Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘William Strunk Jr.

The elements of negation

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In The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White provide the useful precept: “Put statements in positive form. Make definite assertions. Avoid timid, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.” After offering a few illustrations for the sake of comparison, such as “He was not very often on time” as opposed to “He usually came late,” they conclude:

All [these] examples show the weakness inherent in the word not. Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; he wishes to be told what it is. Hence, as a rule, it is better to express even a negative in a positive form.

Along with all the other benefits that come with preferring positives over negatives, there’s the subtle point, which Strunk and White don’t mention explicitly, that it forces the writer to think just a little harder at a time when he or she would probably prefer otherwise. The sentence “Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works” is both longer and less interesting than “Katharine is disagreeable, Bianca significant,” but it’s also easier to write. It’s in that one additional pass, as the writer has to figure out what something is, rather than what it isn’t, that insight tends to happen. All else being equal, the best writing rules are the ones that oblige us to move beyond the obvious answer.

The other problem with negation is that it carries its positive form along with it, like an unwanted ghost or a double exposure. In Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, with my emphasis: “The feeling is as if the negation of a proposition had to make it true in a certain sense, in order to negate it.” Wittgenstein continues, in an oddly beautiful passage:

“If I say I did not dream last night, still I must know where to look for a dream; that is, the proposition ‘I dreamt,’ applied to this actual situation, may be false, but mustn’t be senseless.”—Does that mean, then, that you did after all feel something, as it were the hint of a dream, which made you aware of the place which a dream would have occupied?

Again: if I say “I have no pain in my arm,” does that mean that I have a shadow of the sensation of pain, which as it were indicates where the pain might be? In what sense does my present painless state contain the possibility of pain?

Or as he puts it a few paragraphs earlier: “A red patch looks different from when it is there from when it isn’t there—but language abstracts from this difference, for it speaks of a red patch whether it is there or not.”

When it comes to conveying meaning, this fact has real practical consequences. As The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes: “Not only are negative statements (e.g., ‘Paris isn’t the capital of Spain’) generally less informative than affirmatives (‘Paris is the capital of France’), they are morphosyntactically more marked (all languages have negative markers while few have affirmative markers) and psychologically more complex and harder to process.” In a footnote, it adds:

One consequence of the formal markedness asymmetry is that a negative statement embeds its affirmative counterpart within it; when Nixon famously insisted “I am not a crook” or Clinton “I did not have sex with that woman,” the concealed affirmation was more significant than the surface denial. The same asymmetry is exploited in non-denial denials, such as Republican campaign operative Mary Matalin’s disingenuous protest “We’ve never said to the press that Clinton’s a philandering, pot-smoking draft-dodger.”

Politics is the arena where literary style, like sociology, is tested in the real world, which makes it all the more striking to see how often politicians turn to the negative form when forced to issue denials. Like the phrase “Mistakes were made,” the “I am not a crook” statement has become such a cliché that you’d think that they would avoid it, but it still appears regularly—which implies that it fulfills some deep psychological need.

So what kind of need is it? The philosopher Henri Bergson gets close to the heart of the matter, I think, in a very evocative passage in Creative Evolution, which I’ve highlighted in a few places for emphasis:

Negation is not the work of pure mind, I should say of a mind placed before objects and concerned with them alone. When we deny, we give a lesson to others, or it may be to ourselves. We take to task an interlocutor, real or possible, whom we find mistaken and whom we put on his guard. He was affirming something: we tell him he ought to affirm something else (though without specifying the affirmation which must be substituted). There is no longer then, simply, a person and an object; there is, in face of the object, a person speaking to a person, opposing him and aiding him at the same time; there is a beginning of society. Negation aims at some one, and not only, like a purely intellectual operation, at some thing. It is of a pedagogical and social nature. It sets straight or rather warms—the person warned and set straight being, possibly by a kind of doubling, the very person who speaks.

Politicians are an unusual species because so many of their private utterances become public, and their verbal slips, as on the analyst’s couch, are where they reveal the most. Sometimes it feels as if we’ve overheard them talking to themselves. When Nixon said, “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” he was introducing a word into the conversation that hadn’t been there before, because it had already been rattling around in his brain. And when a politician speaks in the negative, it offers us a peek into the secret conversation that he has been having in his head all along: “I am not a crook,” “I did not have sex with that woman,” “I did not collude.”

The gospel of nouns and verbs

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The Elements of Style

That’s not a Bible issue.

