Grundnorm of writing style

Dorothy Parker’s opinion of the most widely recognized writing style manual in the English language:

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

But those who nevertheless persevere and do become writers should understand this: One cardinal principle underlies all other rules of style, including those presented by Strunk and White. The Grundnorm of style is simply this:

Make the reader’s job as easy as you can without losing anything you wish to communicate.

Basically, that in turn suggests you ensure maximum profluence. Good writers smooth out the speed bumps—they look for any problems readers might encounter before they encounter them and resolve them in advance. They get the writing out of the way of the reading. This goes some way towards defining good prose, and provides a general guide for revision and editing.

Do Strunk and White’s guidelines still apply, a half-century after they first appeared in print? Mostly yes, I believe. And some recent quibbles with Strunk & White’s classic Elements of Style may miss the real point: Any rule of style, in every instance of its application, should be measured against both our Grundnorm and a corollory to this rule:

Rules of style can only be rules of thumb.

Good writers break the rules

Rules of style are maxims. They may be broken at will by competent writers. (Though competent writers will on some level recognize that they’re breaking a rule, and understand why.)

To some extent, this applies even to our Grundnorm. Just think—if writers were to apply it too rigorously, no one would ever get to read such modern classics as Infinite Jest.

For all kinds of reasons, writers may well decide they want to bring the reader up short. The essence of humor, for example, is presenting the audience with something problematic, something that appears wrong, somehow, and in its resolution evokes laughter.

Arresting the reader in mid-flow for comic effect can work. In other cases, however, we get people, many of them graduates of creative writing courses, who scatter arresting images throughout their prose, often winning big points for originality and negative scores for style. Where readers are stopping to wonder at the novelty of some turn of phrase, perhaps mentally congratulating the author, they may then need to go back and pick up the thread again. This generally suggests a failure of style.

Yet someone like David Foster Wallace routinely makes this sort of thing work. At one point in Infinite Jest, e.g., he uses “cabbage” as a transitive verb to describe a character separating a plastic garbage bag from its companions and pulling it out from under a sink. Never mind the image of someone “cabbaging” a garbage bag stopped me in my tracks, I have to concede Wallace knew what he was doing. With this book, the reader quickly grows accustomed to stopping and admiring the language, taking pleasure in the story phrase by phrase, clause by clause, page by page (for quite a considerable number of pages, in fact, including a whole lot of notes at the end of the book, some of which contain notes within notes within notes). In fact, I frequently had to re-read passages to pick up the thread again, but I didn’t mind, acknowledging that Wallace’s prose made this worthwhile.

For lesser mortals, though, such devices are normally ill-advised, no matter how accurate the expressions might appear. A book such as Infinite Jest presents a special case, where readers are already accustomed to exploring every sentence and phrase as an adventure.

Some writers ignore the rules

Then we have writers such as Hegel. He had no sense of writing style whatsoever and didn’t care. He was too busy working out the entire structure of existence—preferably, it can seem, in one sentence. Lots of people read him anyway, seduced by the intellectual adventure or maybe the need to pass a university course.

Hegel specialized in philosophical tomes. Embarking on a novel of ideas, however, is a dangerous tack for any writer to take. It makes creating real characters convincingly enmeshed in compelling dramatic situations even more difficult a task than it usually is. Thomas Mann pulled it off pretty consistently, and so did some others, though their names aren’t leaping to mind this foggy Sunday morning.

“A good writer is basically a story teller, not a scholar or a redeemer of mankind. ”

Isaac Bashevis Singer

In a similar vein, though I can’t find the quote, Singer has suggested somewhere else that if  fiction writers set out to communicate great ideas for our age, they’ll most likely produce a bollix. If they merely sit down to write  ripping good yarns, on the other hand, they may be surprised at how  universal messages for humankind emerge from their stories.

So, Sara asks me, why am I writing The Proteant Enigmass? To the extent Syn, the first in a series of speculative novels, has worked (it awaits publication), that was mainly luck.

Concluding note. A gang of Eastern European philosophers once told me, in Dubrovnik as it happens, that they preferred to read Hegel in English, and to heck with the notorious impossibility of finding precise English equivalents for some of the German expressions Hegel used. To whatever extent that was true, the problem was outweighed by another consideration: professional translators actually tried to make the overall prose as intelligible as possible, and generally succeeded better than Hegel ever had.

Maybe to prove they were real philosophers, some of these heavy thinkers brought with them large unlabeled bottles of what they called Polish drink. “Is good!” they said, and it was.

I mention this anecdote only to suggest that I’m a real writer—a hairy-chested, two-fisted specimen of the old school—and to dispel disturbing and persistent rumors regarding my teetotal disposition.

Another concluding note. Re-reading the above, I see that the mere thought of Hegel has perverted my own style, and I blame him. Not that I really have to shirk responsibility, since nearly no one will read this far anyway.



8 thoughts on “Grundnorm of writing style”

  1. I read all the way to the end, despite being tripped up by “profluence.” I think I read Hegel in college, and don’t remember him, but if I wasn’t afraid of needles I’d have EB White’s face tatooed over my heart. Being understood is the task, and style is the tool.

  2. Excellent. An editor/journalist friend here in Bangkok made the same comment re. “profluence” on my Facebook page. We evidently have an issue here. I think I first encountered the word many years ago reading something by John Gardner on the art of writing.

    Pleased you made it to the end.

  3. Facebook comments:

    Ken Moritsugu The word “profluence” did not make my job easy. (Though I guess it’s better than flatulence – maximum hot air.)21 hours ago

    Collin Piprell Hey, where I come from we use “profluence” all the time, sometimes twice before breakfast, eh? Plus it was one of Hegel’s favorite words, and he didn’t even know what it meant.21 hours ago

    Ken Moritsugu As in, “Les Habs sure had a profluent run into the playoffs this year, eh?”

    Tom Tuohy Give over! Is that a real word! Opposite of influence? Or is it someone who’s fluent in something? In a professional manner? Ok, just kidding about that last one!

  4. @ken moritsugu:
    It seems you were only the advance unit in a general assault on my use of “profluence” in that context. In the old days, you had to say fuck to get noticed; but now it’s “profluence.” (Jasus. Now my spellchecker is trying to claim there’s no such word.)

    So here we go: Profluence, profluence, profluence. New frontiers in self-promotion, eh?

  5. Susan Fulop Kepner
    I hear real people use words like this all the time. They know what they mean by the word even if they don’t know they invented it. Well written dialogue reflects this reality.

    Collin Piprell
    I think everybody has just been giving me the gears, finding this ostensible stylistic flaw in my musings on style. The word’s a good one, and should be clear in context and in light of its roots. John Gardner, a novelist and prominent leader of fiction workshops, liked the word. For all I know he coined it.

    I never attended one of his workshops, or anyone else’s either. I have conducted a number of these myself, cleverly disguised as someone who knew what he was talking about. 🙂

    I’ve never uttered the word “profluent” in a workshop, for fear of blowing my cover.

  6. Strunk and White is truly a gold mine, and should be on every writer’s reference shelf. Glad you could make it to the Writer’s Guild yesterday!

  7. Thanks for the great article… I made it to the end (despite tripping over “profluent”) and laughed myself silly! The joys of being a writer and reader!

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