On the heels of the paperback release of his 2005 grammar guide, Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Contemporary Style, we put three quick questions to its author, Arthur Plotnik. He responded by playing favorites, copping to a Freudian daddy complex starring Strunk & White, and explaining why blogging shouldn’t be burdened by quality control.
The newly-published paperback edition of Spunk & Bite boasts an appended study guide, in which you provide exercises to help writers craft prose with ‘bite.’ Which is your personal favorite and why?
Choose one out of 30? You’re giving me abulia! But here’s a shorty that can have your readers noodling the time away instead of working:
15.’Shift the grammatical function of a word to create a punchy usage: She’s the new fabulous (adjective shifted to noun); I’ll usage you! (noun shifted to verb). English absorbs all sorts of shifting through a device known as “enallage.”
When not overdone, enallage gives old words new pop and makes the first enallager the dopest wordslinger in town —as when Maureen Dowd wrote of how Donald Trump slimed back to a Rosie O’Donnell slur. Ben McGrath unleashed the verb feng-shui’d in a New Yorker piece, proving that no noun is immune to identity theft.
What spurred you to write Spunk & Bite, and what’s been your favorite response to the book since it’s been published?
All art iss ein struggle against der father figure, ya? Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style was my daddy as a young writer, and I still heed its counsel on clarity and concision. But a few years ago, E. B. White’s advice on style prompted me to write the article “E. B. Whitewashed,” arguing that White, a breezy, daring stylist, preached a conservative approach for everyone else. From the article and some pieces I was writing grew Spunk and Bite.
I’d say, however, that only 5-10 percent of the book wrestles with my old, dead pater. Most of it takes stock of the liveliest expression today and what makes it lively, prompting readers to toy with the ideas and techniques. Early acclaim from such journalistic icons as Chip Scanlan and savvy sites like yours gave me that lovely frisson, the thrill of having hit the target. Readers who indicate (directly or on forums) that my advice worked for them cheer my days. One favorite: Four delightful Connecticut women wrote to say that they meet as a writers’ group and use the book as a chapter-a-week tutor. They report on progress from time to time. How grass-rootsy gratifying is that?
What advice would you give to those who blog or publish other types of writing online?
Considering that most such blogging and writing is done with stolen energy in stolen moments, on top of day jobs and family duties, it’s almost cruel to burden it with anything like quality control. Yet, advice abounds. A Myspace blogger calling himself Ya Zi encapsulated much of it: “triturate [pulverize] the psittaceously vacuous, ventriloqially verbose, and vaniloquently vapid.”
Before ATMs, travelers were advised to take half the clothing and twice the money originally planned for a trip. For writers bound for the digi-sphere, the word is this: Half the verbiage, and twice the payoff in terms of what your audience craves—and what rewards you as a writer.