more detailed information. In short, it’s time to draft. As drafting goes, I’m a potter, so I’ll probably write three times as much text as I’ll need for the final article (which will be 20-25 pages). I draft to discover: it’s just the way I work. So what’s my goal for April?

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Meta-Diction: Find Your Passion?

I called this post meta-diction, because I want to consider the larger conceptual and cultural implications of our word choices. Many voices within the personal development world espouse the notion that a person can create his or her own reality. If you couldn’t change your reality, why would you set goals, enhance productivity, and manage time? All of those aspects of personal development are based on the premise that you can change your life by changing your behavior, attitudes, and outlook.

The way we talk about our reality is certainly a component of much personal development advice. For example, we seek to eliminate that voice in our head that says, “I can’t…this is too hard…I’m tired…” and replace it with an empowering one.

So what about a personal development classic: “passion”? We’ve all been encouraged to find our passion, that one thing that will give our lives direction and make getting out of bed each day a joy.

This word gives me the creeps, and I’ll tell you why.

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Guest Post For The Positivity Blog

 Hi, Everyone -

I’m pleased to announce that I wrote a guest post for The Positivity Blog.  It’s called How You Can Use Proposals to Achieve Your Goals.  The post considers the logic underlying proposals and extracts personal development ideas from it.   I hope you’ll check it out!

If you’re new to Writing Power, welcome!  I’m glad you’re here.  If you’d like to get an overview of the site and some of the most popular articles, check out a little site summary post I did recently: Welcome To Writing Power.

If you like what you read, I hope you’ll subscribe to Writing Power’s RSS feed. 

Cheers!

Loren

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Writing Power’s Writers’ Circle: April

 Friday afternoon has to be my favorite time of the week, and not because it’s the end of the work week.  I love Friday afternoons because as I look toward the weekend, I see oodles of productive writing time ahead.  I’ll be able to get so much work done this weekend!  I can’t wait.  I’ll start… first thing tomorrow.  I mean, no sense in doing it right now.  Who ever heard of writing on Friday night? 

And so it begins.  The series of rationalizations that will lead inexorably to my least favorite time of the week: Sunday evening.  (A downside of being creative is that you can too often sell yourself a bridge in Brooklyn.)   Sunday evenings are as filled with self-recrimination as Friday afternoons are filled with optimism.  Somehow, the weekend slips by and I find I’ve done a fraction of the writing I had dreamed of doing. 

I think my problem is one of expectations, not productivity.  I do get things done each weekend.  But on Fridays, I dream up these grandiose plans.  I need to practice setting realistic goals.

So, Writers’ Circle, it’s time to do two important things: 1) share your progress for March, and 2) set your goals for April.  When May comes around, what would you like to have done? 

If productivity and motivation are challenging for you in terms of your writing, set goals that will inspire you to push yourself.  If you tend to set pie-in-the-sky goals (as I do) that actually work against you, then pare your goals down.

What?  You’re not a member of Writing Power’s Writers’ Circle?  It’s easy to join: just introduce yourself to the group in this post’s comments and share your writing projects and goals.  To meet the Circle’s amazing current members, click here.

 If you like what you’ve read, I hope you’ll become a regular reader by subscribing to Writing Power’s RSS feed.  In addition, please consider sharing your favorite posts through sites like digg, StumbleUpon, or del.icio.us using the “Share This” link below.  Thank you for your support!

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Whose Language Is This, Anyway?

I am happy to report that I have finally dug my way out from under a mountain of student essays and climbed back up to the desk to write some posts. Sorry for the mid-week hiatus.

As I was examining grammar handbooks for the next installment of Writing Power’s Proper Usage Guide, I came across a thought-provoking characterization of the difference between “can” and “may.” I was surprised to discover that Diana Hacker’s Writers Reference, usually a bastion of fine distinctions, adopted a fatalistic tone about can/may.

Hacker argues that the line between “can” and “may” has grown faint, and that the usage difference is now largely maintained in formal writing situations. (In case you’re curious, “can” concerns ability, while “may” deals with permission. Can I lift this heavy bag? May I borrow five dollars?)

So why has Diana Hacker given up on can/may? What’s next – shrugging at between versus among? Does it matter?

Since I’m an English professor, you may expect me to say, “yes, it matters! Hold the line lest we descend into chaos!” But that’s not my perspective, and I’ll tell you why.

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Welcome To Writing Power

Welcome, Lifehack readers! Thanks for visiting Writing Power. Three to five times a week, I offer tips and tricks designed to help enrich your life by improving your writing. My writing experience comes from the academic and business writing worlds, but at Writing Power I try to offer information that can help anyone who writes in some capacity and wants to approach his or her writing more strategically.

If you’re new to Writing Power, the following posts will give you a sense of this site’s scope:

Use Writing To Make Yourself Irreplaceable

Seek And Destroy Your Writing Style Enemies

Make Your Writing A “Must Read”

Hack Unfulfilled Intentions

Writing Power’s Proper Usage Guide: A

Drafting Process: The Potter vs. The Sculptor

If you like what you read, I hope you’ll subscribe to Writing Power’s RSS feed.

Cheers!

Loren

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