Writing with Spunk and Bite, and Ming-the-Merciless Revision: An Interview with Arthur Plotnik


With amazing grace The Elements of Style (aka Strunk & White) saved me, scoured clean the mucus clogging my prose. An enthralled disciple, I bowed to this iconic writing rulebook. I put myself in the background; I omitted needless words; I spared figures of speech.

Often, I shunned taking risks, unlike the writers I was devouring: the fiction of Cormac McCarthy, Charles D’Ambrosio, Francine Prose, Don DeLillo; the essays and journalism of Stephen Harrigan, John McPhee, Joan Didion, Susan Orlean, and Patrick Beach and Brad Bucholz at the Austin American-Statesman. Whosoever took risks committed naughtiness was the Strunkian mantra that had seeped into my writing and editing (oh, I sinned, but felt guilty later).

Over and over I sought advice from various writing gurus about how to invigorate my writing, punch it up with spunk and bite — a favorite was Richard Rhodes’s How to Write. And a recent bout with writer’s malaise led me to read Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style (2007 paperback). Reading the book was like attending an old-time tent revival. The spirited prose and Plotnik’s advice zinged into my soul. I felt absolved, washed of Strunkian dogma.

I felt better about myself as a writer, and I decided I needed to know more about Arthur Plotnik and Spunk & Bite, so, a week ago, more or less, I sent him an e-mail, asking him if would be interested in an interview via e-mail that I would post here. He wrote back, saying yes.

Below is the interview:

What was the catalyst for Spunk & Bite? As an editor were you seeing gaggles of writers attached to Strunk & White, and not taking risks?

Some of the writing I saw would have made the gods create Strunk & White — if only to save the universeArthur Plotnik from collapsing. My authors included tight-collared academics in love with jargon and obfuscation, and non-writers gone giddy with the chance to speak in print. The principles of S&W (The Elements of Style) helped me bring some clarity and concision to these, er, writings.

But, yes — when I tried to push inert prose into something more dynamic, I’d often get Strunked and Whited by authors who felt I didn’t know right from wrong and was out to humiliate them. I was sympathetic to a point. How many writers trust, under their byline, someone else’s risk-taking? But at the same time I might have been losing it for S&W as an editor’s best friend.

When you set out to write Spunk & Bite did you intend to write something as a challenge to Strunk & White or did the idea come in the process of revision?

Originally, my challenge to S&W consisted of one short piece in The Editorial Eye, for which I wrote regularly in the late 1990s. I wasn’t the first no-name punk to question The Elements of Style; but in my annual visits to the sacred tome I was growing weary of E. B. White’s 1950s conservatism — his attachment to rigid conventions, his disdain for organic, adventurous language.

In writing Spunk & Bite (which includes an expansion of the original piece) I needed to counter S&W’s dictates with abundant examples of acclaimed, rule-breaking prose. I sought brief examples and found plenty to patch into drafts of the book. As I revised, I was able to unify the theme, the examples, and my own shtick into one concussive spunkification.

On the subject of revision: I’ve read several interviews in which you talk about your revision process, and it sounds very meticulous. What is your process for revision? Do you use a different process when editing others?

Well, I am the guy who wrote The Elements of Editing (1982), in which I forced myself to codify some of the editing/revising techniques I’d developed by trial and error.

Revision has many levels, depending on time available and one’s purpose relative to an audience. A newspaper feature gets some revision in the lead, maybe a late update — and it’s on to the next day’s feature. A short story is tuned again and again to the sensibilities of a literary audience, to the requirements of its arc, the credibility of its characters, and so on.

Usually, revision starts with a re-reading of the whole piece some time after it was written. With the likely audience in mind, one kills anything irrelevant to the desired effect and beefs up the parts that need to be emphatic. (Beefing up might mean tightening loose structure, introducing live verbs, replacing laboriously modified words with words that do the job by themselves.)

I am Ming the Merciless in revising my own writing. I go schizophrenic, detaching myself from Plotnik-the-writer. It is Plotnik-the-editor who must be pleased. He beats, burns, and destroys everything that strikes him as crap. He kills with impunity Plotnik-the-writer’s most precious darlings. He lays down mandates for the writer’s next draft — which he will edit just as savagely.

When I edit others, I am much more considerate. I don’t want to interfere with their “voice,” but just help it come through. Help the fire show through the smoke, as I’ve put it. If I sense an excessive “pride of authorship,” however, I beg off the job. No one can fight writers who love their locutions unconditionally. To be revised means: Lose the pride, weigh other possibilities.

One small tip: After you’ve revised a manuscript on screen, print it out and read the hard copy. Guaranteed you’ll see some necessary changes you hadn’t noticed in pixels.