Franklin Graham, on the presidential refugee order

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White advise in The Elements of Style. It’s one of the first rules that many aspiring writers hear, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why it works. When you make a point of telling stories and expressing thoughts using tangible nouns and concrete verbs, you quickly find that the result is more vivid, clear, and memorable. It’s an exercise in clarity that amounts to a form of courtesy, not just to the reader, but to yourself. Not every idea can be conveyed in the form of images or actions, but by at least making the effort, you’re more likely to discover the areas where your own thinking is muddled or incomplete. The reverse also holds true. Just as a safety handbook becomes a sabotage manual when you just do the opposite of everything it says, The Elements of Style can be used to confuse and mislead, simply by inverting each of its rules into its own negation. By relying on the passive voice, vague language, and empty abstractions, you can make it harder for readers to understand what you’re really saying, or even to think for themselves. As George Orwell knew, such tactics can be used deliberately by governments to discourage critical thinking, and they can also be used unconsciously to avoid uncomfortable truths that we’d prefer not to confront. (My favorite illustration is Vijith Assar’s “An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar,” which is maybe the single best piece of online content I’ve seen in the last decade.)

And for an example of its potential consequences, you don’t need to look any further than an ongoing experiment that has been underway, in one form or another, for close to two thousand years. It’s called the New Testament. I’ve spoken before of my admiration for The Five Gospels, an ambitious attempt to use modern scholarly tools and consensus to uncover the original core of Jesus’s message. The Jesus Seminar takes a number of approaches to evaluating the authenticity of this material, but one of its most powerful methods comes down to an application of simple common sense. By definition, anything that Jesus said that survived to be written down in the latter half of the first century must have persisted for decades by word of mouth. We can get a rough sense of how that oral tradition might have looked by figuring out, almost from first principles, what kind of material is most likely to be passed down with a minimum of alteration. It tends to consist mostly of short, pithy, self-contained sayings or stories with distinctive ideas, memorable images, or apparent paradoxes. The resulting “database” of parables and aphorisms can be used as a baseline from which we can analyze the rest, and what we find, inevitably, is that the teachings that pass this initial test are concrete, rather than abstract—a gospel of nouns and verbs. You could even say that the whole point of Strunk and White’s rule is to make written prose approximate the vigor and power of spoken language. And the sayings of Jesus that have been transmitted to us intact exemplify a predominantly oral culture at its best.

The Five Gospels

As the scholars of the Jesus Seminar take pains to point out, identifying certain verses as more likely to have emerged from an oral tradition doesn’t mean that we should ignore the rest. But it’s no exaggeration to say that when we read the gospels with an eye to emphasizing what might plausibly have been recalled by Jesus’s original listeners, we end up with a picture that is startlingly different from what many of us hear in church. For one thing, it’s a message that consists largely of specific actions. Here are some of the sayings that seem most likely to be authentic:

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to everyone who begs from you. Love your enemies.

The Jesus Seminar also identifies verses in which the sentiment appears to have been modified over time to make it more palatable. Matthew, for instance, has “Give to the one who begs from you,” which feels like a softening of Luke’s impossible “Give to everyone who begs from you.” In addition, we end up losing many extended passages of theological exposition that seem unlikely to have been remembered by anyone. Most strikingly, this means giving up nearly all of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus does little else but make claims about himself or expound upon his own nature—a portrait that is inconsistent with both the mechanics of oral transmission and what little we know about Jesus himself.

And I don’t think I’m alone in saying that this gospel is very different from the one that I associate with going to church, which sometimes seems to consist of nothing but metaphysical claims and confessions of belief. This is partially a statistical artifact: the original words of Jesus, whatever they were, account for a very small percentage of the verses in the New Testament. But I think there’s also something more insidious at work. Organized religion embraces abstract language for the same reason that it was incorporated into the gospels in the first place: it makes it easier to live with the underlying message by diluting it beyond recognition, and it excludes outsiders while smoothing over inconvenient issues that might divide the congregation. It’s far easier to meditate on the nature of Christ than to consider the true implications of the words “Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.” (One of the first notable schisms within the church, revealingly, was over a choice of adjectives.) Like many forms of institutionalized abstraction, it has real implications for the inner lives of its believers. It makes it possible for millions of Christians to convince themselves that the recent presidential order on refugees is consistent with the values that Jesus explicitly expressed toward the poor, the vulnerable, and the homeless. Franklin Graham, whose own charity is named for the parable that tells us that compassion goes beyond borders, says that it isn’t a biblical issue. Maybe it isn’t, at least not in the subset of the Bible that he has chosen to take to heart. But Orwell had a word for it—doublethink. And Graham would do well to remember the verse that reads: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

“If she was going to run, it had to be now…”

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"Maddy only nodded..."

