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Q&A: Arthur Plotnik, author, Spunk & Bite

The editor and writing coach shoves past Strunk & White

- November 16, 2005

Editor and author Arthur Plotnik has written several books of advice for writers. Since they don't always take it, he writes more. Encouraging writers to be bold and bright, sharp and sly, Plotnik challenges the old rules in his new book Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language and Style. Plotnik also wrote The Elements of Editing and The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts Into Words.

Mediabistro: You studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop. At what point did you become a writer who writes about writing?

Arthur Plotnik: I'd like to say, "during that stormy night in Iowa City, when Philip Roth anointed me the Watcher." The truth is, I'd already been scrawling advice to writers—mainly as a know-nothing editor of undergraduate literary schmatas. From Roth and others at Iowa, however, I began to learn what I would later pass along, including the usual workshop commandments: show, don't tell, less is more, particularize, focus, and so on.

Soon after, as a newspaper reporter and then a book-a-month pulp novelist, I may have tucked a little more advice into my gray pulp. But not until I'd moiled several years as a pro editor did the real alchemy of writing—that transformation from imagined to published word—become illuminated, enough so that others might benefit from my, koff, koff, coruscations.

The first flashes appeared in The Elements of Editing [1982], where, in telling editors how to edit writers, I was telling writers what they faced outside the creative womb. During the '90s came my advisories, The Elements of Expression and Honk If You're a Writer—the latter meaning, in British slang as it turned out, "vomit if you're a writer," which isn't so far-fetched if you know the struggle.

Mediabistro: Spunk & Bite has so much to think about and incorporate. What's your strategy on how to utilize the advice offered in your book?

Plotnik: I would say use it with delight. After all, my subject is the joy of spunky, expressive language, and how to exploit that joy so that competing writers are miserable. Take delight in that, and be inspired by the hundreds of spunky, bitey examples woven throughout. After Chapter One, which liberates writers from certain 50-year-old attitudes of Strunk and White [The Elements of Style], readers can roam at will through what might be called "prompts" toward more engaging writing; for example, toward capturing the extraordinary with "extreme metaphors," toward acquiring "edge," or putting pop imagery to work.

Several chapters—call them interactive if you can stand that term—offer diverting challenges: to nail the exact word, to improve an author's modifier, to rate authors' figures of speech. Readers who like a structured approach can follow the book's parts: flexibility, freshness, texture, word, force, form, clarity, and contemporaneity. But those who toe the chapters randomly will arrive at the same place.

Mediabistro: Language, like everything else, goes through trends. For example, a few years ago it seemed that everyone knew what schadenfreude meant and used it in their writing. Is trendy OK, or just a substitute for actual good writing?

Plotnik: Maybe people have dropped schadenfreude because they've stopped enjoying the misfortune of others. As if. But good writing is writing that engages and stimulates its audience according to the author's intent. In that context trendy words can be beautiful—as long as they're fresh, apt, inventive, and surprising to the readership. If you add "enduring" to those criteria that's another story, since trendy locutions grow cringey faster than one can say, "you go, girl."

Words have funny cycles, though. They can rise from cringey to nostalgic or retro and even wind up as fixtures in the language. In The Elements of Style, E. B. White declared that "by the time this paragraph sees print, psyched, nerd, ripoff, dude, geek, and funky will be the words of yesteryear." That was 46 years ago, and, dude, they all six still be funky. The trick for authors is to gauge the life of a trendy locution against its window of exposure. A daily columnist has it easy. A novelist has to ponder, will anything rock for my readers five years from now? If not, then it's time to quarry up an enduring, if less titillating, standard term.

Mediabistro: Your book incorporates examples from newspapers and magazines as well as novels. Is good writing good writing, or do you distinguish between writing novels or newspapers or magazines or online?

Plotnik: I do distinguish, but not in terms of a hierarchy topped by literary works. The question is, how good is the stimulation? Does it refresh me from the fug—the stale air—of the ignorant or mundane? That's the job of the writer, and it can be done in any genre. I relish the immediacy and intensity of news writing; the flair of a magazine stylist; the manic energy of online wags and wordsmiths. I read novels to be stimulated by truths of the heart and hypnotic language. The lines between these forms have blurred anyway, and one finds expressive writing in all the so-called wrong places: a hip-hop novel, a gothic television script, a trade rag. Even in the blogosphere, a cri de couer may be misting somebody's eyeballs.

