“Don’t be lazy.” It’s an admonition we expect from parents, co-workers, bosses. But another writer? Surely not! Surely other writers understand the pains we go through just to squeeze out a publishable paragraph? Yet Arthur Plotnik chides, “In the editing process…kill, beat, and burn—sniff out and destroy everything that smells predictable, clichéd, formulaic, labored, or lazy.” In the hills of Valencia, the rebuke felt personal. Just weeks ago, I’d penned a sentence I now want to backspace into oblivion. “The days blend into one another,” I’d written to start off a fictional quote. Unoriginal, I knew, but it seemed expedient enough…and I’d felt too lazy to think of something else. Mercifully, Plotnik’s examples show that even the best writers churn out lousy sentences sometimes. The solution? Never settle! “Write in white heat; edit in cold blood,” so the popular mantra goes.
As “a writer’s guide to bold, contemporary style,” Spunk & Bite offers 250+ pages of practical advice, giving logical explanations for considerations that seem otherwise natural to the practiced writer. Tips range from basic warnings about dead adverbs and dangling modifiers to more subjective counsels on semicolon use and sentence fragmentation. Although far from boring, Plotnik’s recommendations mostly passed over my head; I simply could not retain everything. What he did, however, is affirm my longtime suspicion that a good story (essay, novel) is as much about content as it is about form. Tenses matter. Words matter. Punctuation matters. In the end, that is what I took away from this book. Serious writers cannot afford to be lazy, because a good piece rests on the kind of language that comes only with time and effort—perhaps even at the expense of a few brain cells.
True to its name, Spunk & Bite proves itself an engaging read (although I could never seem to finish more than three chapters in one sitting). It starts off as a foil to the classic Strunk and White, but the two cater to different audiences. While The Elements of Style targets those new to writing—students in particular—Spunk & Bite was written for those already equipped with a fundamental command of the craft, but whose writing nonetheless falls short of brilliant. Looking for something to resuscitate a dead or beat-up style? Consult Spunk & Bite. It is a book I benefited from, and one I would happily lend to other writers.
Why do words keep shifting function? Well, why shouldn’t they, considering that users are the ones shifting them, and that words should serve users—not the other way around?