A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

not merely superfluous, but ridiculous

Archives: The Appeal of Writing Guides (and how to use them)

I always knew I was weird, of course.  Most weird kids have at least an inkling, whatever they tell you.  The far more important thing is figuring out in what particular way one is weird, to what sort of thing one’s weirdness inclines.  And I discovered quite a bit about my weirdness near the end of my junior year of high school, discussing the recent AP English class with my (also quite weird) friend.  He was lamenting the class requirement that we purchase a book the class had ended up using infrequently.

“Well, we may not have used it much,” I said, “but it makes for pretty good casual reading.”

He gave me the sort of look I had given him earlier, when I discovered that he listened to tapes of educational lectures in his car far more often than he listened to music: pure incredulity.  “Good casual reading?  You’re saying you read The Elements of Style for fun?”

“Twice through.  Have you not?  It’s really enjoyable.”  Weird kids, when they realize what their weirdness inclines toward, immediately develop a sense of pride in it.  They know right away that it would be harder to give it up.  I helped that friend move across the country a few years ago.  When we loaded up his car, the backseat was full of lectures on CD, concerning every possible subject.  I have no idea where he gets them.

Yes, I’ve always liked reading, and for the kids on the wrestling team, it was novelty enough watching me finish a match, walk to the bleachers, and pop open 1984.  But the kids I shared honors and AP classes with were used to books, had grown up surrounded by them, and were just as likely to be reading as me at any given moment.  The discovery that I was particularly fascinated by the structural basis of English, and didn’t see the seemingly endless rules modifying word use as a waste of time, was in many ways the culmination of a series of self-discoveries that made me realize I wanted to write for a living.

Of course, I didn’t arrive at Strunk & White completely at the whim of a high school English teacher.  The document that pushed me toward writing more than any other was Stephen King’s On Writing, a book that resonated with me so much in ways both personal and literary that I began to look for other books on writing that would build my knowledge further, and started with the only other book King recommended: The Elements of Style.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized there was a controversy over teaching The Elements of Style; the idea that this book could alienate students, make them feel as though good writing were robotic and unenjoyable, that all sentences be short and declarative.  When I did stumble across the controversy, I thought it ridiculous.  After all, I’d read the book for fun!  How hard could it be?  And the worry that students would limit themselves to short, declarative sentences seemed not only wrongheaded, but contradicted by the text outright: At the very beginning of Rule 17 (all together now), “Omit needless words,” Strunk writes that this rule “requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”  It’s right in the damn book!  I was overlooking three important facts here: (1) Not every student who was handed The Elements of Style had my grammatical education (which up to college, I believed was unremarkable), (2) Few students who read The Elements of Style shared my enthusiasm for the text, and (3) Students tend not to read texts in a literal sense- that is, they tend to recall as much from tone as from content, and were therefore more likely to recall Strunk’s admonitory tone than remember what he actually said.  Most people either didn’t get to E.B. White’s much more understanding section, or didn’t remember it.

But above all, the problem people have with Strunk & White is the problem people have with all writing guides: they take the authors at their word.  They assume that writing guides are the final authority on how to write, and jump on every flaw as though it were the missing “not” in The Wicked Bible.  When Strunk dismisses the phrase “each and every one” as “pitchman’s jargon,” they read this as gospel, and if part of their brain continues to reject it- insisting, perhaps, that the pleasing rhythm of “each and every one” is precisely what may recommend it to a piece of prose- they recoil in horror.  They were lied to!  This guide to writing, which was supposed to be composed of good solid facts, is suffused with writhing, wriggling opinions!  Who would have thought it?  Why has this miserable volume not yet been consigned to the flames of the New Inquisition with all other false books?

The obvious solution here is to see these writing guides not as rules carved in stone, nor even as suggestions that the reader is free to follow or not, but rather as expressions of the authors’ artistic visions.  I have started tutoring a student who is taking a creative writing class, so I’m dusting off several of my old writing guides (and cracking the spines on a few new ones), and each one is instructive as an encapsulation of what that writer believes about writing, how he or she came to believe it, and what principles his or her writing follows as a result.  It is both picture and product of the writer’s ideology, and by sharing this ideology with readers, the writer offers a personal example of how to construct such an ideology oneself.  Some writers stress the non-necessity of writing guides, that anyone who wants to learn how to write should just read good writing.  I would agree, but with the corollary that a writing guide can be such a piece of writing: everything writers do comes down to imitation, and by reading authors’ conscious constructions of their personal ethos, we learn how to create our own as well.  Any creative writing teacher that pooh-poohs writing guides while insisting on the importance of a “writer’s statement” (or some such similar exercise) should be taken behind the nearest building and shot.

My most recent discovery is John Gardner, whose novel Grendel made such an impression on me that I sought out his other work, and saw his books On Moral Fiction and The Art of Fiction come highly recommended.  I think The Art of Fiction is the better of the two, but On Moral Fiction is a great example of what I’m talking about- Gardner spends most of the book making the argument that fiction’s proper job is essentially creating order out of chaos, that fiction should seek to create some profound meaning out of the random occurrences of life, and that any fiction that does not aspire to this (i.e. nearly anything by William Gass, John Barth, or any other high postmodernists) cannot be properly considered art.  As it happens, I do consider Gass and Barth to be art, to say nothing of writers that came after Gardner’s death.  I’ve wondered what he would make of a writer like David Foster Wallace, who was obviously a disciple of the postmodernists, but sought to create sincere moral meaning out of a style generally used to fracture both morals and meanings.  And it’s these seemingly idle thoughts, this engagement with the written work of the author, that provides lasting help.

Of course, Gardner’s books also have identified certain sentences as “tedious” or “for beginners” where I would not have seen a thing wrong with them.  Some of these sentences I correct.  Some I think are fine and leave the way they are.  This is how the process works, people.


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This entry was posted on 9 July 2013 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , , , , , .
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