Mediabistro: You've spent much of your career writing about writing. What are your own biggest pratfalls and hurdles? How do you combat them?

Plotnik: Love is the problem. Like most writers, I love my darlings too much—all those words and figures of speech wrested from the depths of my being, the back alleys of the thesaurus, the uncreated consciousness of my species, not to mention the blah, blah, blah. See what I mean? Once we've embodied a hard-won locution in text, we just can't kill it, can't make a choice among our children. Instead we ask readers—or reluctant editors—to exhaust themselves sorting out the forceful from the superfluous.

In the way of combat I don my own editorial armor, emblazoned with the motto occide, verbera, ure, which says to kill, beat, and burn anything that diminishes expressive force. I have mixed success. Sometimes I find that less isn't more; certain effects call for florid or grandiose locutions. But when a reader gets the idea and yet the words keep coming—fuhgetaboutit. A calmer approach might be through the feng shui principles I extrapolate in one chapter, helping writers identify the elements of shar ch'I or "killing breath" that subvert the flow of ch'I, the life force. Killing breath is not a good thing in a writing career.

Mediabistro: When you want to get some outside help, which books do you open?

Plotnik: First, I adore my Roget's International Thesaurus, even if it leads me unto temptation. I don't care what Simon Winchester says about "ill-versed" users lured into false synonyms. One has to be mad, moonstruck, unhinged, not to snorkel among these schools of words. Spunk & Bite offers tips, hints, pearls of wisdom, and fleas in the ear for doing so.

Along with such standbys as Fowler, Follett, Zinsser, Partridge, and Flesch, I keep Stephen Glazier's Word Menu in reach. No one has yet gathered and defined related terms with the passion of this lexicographer, who died heartbreakingly young. A recent discovery for me is Garner's American Usage, the most modern and thorough of its kind. Sin & Syntax by Constance Hale is my kind of liberating guide. For mechanical style, I find The New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage more amiable than most. And to clear my head of practical messages, to hear the purity of lyric, I read the poetry of Billy Collins.

I should mention one more thing. Even though Spunk & Bite swims against Strunk & White, I still take cold splashes in The Elements of Style for its lessons in clarity and concision—and to remind myself that readers have a sense of "correct" writing, one that can be tweaked for effect, but not ignored. But in matters of style, I resent White's patronizing advice, to which he paid little attention himself. His admonitions against wild behavior remind me of my own father, a former sparring partner who refused to teach me his good boxing moves for fear that I'd start brawling. So, resentfully, I entered the toughest fray of all: writing. And thank you for letting me get this out. I think my conflicts are resolved now.

Mediabistro: For something as creative as writing, we get attached to its rules. You praise modifiers and adjectives, which is somewhat untraditional. How did writers get to be so stodgy?

Plotnik: Convention is reliable, if not always exciting. Writing coaches are 95 percent right when they plump for strong nouns and verbs and rail against mewling adjectives, adverbs, and intensifiers. But outside convention lies the thrill of risk and reward, of modifiers that rise above their slave status on the merits of energy, novelty, dissonance, and so on. The adverb loudly doesn't add much to the verb belch. But when, in a Martin Amis novel, a royal Brit eructs liverishly, I want to put that modifier up for knighthood.

In the arts, rules are more or less reflections of what so-called discerning people have applauded. We need rules for basic coherence in art, but also as points from which to take our creative leaps. Can one bungee jump from nothing? On the subject of rules, writing advice doesn't change much. Some 18 centuries ago Cassius Longinus counseled that great writing needs the rein as well as the spur, just as I've suggested that writers want both sheriff and outlaw roaming their right brains. Even Spunk & Bite defends the decent townsfolk now and then—as against those dag-nab, danglin' participles; but in the next episode it's out there shooting the quotation marks off dialogue. Well, that's how the West was won, and I reckon it works for writing, too.

Aileen Gallagher is an editor at mediabistro.com

Read an excerpt of Spunk & Bite



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