Note: This post is the fifty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 55. You can read the previous installments here.

In general, an author should try to write active protagonists in fiction, for much the same reason that it’s best to use the active voice, rather than the passive, whenever you can. It isn’t invariably the right choice, but it’s better often enough that it makes sense to use it when you’re in doubt—which, when you’re writing a story, is frankly most of the time. In The Elements of Style, Strunk and Write list the reasons why the active voice is usually superior: it’s more vigorous and direct, it renders the writing livelier and more emphatic, and it often makes the sentence shorter. It’s a form of insurance that guards against some of the vices to which writers, even experienced ones, are prone to succumbing. There are few stories that wouldn’t benefit from an infusion of force, and since our artistic calculations are always imprecise, a shrewd writer will do what he or she can to err on the side of boldness. This doesn’t mean that the passive voice doesn’t have a place, but John Gardner’s advice in The Art of Fiction, as usual, is on point:

The passive voice is virtually useless in fiction…Needless to say, the writer must judge every case individually, and the really good writer may get away with just about anything. But it must be clear that when the writer makes use of the passive he knows he’s doing it and has good reason for what he does.

And most of the same arguments apply to active characters. All else being equal, an active hero or villain is more engaging than a passive victim of circumstance, and when you’re figuring out a plot, it’s prudent to construct the events whenever possible so that they emerge from the protagonist’s actions. (Or, even better, to come up with an active, compelling central character and figure out what he or she would logically do next.) This is the secret goal behind the model of storytelling, as expounded most usefully by David Mamet in On Directing Film, that conceives of a plot as a series of objectives, each one paired with a concrete action. It’s designed to maintain narrative clarity, but it also results in characters who want things and who take active measures to attain them. When I follow the slightly mechanical approach of laying out the objectives and actions of a scene, one beat after another, it gives the story a crucial backbone, but it also usually leads to the creation of an interesting character, almost by accident. If nothing else, it forces me to think a little harder, and it ensures that the building blocks of the story itself—which are analogous, but not identical, to the sentences that compose it—are written in the narrative equivalent of the active voice. And just as the active voice is generally preferable to the passive voice, in the absence of any other information, it’s advisable to focus on the active side when you aren’t sure what kind of story you’re writing: in the majority of cases, it’s simply more effective.

"If she was going to run, it had to be now..."

Of course, there are times when passivity is an important part of the story, just as the passive voice can be occasionally necessary to convey the ideas that the writer wants to express. The world is full of active and passive personalities, and of people who don’t have control over important aspects of their lives, and there’s a sense in which plots—or genres as a whole—that are built around action leave meaningful stories untold. This is true of the movies as well, as David Thomson memorably observes:

So many American films are pledged to the energy that “breaks out.” Our stories promote the hope of escape, of beginning again, of beneficial disruptions. One can see that energy—hopeful, and often damaging, but always romantic—in films as diverse as The Searchers, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Run of the Arrow, Rebel Without a Cause, Vertigo, Bonnie and Clyde, Greed, and The Fountainhead. No matter how such stories end, explosive energy is endorsed…Our films are spirals of wish fulfillment, pleas for envy, the hustle to get on with the pursuit of happiness.

One of the central goals of modernist realism has been to give a voice to characters who would otherwise go unheard, precisely because of their lack of conventional agency. And it’s a problem that comes up even in suspense: a plot often hinges on a character’s lack of power, less as a matter of existential helplessness than because of a confrontation with a formidable antagonist. (A conspiracy novel is essentially about that powerlessness, and it emerged as a subgenre largely as a way to allow suspense to deal with these issues.)