When I first started out as a daily newspaper editor, I must admit I tended to fundamentalize many of Strunk & White’s rules, especially “Omit needless words,” when working with reporters. I also saw the tendency in other editors to follow Strunk & White as if it were holy writ. How can editors become spunkier when editing other writers?

That’s a tough one. The editor-author relationship is one I’ve called an “uneasy alliance.” Ideally, as with co-authors, each partner enhances the other’s strengths and attacks the weaknesses.

Applying S&W to the attack — against needless words, passive voice, wandering modifiers, etc. — will usually do some good, even abet spunkiness. But using the iconic little rulebook to cast down the unruly is simply compulsive behavior. Out the window go personal asides, slang, offbeat modifiers, freaky imagery — in short, distinctive personality.

Instead, an editor might join the rebellion, help it out, give an audience something fresh and daring: Spotting an author’s attempt at whimsy, the editor suggests, “How about we take ‘horse’s ass’ a step further? Say, ‘unicorn’s ass?'” “Spunky!” says the author. “But ‘unicorn’s booty’ is funnier.” “Perfect,” says the editor.

How did you learn to be a spunkier writer and editor?

These things evolve in mysterious ways, like the writer’s “voice” — the sum total of all the hundreds of language choices in a manuscript. The general readership itself has grown spunkier, embracing slang and pop and funkiness where standard English once ruled. But writers may want to cross these expanded boundaries with caution. Much spunkiness is ephemeral, like slang or pop that goes from cool to cringey in a nanosecond. Too much spunkiness is a turn-off — what S&W might have meant by too much “breezy” writing.

Spunkiness may be best when it erupts from quieter context, thus yielding elements of surprise, contrast, and edge. Run-on spunkitude sounds like a couple of dudes on cell phones at the Hard Rock Café.

It’s a delicate balance. One must dance through it and not fear the pratfalls.

The samples demonstrating punchier writing are my favorite elements of Spunk & Bite. You draw on writers in all genres, from contemporary novelists like Martin Amis and Jonathan Franzen to samples from journalists like Mark Singer. Obviously you value reading. How should writers read?

Like hungry motherf*ckers. Hit every eating joint, savor every morsel, and take some home (for your journal). Lick your chops over fresh metaphors and other juicy tropes. Stop and take note of how old dishes are made newly mouthwatering.

I like to own books so I can mark passages; but I also write down or photocopy passages from the many library books I borrow. All this marking and copying makes one pay attention to language. That’s the key. Pay attention to the words. Don’t let plot carry you away from the language craft.

What are you reading now? Who are some of your favorite writers and why? Any recommendations?

You might guess that I favor writers who have a way with language, with expressiveness, along with skills in characterization, plotting, and exposition. And among the language masters, I love writers who can mix dictions — high with low, sacred with profane. Juno Diaz is the man of the hour in this respect, pouring out mixed-diction gems like this one from The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007):

. . . so keen was he about learning that any new piece of knowledge, no matter how arcane or trivial, could send his ass over the Van Allen Belt.

Mixed diction is, of course, in danger of becoming a trend. You hear it on once-staid campuses, you see it in The New Yorker. But among those authors who can still thrill me with it are Martin Amis, Richard Price, E. Annie Proulx, and Chuck Palahniuk.

Outside of diction, I’m drawn to the usual virtues: sensuality, inventiveness, humor, freshness and intensity of observation. My recommendations for today would be The Bad Girl (Mario Vargas Llosa), The Book of Dave (Will Self), Delirium (Laura Restrepo), and Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (Ben Fountain). From Fountain’s collection of stories, I copied these goodies into my journal:

Mason [in the presence of “new wave gangsters”] sensed a sucking emptiness in them, the void that comes of total self absorption.

The Ghanian soldiers stared back with scathing indolence.

Other than Spunk & Bite, are there writing advice/craft books you would recommend?

Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax is both solid and liberating. My usage bible is Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner (who says lowercase “bible” when it’s not a proper noun). I find Sheridan Baker’s The Practical Stylist a more useful standard guide than Strunk & White.

And, what the hell, Library Journal called my own The Elements of Expression “humorous, thought-provoking, and right on the mark.” And now it’s cheap besides.

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Arthur Plotnik is the author of seven books, including the acclaimed Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style and two Book-of-the-Month Club selections: The Elements of Editing and The Elements of Expression. Among his hundreds of published items are award-winning essays, biography, short fiction, and poetry. He studied under Philip Roth and Vance Bourjaily at the Iowa (Graduate) Writers’ Workshop and worked as a reporter, government editor, and — for the American Library Association and others — as a magazine and book editor. He served as a contributing editor for The Writer magazine and is now on its Editorial Board.

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