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Writing with style-Conversations on the art of writing


Writing with style_Conversations on the art of writing-About a year ago a bright sophomore came by my office for his first writing conference of the term. First conferences are usually slow going, and this one proved no exception. After 20 minutes we were still discussing the problems of his opening paragraph. Suddenly, his growing sense of himself as a bungler broke through his composure. He leaned back, shook his head, and said with a wan, courageous smile, “I think what I could use is a good survival kit.”
That remark stayed with me, for it seemed to sum up the anguish of countless other undergraduates equally bewildered by the basics of expository writing. Perhaps you’re among them. Their plight is ironic, but even more it is poignant. Theoretically, they are well trained in writing: they have years of classrooms, half a dozen textbooks, and scores of essays behind them. In reality, though, a writing assignment makes them feel as ignorant and panicky as the first day they walked into their high-school trigonometry class.
Why are they so bewildered? For some, perhaps because their textbooks haven’t explained the basics to them in language they could readily understand, or even care to understand. Others, perhaps, are victims of overlong textbooks, self-defeating in their glorious comprehensiveness. (Who, after all, can distinguish the fundamental from the trivial after trudging through 500 pages of technical lore, however well presented?) The befuddlement of still others may stem from having been given the tools but never a graphic sense of how good writers actually use them. And yet another not-so-remote possibility: many of them may have been conditioned to believe that writing acceptably involves translating every thought into a dead classical tongue known as Formal English. Whatever the reason or reasons, one thing is certainly clear enough: they feel lost.
My hope is that this book-an informal, compact, practical little book styled after my own writing conferences- answers the wish for a “survival kit.” I’ve stocked it with emergency provisions especially useful to those of you lost in the jungles of essay-writing. Many of the provisions, though, are equally useful in other desperate situations, as you will see. Above all, I’ve tried to equip you with advice on how to become a literary Robinson Crusoe-that is, self-sufficient.
A writer isn’t self-sufficient until he has learned to think well. This involves, among other things, understanding the psychological element of the whole business. As I see it, writing is applied psychology because it is the art of creating desired effects. It follows from this that our chief need is to know what effects are desirable and how to create them. Thus this book: a blend of commonsense theory and practical suggestions.
Specifically, I tried to do four things here:
1 Explain how experienced writers think.
2 Share a number of useful tips on writing.
3 Answer some of the most recurring questions about punctuation, conventions, and stylistic taboos.
4 Keep it all brief enough to be read over a couple of cups of coffee.

Now that the book is finished, I see that you’ll probably need a third, maybe even a fourth cup to see you through. For that I apologize. The book became a friend I was loath to bid good-bye to.
I suppose a few readers-teachers mainly-may be disappointed that I’ve excluded end-of-chapter exercises, not to mention discussion of research papers, grammar, syllogistic reasoning, patterns of “paragraph movement,” and other such things conventionally covered by textbooks on writing. I can only answer that this is not-and doesn’t want to be-a conventional textbook on writing.
There are plenty of those already and no need to duplicate their efforts.
What I offer here is practical shoptalk for armchair consumption-in effect, an informal 3-hour refresher course, with the emphasis on refreshment. The book is primarily geared to those writers who’ve already been through the textbook mill and who now find themselves hungering for helpful tips, inspiration, and a clear, lively synthesis of the essentials. But precisely because it concentrates on fundamentals, the book may also prove useful to the less advanced writer in need of a quick overview of the terrain he’s now painfully traversing. I hope so, anyway.
Two last points and then, I’m done. First, while you will inevitably find some chapters more pertinent than others, I urge you to read them in sequence, for they move sequentially, not only building on earlier ideas but also becoming more deliberately provocative. The second point concerns chapter 12, Punctuation. It’s unseemly for an author to recommend one of his own chapters, but here I feel I must breach decorum, for I know that no one is going to read about punctuation, the most tedious of subjects, without special urging. So why bother now? Because chapter 12 is where most of the jokes are (not mine mainly, but others’), and I would hate to be the only person chuckling over them.

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