This interview is part of a series featuring an interview with Arthur Plotnik, author of the newly released, Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style by Briget Ganske, Spring 2006 and posted with their permission.
Where did you get the idea for Spunk and Bite? Have you always been disappointed with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style?
I was drunk on Strunk and White when I first read it and became a loyal disciple. And I still take a cold shower now and then in its good advice on clarity and concision. My problem is not so much with its few outdated rules as with E. B. White’s inhibiting advice in his chapter on style. A breezy, daring stylist himself, he advised a conservative approach for everyone else. But today’s frenetic media environment—the competition for attention—demands something more; namely, the expressiveness that I describe and coach in Spunk & Bite.
The idea for the book grew out of an early column I wrote called “E. B. Whitewashed,” but I’d say only 5-10 percent of the book crosses swords with Strunk and White. Most of the text takes stock of the liveliest expression today and what makes it lively. And—with an attempt at exemplary liveliness—I prompt writers to experiment with these ideas and techniques.
How do you measure the success of your own writing? Or, how do you know when you have written something good?
My mentor, Longinus of the third century, said that judgment is the last outgrowth of experience. If I were inexperienced, I’d rely more on the brutality of friends and strangers to give me honest appraisals. The Internet has made that process a bit easier. But now I feel about 80-percent confident as my own appraiser. For works I want to publish, I try to tell readers something they didn’t know, and tell it in a style that refreshes them from everyday drivel, from the fug—the stale air–of the commonplace. I have a good sense of when I’ve pulled it off, when I’ve written something with spunk and bite, so to speak.
The remaining 20 percent of a judgment comes from feedback, of course, and I bristle as much as anyone at negative feedback. But I try to listen. When someone I know praises a work, I often try to reread the work in their persona, getting the outsider’s view of what worked. Or just reveling in the experience.
How do you know when you are finished with a piece of writing?
When, in the black-leather guise of a merciless self-editor, I’ve beaten and burned everything predictable, labored, or lazy, then seen to it that what remains is fresh, stimulating, inventive, and quick-witted.
Good writing is bad writing revised. I revise those wayward drafts until they cry for mercy. If the authorities ever saw how I beat my sentences, they’d put them in foster homes and throw me in a cell.
How much time do you spend revising and editing versus actually writing?
It’s all actual writing; there’s no dividing line, especially with the ease of digital editing. There is actual talk, and what you would have said to someone if you had it to say over. But in writing, you always have it to say over—until it’s exactly what you wanted to say. That’s the beauty of the written word.
Come back tomorrow to hear Plotnik offer up his writing process, and if you haven’t picked up a copy of Spunk & Bite why not grab a copy and punch up your language today? You might also want to check out Art’s website, Spunky’s Blogrr, and, Plotnik’s official bio. If you haven’t already, read my review of The Elements of Authorship then return for more soundbites from the Great Plotnik!