So how do you tell a story, or even write a scene, in which the protagonist is powerless? A good hint comes from Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” This draws a useful distinction, I think, between the two functions of the active mode: as a reflection of reality and as a tool to structure the reader’s experience. You can use it in the latter sense even in stories or scenes in which helplessness is the whole point, just as you can use the active voice to increase the impact of prose that is basically static or abstract. In Chapter 55 of Eternal Empire, for example, Maddy finds herself in as vulnerable a position as can be imagined: she’s in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a woman whom she’s just realized is her mortal enemy. There isn’t much she can plausibly do to defend herself, but to keep her from becoming entirely passive, I gave her a short list of actions to perform: she checks her pockets for potential weapons, unlocks the door on her side as quietly as she can, and looks through the windshield to get a sense of their location. Most crucially, at the moment when it might be possible to run, she decides to stay where is. The effect is subtle, but real. Maddy isn’t in control of her situation, but she’s in control of herself, and I think that the reader senses this. And it’s in scenes like this, when the action is at a minimum, that the active mode really pays off…

The art of omission

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Structure of an essay by John McPhee

Over the last couple of years, it has slowly become clear that the series of articles on the writing life that John McPhee is unhurriedly publishing in The New Yorker is one of the modest but indisputable creative events of our time. McPhee has long been regarded as the dean of American nonfiction, and in one essay after another, he has lovingly, amusingly, and unsentimentally unpacked the tricks and secrets of six full decades as a writer and curious character. The fact that these pieces are written from the perspective of a journalist—albeit a preternaturally inventive and sensitive one—makes them even more useful for authors of fiction. Because the point of view has been shifted by ninety degrees, we’re more aware of the common elements shared by all forms of writing: choice of subject, structure, revision, selection, omission. There isn’t a point that McPhee makes here that couldn’t be applied with profit to any form of creative writing, or any kind of artistic effort in general. McPhee isn’t dogmatic, and he frames his advice less as a rulebook than as a string of gentle, sensible suggestions. But the result, when collected at last in the inevitable book, will amount to nothing less than one of the most useful works ever composed on the art of clear writing and thinking, worthy of being placed on the same shelf as The Elements of Style. Strunk and White will always come first, but McPhee has set himself up as their obvious successor.

Take his most recent article, which focuses on the crucial art of omission. McPhee makes many of the same points—although more vividly and memorably—that others have covered before. Writing is cutting; a story should be exactly the length that can be sustained by its material and no more; a rough draft almost always benefits from being trimmed by ten percent. Underlying it all, however, is a deeper philosophical sense of why we omit what we do. McPhee writes:

To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early first. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative writer silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.

Omission, in short, is a strategy for enforcing objectivity, and it obliges the writer to keep an eye out for the nonessential. When you’re trying to cut a story or essay by some arbitrary amount, you often find that the first parts to go are the places where you’ve imposed yourself on the subject. And if you sacrifice a telling fact or detail to preserve one of your own opinions, you’ve probably got bigger problems as a writer.

A page from my rough draft

And the word “arbitrary” in the above paragraph is surprisingly important. Yesterday, I quoted Calvin Trillin on the process of greening at Time, in which makeup editors would return an article to its author with curt instructions to cut five or ten lines. McPhee, who did a lot of greening himself over the years, adds a crucial piece of information: “Time in those days, unlike its rival Newsweek, never assigned a given length but waited for the finished story before fitting it into the magazine.” In other words, the number of lines the writer was asked to cut wasn’t dictated by the content of the story, but by an arbitrary outside factor—in this case, the length and layout of the other articles that happened to be jostling for space in that particular issue. And while we might expect this to do violence to the integrity of the story itself, in practice, it turns out to be the opposite: it’s precisely because the quota of lines to remove is essentially random that the writer is forced to think creatively about how and where to condense. I’ve imposed arbitrary length limitations on just about everything meaningful I’ve ever written, and if anything, I wish I had been even more relentless. (One of the few real advantages of the structural conventions of the modern movie script is that it obliges writers to constantly engage in a kind of greening to hit a certain page count. Sometimes, it can feel like cheating, but it’s also a productive way to sweat down a story, and there isn’t a screenwriter alive who hasn’t experienced the truth of McPhee’s observation: “If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line.”)

Of course, none of this means that the seemingly nonessential doesn’t have its place. Few essays would be any fun to read if they didn’t include the occasional digression or footnote that covered tangentially related territory, and that applies to McPhee as much as to anyone else. (In fact, his piece on omission concludes with a huge shaggy dog story about General Eisenhower, ending on a delicious punchline that wouldn’t be nearly as effective if McPhee hadn’t built up to it with a full page of apparent trivia.) Every work of art, as McPhee notes elsewhere, arrives at its own rhythms and structure, and an essay that is all business, or a series of breathless news items, is unlikely to inspire much affection. If there’s a point to be made here, though, it’s that digression and looseness is best imposed on the level of the overall work, rather than in the individual sentence: McPhee’s finest essays often seem to wander from one subject to the next as connections occur to the author, but on the level of the individual line or image, they’re rigorously organized. Greening is such a valuable exercise because it targets the parts of a work that can always be boiled down further—transitional sections, places where the text repeats itself, redundancies, moments of indulgence. McPhee compares it to pruning, or to removing freight cars to shorten a train, so that no one, even the author, would know in the end that anything has been removed. And it’s only through greening that you discover the shape that the story wants for itself.

