Monday, March 26, 2007

Style Over Substance

I enjoy writing. Maybe even more than drawing, writing provides the satisfaction of creative problem solving. It's very gratifying to "get it right" in both writing and art, and both offer endless opportunities for improvement. But writing feels like a deeper challenge to me. When it comes to cartooning, I draw well enough to illustrate pretty much any story I can think of; the hard part is the thinking--which is to say, the writing.

I very much believe that good, clear writing equals good, clear thinking. Conversely, I believe that someone who can't clearly communicate an idea probably hasn't thought it through very well. If I were a freshman English teacher, I think the first thing I'd do is strip my students' prose of all the baroque ornamentation and sparkly tricks that smart kids think make for good writing (and successfully bamboozle teachers). I'd force them to explain themselves in short, simple, declarative sentences. Then I'd slowly introduce complexity, and finally--when they demonstrated they could form a coherent thought and express it so anyone could understand it--I'd allow them to fold in some quirks that might constitute an individual "style." Break the horse before hitching up the cart.

One of the fun parts of knowing and working with people who write for a living is talking about style. In a journalistic setting, editors and publishers often impose a house style so their publication speaks with a characteristic voice pitched for their readers. "Scientific American" doesn't read like "Readers Digest." They sound different in your head. Digging deeper into the weeds, publications often have stylebooks that set rules for using words, abbreviations, punctuation, acronyms, titles and honorifics, etc. Most newspapers use the Associated Press Stylebook as their Bible, while larger publications often have their own guidelines. Smaller publications sometimes draft lists of supplemental rules that apply to local issues, landmarks, businesses, and people. Then comes the best part: arguing about them.

What inspired this post was my discovery that a monthly newsletter titled "Style & Substance," intended for the internal use of Wall Street Journal editors and reporters, is available online. This is where people who make their living with words hash out how to use them, debating the difference between "try to" and "try and," the origin and usage of "trans fat" (it shouldn't be one word but is of course hyphenated when a compound modifier, e.g., "trans-fat oils"), and whether you should capitalize "iPod" or "eBay" if they happen to fall at the start of a sentence (yes). The newsletter also points out misdirected pronouns, disjointed appositives, and embarrassing blunders that appeared in the Wall Street Journal's own pages, which speaks well for its dedication to self improvement and helps writers who wouldn't make the same stupid mistakes as those fancy-pants WSJ reporters feel better about themselves.

A similar online resource I enjoy is "The Slot," a blog written by Bill Walsh, copy editor for The Washington Post. Walsh wrote two books, Lapsing into a Comma and The Elephants of Style, that are similar in content and tone (and, I believe Walsh snarkily argues, superior in content) to the surprise bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The "Sharp Points" section of Walsh's website offers short essays, while his infrequently updated blog provides briefer insights. He's a pretty thoughtful and witty guy.

The best of the rulemakers acknowledge the arbitrariness of laying down the law in a frontier as messy as language. You'd think the job would attract humorless by-the-book pedants, and it sometimes does, but more often they seem pretty good-natured and open-minded. In that respect, they remind me of scientists who realize they're using imperfect tools to craft rules that are good enough for now but may have to be changed later. They hunt a mobile prey.

I love this stuff.


Otis Frampton said...

Great post.

More, please.


Mike said...

Another bookmark added, but ...

Let's not mistake style for grammar. He repeats the canard that words like someone and everyone must take a singular, which is wonderfully refuted by "Everyone Loves Their Jane Austen" at

And the insistence that "data" is plural is even more pedantry. I'm not in favor of abandoning the rules for every linguistic fad that comes along, but this kind of schoolmarm obstinance simple robs your writing of anything approaching fluency.

And I've been a fan of the Slot for quite a while, even though he (wrongly) claims that there's no difference between "Anna Nicole may have overdosed" and "Anna Nicole might have overdosed." His analysis of why he refuses to write K.D. Lang's name without capitals is priceless, and right on.

Brian Fies said...

Thanks, Otis. Congratulations again on your ALA selection.

Mike, I should've known better than to pull my sleight of hand with you reading. I went from writing about one type of "style" to another with no real transition between, thinking I'd get away with it. The missing paragraph would've explained that, although grammar isn't style it is one of the elements of style (hmm...good title for a book...). I'm really a pretty poor grammarian but I am all about clarity, dedication to which (or rejection of which) is an aesthetic decision that can constitute a style in itself.

I also disagree with some of the conclusions of Walsh and the WSJ's mavens. But that's the point; the argument is the fun.