Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Writing Style with Strunk & White: #1 and #2

image Flipping through my vintage Strunk & White, rediscovered why I liked the book so much in the first place.  It’s as jarring and fun as anything written about writing today, especially the unassuming Approach to Style section near the back.

020530902X(This vintage edition is actually new to me – it arrived a few weeks ago after I ordered a newer edition from Better World Books; they refunded my money very quickly when I reported the mistake.)

So – I thought – why not bring it up-to-date, sharing these fabulous insights in a way that applies to children’s books?  Brilliant.  And then kick it up just a bit (unless you’re Emeril, don’t call it a notch) with a “Lazy-Day Takeaway” – an easy tip you can incorporate into your own writing, like, immediately, today.  Or whenever.

Why not, indeed???

So I did.  I am.  I will.  I must!

There are 21 points in the Approach to Style, and I’m going to take them on two at a time. 

It’ll take some time to get through them, but bear with me… the journey of a thousand blog posts begins with a single tap of the Shift key.  Here are Strunk & White’s first two rules for writing with style.

1. Place yourself in the background.

Strunk & White says:  “Write in a way that draws the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work.”

What this means:  If you have an evil character who will eventually stab your protagonist in the back, don’t give it away by describing him as “slimy” or “untrustworthy” or “shifty.”  You don’t have to – how dumb are the kids you’re writing for?  By his actions, they will know him.  Sure, it’s your book, but let kids make journeys of discovery through it rather than handing them every little conclusion on a silver spoon to make sure they don’t miss anything.

Lazy-day Takeaway:  You think you’re mighty clever, but your readers are smarter and they’re anticipating all your surprises – that’s the fun of reading.  Don’t rob them of that pleasure!

2. Write in a way that comes naturally.

Strunk & White says:  Write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to hand... Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains instead to admire what is good. Then when you write in a way that comes naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating.

What this means:  We kid-book authors are OLD.  Old, old, old.  Older than the dinosaurs; in fact, the dinosaurs learned to type from us, on rocks laid out in the order of the keyboard because computers hasn’t been invented yet.  Because we’re so old, it’s tempting to “youthen up” our writing so we sound hip and groovy and… huh?  “What do you mean, the kids aren’t saying ‘hip’ and ‘groovy’ anymore?”

Lazy-day Takeaway:  Don’t try to be who you’re not.  If you’re as old as the dinosaurs, write about dinosaur times, in your own voice, just like you’re talking to a friend – and kids of all eras will eat it up!

Let’s look for a minute at the rationale behind learning to write with style. Why write with style?

Why, indeed???

0064400557To demonstrate why writing with style is so crucial, Strunk & White – actually, this section was written by E.B. White, who is remembered today primarily as the beloved author of Charlotte’s Web – begins with a terrific example. 

Take a look at the phrase "These are the times that try men's souls."  Now try rewriting it – you can’t.  Hmm…

    • …Times like these try men's souls?
    • …How trying it is to live in these times?
    • …These are trying times for men's souls?
    • …Soulwise, these are trying times?
    • …My soul is having one heck of a bad hair day?

No, no, no, no, and no.  Okay, that last one is mine.  The others, including the awkward “soulwise” construction, are from Strunk & White, and just as awful today as when they were first published.

(And it’s also no wonder this guy wrote kids’ books.  What a sense of humour!)

But why are these other sentences so bad?  There’s no grammar problem here, but they’re still awful.  The answer, my friends, is style.  The first sentence has it – the others just don’t.

And that’s why you MUST write with style.

This will be an occasional series – ie, I’ll write them here and there, whenever I feel like it.  No idea how long it will take.  In the meantime, you can find the whole text of the full Approach to Style section of the book here

Or just wait a bit and enjoy the series, bit by bit, right here!


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