By J.F. McKenna
During my often misspent days at St. Edward High School, how I wished I had someone like Arthur Plotnik to spice my daily diet of Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition, the standard-issue manual on sentence building and righteous rhetoric. Lawrence Cody, my sophomore-year English teacher, cleverly leveraged Mr. Warriner’s tome to fashion students who could communicate properly and effectively; and for that I have long been grateful. Messrs. Cody and Warriner’s diligent efforts duly if belatedly acknowledged, I still insist even a dollop of sagacious sass from Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite would have enlivened my Brothers of Holy Cross education.
I’m just glad I discovered Spunk & Bite after its debut less than a decade ago.
Plotnik, a bestselling author and former publishing executive, is a wordsmith after my own heart. He readily acknowledges the long-standing impact of Will Strunk and E.B. White’s iconic The Elements of Style, pointing out that the little book of English usage—often seen in the company of Warriner’s text in my SEHS days—“may yet save America from choking on its own jargon and obfuscation.” At the same time, Plotnik correctly declares that even the compact good-writing supplement understands “that bending the rules—judiciously breaking them—can give writing its distinction, its edge, its very style.”
So with a punny nod to Strunk and White through his book’s title, Plotnik lays out a writing strategy for our hyper-wired 21st-century world.
“With…readers drawn to ever-new distractions, who can afford a writing-as-usual attitude?” asks the author of the journalistic classic The Elements of Editing. “Not creative writers, not journalists, copywriters, or corporate communicators. Nor can writing students gear up in all the old ways. Even bloggers, even Match.com troubadours, must realize that in today’s forest an undistinguished post falls soundlessly.”
Hallelujah! say I. (Particularly in the last few years I haven’t seen so much settled content since my days as a bulk-buyer of generic mac-n-cheese dinner. My family, friends and colleagues—savvy media consumers all—share that sentiment, if not my preference for the perfect entree.) With no slight at all to the use of middle-of-the-road grammar, Plotnik constructs a compelling 275-page case to the message-makers “whose composition skills compare with the next writer’s, but who itch for creative ideas, smart locutions, and realistic takes on language for today’s media.”
Wisely observing that “readers love surprise,” Plotnik advises his writers to look for the figurative route to Unexpected Stimuli. But while on the road, AP adds, always stay alert.
“Even as you set out to be surprising,” Plotnik cautions, “gangs of predictable idioms and images will bully their way into first drafts. Let them appear, as they tend to do when the brain is spewing words. But in the editing process, show no mercy. Occide, verba, ure! Kill, beat, and burn—sniff out and destroy everything that smells predictable. cliched, formulaic, labored, or lazy. Force yourself to fill the gaps with language that hoists a big exclamation point (but not a question mark) above the reader’s head.”
Great stuff, eh? And that’s only a slice of Chapter Two. From there Plotnik acts as a sure guide to negotiating verb tenses, commanding both hyphen and semicolon, looting a Thesaurus like a literate pirate, and more.
At the end of his playbook Coach Plotnik delivers a rousing go-get-’em speech to his players in prose, each of whose next big game may involve an email, a critical proposal or a website feature:
When virtuosity of language and style starts to overwhelm story (or, in nonfiction, the point), it is time to tug at the reins. But writers often rein in themselves in from the start, never giving sacred frenzy a start….
Writing has always been about surmounting fears. But at the end of the day—at the beginning, too—only a single fear, that of boring your readers, merits a change in the direction of one’s language and style….
And if you occasionally land on your tokus, that is only the journey, the way, of spunk and bite.
This St. Edward alum’s advice to those at the alma mater in 2015—and to writers everywhere else, for that matter—is simple. Plunk down $12.95 for that copy of Arthur Plotnik’s book. I look forward to reading your spunky and biting thank-yous.
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a ’71 SEHS graduate and longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in neighboring Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org . Check out Arthur Plotnik at http://www.artplotnik.com .