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September 14, 2015 at 9:39 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 23, 2015 at 7:30 am

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My essential writing books

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The Elements of Style

1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. If I were putting together an essential library of books for an aspiring writer of any kind, The Elements of Style would be first on the list. In recent years, there’s been something of a backlash against Struck and White’s perceived purism and dogmatism, but the book is still a joy to read, and provides an indispensable baseline for most good writing. It’s true that literature as a whole would be poorer if every writer slavishly followed their advice, say, to omit needless words, as Elif Batuman says in The Possessed: “As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.” Yet much of creative writing does boil down to overcoming bad habits, or at least establishing a foundation of tested usage from which the writer only consciously departs. More than fifty years after it was first published, The Elements of Style is still the best foundation we have.

2. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. I bought this book more than fifteen years ago at a used bookstore in Half Moon Bay, shortly before starting my freshman year in high school. Since then, I’ve reread it, in pieces, a dozen or more times, and I still know much of it by heart. Writing books tend to be either loftily aspirational or fixated on the nuts and bolts of craft, and Gardner’s brilliance is that he tackles both sides in a way that enriches the whole. He has plenty to say on sentence structure, vocabulary, rhythm, and point of view, but he’s equally concerned with warning young writers away from “faults of soul”—frigidity, sentimentality, and mannerism—and reminding them that their work must have interest and truth. Every element of writing, he notes, should by judged by its ability to sustain the fictional dream: the illusion, to the reader, that the events and characters described are really taking place. And everything I’ve written since then has been undertaken with Gardner’s high standards in mind.

The Art of Fiction

3. Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith. I hesitated between this book and Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, which I reread endlessly while I was teaching myself how to write, but I’ve since discovered that it cribs much of its practical material from Meredith. Scott Meredith was a legendary literary agent—his clients included Norman Mailer, Arthur C. Clarke, and P.G. Wodehouse—and his approach to writing is diametrically opposed to Gardner’s: his book is basically a practical cookbook on how to write mainstream fiction for a wide audience, with an emphasis on plot, conflict, and readability. The tone can be a little mercenary at times, but it’s all great advice, and it’s more likely than any book I know to teach an author how to write a novel that the reader will finish. (One warning: Meredith’s chapter on literary agents, and in particular his endorsement of the use of reading fees, should be approached with caution.)

4. On Directing Film by David Mamet. I’ve spoken about this book at length before, but if I seem awed by it, it’s because I encountered it a time in my life when I already thought I’d figured out how to write a novel. At that point, I’d already sold The Icon Thief and a handful of short stories, so reading Mamet’s advice for the first time was a little like a professional baseball player realizing that he could raise his batting average just by making a few minor adjustments to his stance. Mamet’s insistence that every scene be structured around a series of clear objectives for the protagonist may be common sense, but his way of laying it out—notably in a sensational class session at Columbia in which a scene is broken down beat by beat—rocked my world, and I’ve since followed his approach in everything I’ve done. At times, his philosophy of storytelling can be a little arid: any work produced using his rules needs revision, and a touch of John Gardner, to bring it to life. But my first drafts have never been better. It’s so helpful, in fact, that I sometimes hesitate before recommending it, as if I’m giving away a trade secret—but anyway, now you know.

Stephen Sondheim’s three rules of writing

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There are only three principles necessary for a lyric writer, all of them familiar truisms. They were not immediately apparent to me when I started writing, but have come into focus via Oscar Hammerstein’s tutoring, Strunk and White’s huge little book The Elements of Style and my own sixty-some years of practicing the craft. I have not always been skilled or diligent enough to follow them as faithfully as I would like, but they underlie everything I’ve ever written. In no particular order, and to be inscribed in stone:

Content Dictates Form

Less Is More

God Is in the Details

all in the service of

Clarity

without which nothing else matters.

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat

Written by nevalalee

March 13, 2011 at 12:21 pm

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