You Aren’t Getting It


“18. Use figures of speech sparingly.

The simile is a common device and a useful one, but similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. Readers need time to catch their breath; they can’t be expected to compare everything with something else, and no relief in sight.”

The Elements of Style

Or no reality in sight. Reality is the relief from the nauseous spiral of comparing everything to something that’s kind of like it, and never getting closer to what *it* actually is. If only it weren’t so gratifying to nail a simile/metaphor, to stand back and look at the new creation, still smoky from the forge.

Similes and other figurative sleights are a key battleground in the war between the writer’s self-satisfaction and the reader’s enjoyment. As long as the writer never feels entitled to the time it takes for the reader to “get” that fifty dollar metaphor, the detente we’ve been living with is manageable.

Manageable like Omarosa.

Whoa Whoa Whoa

7. Do Not Overstate

When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that has followed it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment and your poise.”

-The Elements of Style

Let’s take this one for a spin:

I was born in 1983 at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital (now New York-Presbyterian Hospital). While expecting, my parents at first liked “Sam” as a tag for their undeclared son, then second-guessed the schoolyard liability of being named after the elder statesman of Texas. Because any third grade thug is just killing time until he can ace the AP U.S. History exam, yeah?

So they arrived somehow at “James”. Red Bull is the greatest scientific discovery of the later twentieth century. I finished school, tried and failed to become the next Mark Knopfler, and today am still alive.

Did my overstatement kill the rest of the story? I don’t think so, though maybe when I look at this again tomorrow I’ll see it did.

I concede the basic point, though. Spewing easily-disproved hyperbole is a reliable way to set off B.S. detectors, which you should probably assume are up to date and numerous, and will be reading your work sooner or later.

So how did Sam H. affect his legacy when he apocryphally said,

“Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may.”




I’ve Given Up, STOP!

“8. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption, and to announce a long appositive or summary.”

A dash is a mark of separation, stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.”

The Elements of Style

I like “mark of separation”.  It is reassuringly informal.  Dashes, commas, colons, semicolons–for all their complex circuitry, all they really do is separate.  They make your brain (or breath, if you’re reading aloud) pause.

This supports a view I’ve always liked about punctuation, that it’s our best of our ultimately futile attempts to put the nuances of speech into print.  Have you ever written something to someone that offended them, but you know that if you had said it, they would have found it every bit as funny or empathetic as you?

Choose your pauses carefully.

Structurally Sound

12. Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

        A  basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. . .  Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.  This calls for a scheme of procedure.  The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.

      A sonnet is built on a fourteen-line frame, each line containing five feet. . . Most forms of composition are less clearly defined, more flexible, but all have skeletons to which the writer will bring the flesh and the blood.”

The Elements of Style

Whoa.  Is it sacrilege to suggest that the claim in the second paragraph is out of date or even weaselly?  That “less clearly defined, more flexible” means, in some cases, “not defined at all, total anarchy”?

I struggle with the idea that a novel has a prescribed structure that, if broken in any way, makes it something other than a novel (as would happen with a sonnet).  Good essays may have beginnings, middles and ends, but that’s about as specific as it gets, which is not very specific.

Blog posts?  Yeah.

So this is my dissent with the idea that you can find a place on some spectrum of structured-ness for any kind of writing.  Fleshing out an existing skeleton is one thing; making an entire beautiful woman out of a single rib–which feels like the task sometimes– takes some, uh… supreme expertise.

The reason this concerns me is that writing is much easier when you know where you’re going, when you aren’t staring into infinity wondering which first step is the right one to take.

S & W are as right as ever telling us we’re much better off beginning with a shape in mind, but it seems like we have to invent the shapes ourselves sometimes.  And that’s not easy.