The Booky Man: Strunk & Off-White

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The most enduring style guide for prose writers came from two guys joined in fame by an ampersand. Put Strunk & White down with Rogers & Hammerstein, Fred & Ginger, and Leiber & Stoller in the Book of Famous Ampersandinistas.

William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White (simply Strunk & White to most every writer who ever wrote for a paycheck) brought The Elements of Style down from the Mt. Sinai of Style in 1918. It’s a monolith, the primary guide for American English writing, and it has bedeviled the senior year of millions of high school students in the 92 years since its publication.

I’ve read the S&W twice, personally, and am a better writer for it … and maybe even a better man. Most other guides to writing prose feel too technical or too airy-fairy for my tastes, and I applaud the fact that the span of the stylistic considerations in S&W leaps the fences of journalism and roams into the wide open spaces of fiction.

Why, though, should S&W be our exclusive lens for looking at style? Times change. Hemlines rise and fall. Sideburns thicken, then molt. Writing changes.

I’ve now come across something new under the sun for writers to consider as we look at ways to win the hearts and minds of readers.

Charles Haddad has created a new online style guide with cheek and … well, style.Pity the Poor Reader_feels something like The Elements of Style meets A Series of Unfortunate Events—Strunk/White and Snickett, joined by ampersand. It’s a funny, smart writing guide deeply sympathetic to the worrisome fact that writing well is generally hard, thankless work. Think of carving a canyon with a river. Think of building hurricanes one evaporating water molecule at a time.

Here’s a selection from the first chapter of Haddad’s site. You’ll get the idea.

Alas, the poor reader. Ever pelted with a heavy rain of words. Junk mail and Spam, E-mail and blogs; E-zines and streaming news. Preached at and scolded, befuddled and misled.

Tortured with unpronounceable words and bored with cliché. Is it any wonder that people grow ever weary of reading?

I undertook this book not just to help aspiring writers, but to help myself and my dwindling brethren: We who still love words. For us, few joys surpass a sentence that moves one to tears or laughter. That’s true whether it’s found in a book, a magazine, a song, on a blog or over a urinal.

Such love borders on sickness. It’s a disease I intend to spread. I aspire to be a one-man epidemic. If I can help raise a better crop of wordsmiths, then we poor readers may have more that’s worth reading.

That said, this book is neither grammarian nor manual. I’m afraid you’ll find it of little use if you’re looking to learn the difference between a colon and semicolon, the nominative and objective case. There are plenty of such tomes gathering dust in the back shelves of bookstores and libraries.

Instead, consider this slender volume a rapier. Wield it to cut through the trope and drudgery that dulls most writing today. It’s a pirate’s manifesto on writing well, an un-textbook.

What, pray tell, does that mean?

It means this book is a philosophy in the 18th-century meaning of the word. Think of Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” John Stuart Mill’s “Principals of Political Economy” or Sun Tzu’s “Art of War.” All of the above embodied more than their particulars: stagecraft, economics and war. “Know you the enemy and know yourself,” Sun Tzu counseled Chinese generals, “and you will fight a hundred battles without defeat.”

Sun Tzu’s adage is as much attitude as military strategy. So, too, is writing. It’s neither job nor career. To write well you must learn how to think like a writer. This book, then, is a way of perceiving the world.

Writing well is also a way of living. Like Sun Tzu’s ancient Chinese warriors, writers are fighters, too. They live to slay ignorance and misconception, fabrication and pretense.

It’s a fight anyone can wage. Writers have long come from all walks of life. George Orwell served the British Imperial police in Burma and India. Victorian novelist Benjamin Disraeli was elected twice as Prime Minister during the height of the British Empire. Cao Xueqin, the author of Chinese classic “A Dream of Red Mansions,” was a disgraced bureaucrat in the Qing dynasty. Cervantes fought against the Turks. And Thomas Paine, probably our most famous essayist, taught school, collected taxes and served as a privateer.

The lesson here is that you don’t have to call yourself a writer to know how to write well.
This is also a book of illusions. Writing, if nothing else, is the art of deception. Sincerity of purpose, I’m afraid, is never enough. Readers have to be tricked into not only reading your work but believing in what you write. Within you’ll find a useful bag of tricks.

As any skilled illusionist knows, you can’t deceive an audience without first seeing the world through its eyes. You must sit in the lowliest of seats, eating stale popcorn. Writers struggle to empathize with readers, not judge them. Nor do they preach. As Claudius says in Robert Graves’ novelization of his life, writers “compel men to truth.” That is, they don’t cherry pick the facts that fit their moral assumptions; they try to portray the world as it is, warts and all.

If you learn to pity the poor reader, your writing will sing. And if your writing sings, readers will sing your praise.

So how does Charles Haddad get off declaring himself a new guide down the Silk Road of Sentences for all the rest of us?

Well, read the site. Then consider the tenured associate professor of journalism at Stony Brook University has honed his wordcraft for 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Business Week magazine; taught nonfiction writing at Emory University and served as director of a Knight Fellowship that promoted excellence in medical and public health journalism, working mainly through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With that Knight Fellowship, Haddad ran training programs for journalists from around the world, including conferences in India and China. He’s a graduate of Harvard University and Sarah Lawrence College and has written three children’s novels, all published by Random House. And he runs a study abroad program in China … taking young wannabee journalists on writing expeditions down—you guessed it—The Silk Road.

Have a read, a travel in style.

Haddad has given us as writers a sharp new weapon to fight the good fight.

Charles McNair is Paste‘s books editor. His novel Land o’ Goshen was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.