Nota bene, writers! New and updated books for wordsmiths.
Steering the Craft, 2nd ed. A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K. Le Guin. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. First Mariner Books Edition 2015. 141 pp., $14.95 paperback. September 1, 2015.
Guest Review by Lanie Tankard
Autumn is a good time to put pen to paper, when one season restructures itself into another. Several respected writing guides have also emerged in altered forms this month. What both have in common is a recognized concept, outlined so clearly by Truman Capote in the quote above: Learn the rules before you break them.
Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.—Truman Capote, The Paris Review (interview)
Ursula K. Le Guin and Steven Pinker compose words at far ends of the spectrum in their individual work, but both do it extremely well. In their guides discussed here, they each refer to Strunk & White. Le Guin says it’s the grammar manual she uses, calling it “honest, clear, funny, and useful,” but notes “an opposition movement” has arisen due to Strunk & White’s “implacable” views. Pinker claims a sense of “unease” and “discomfort” with such “immortal” rules that won’t bend, while acknowledging that much of Strunk & White is “as timeless as it is charming.”
The new second edition of Le Guin’s Steering the Craft embodies Strunk & White’s well-known maxim of omitting needless words. She completes this voyage in approximately 150 pages, trimming at least thirty from the first edition while shrinking the page size as well. It’s lighter, too, by seven ounces, and also available for Kindles.
What else is different from the 1998 book? The subtitle, for one thing. Before, it was: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.
Now it’s: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, foreshadowing the seventeen-year modernization found within.
In fact, it’s not the same book at all, as UKL completely revised and rewrote it “from stem to stern.” And fitting the motif, the publisher is now Mariner Books instead of Eighth Mountain Press.UKL stresses from the get-go: “it is not a book for beginners.” She addresses both fiction and nonfiction storytellers—and how to correct your course if you’ve run aground.
Ten chapters cover topics such as the sound of writing, punctuation, grammar, sentence length, complex syntax, repetition, point of view, and voice. Each chapter ends with an intriguingly titled exercise. “Am I Saramago” assigns an activity sans punctuation. She addresses in an appendix how to set up a peer group workshop. A glossary includes terms like armature, dingbat, and pathetic fallacy.
UKL is widely known for her beloved science fiction, but she’s also written poetry and essays—not to mention a dynamite acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s 2014 Distinguished Contribution to American Letters award. I’ve long admired UKL’s thoughts on creativity expressed in her collection titled The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination.
Far more than a mere guidebook redux, the new Steering the Craft offers readers a visit with UKL herself and her lifetime of experience with words. The introduction alone is one of the purest examples of how excellent writing does not have to be wordy, for in its succinctness we hear her clear, calm voice in all its wisdom and wit.
Steering the Craft, 2nd ed., is a valuable sea chart for dedicated word crafters—call it Maker Faire for language. It’s brief. It’s brilliant. It’s UKL. I wish I could write like that.Steven Pinker’s new paperback edition of The Sense of Style, which first came out in hardback a year ago, is more than twice as long as UKL’s style guide but also contains artwork and cartoons. His six chapter titles range from “Good Writing” to “Telling Right from Wrong,” with several intriguing ones in between: “The Curse of Knowledge” and “The Arc of Coherence.” He includes a glossary, notes, and references at the end.
Pinker writes from the perspective of experimental psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, and popular science. He is also chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Here’s how the dictionary describes the assemblage: “The Usage Panel is a group of nearly 200 prominent scholars, creative writers, journalists, diplomats, and others in occupations requiring mastery of language. The Panelists are surveyed annually to gauge the acceptability of particular usage and grammatical constructions.” It’s fascinating to see the wide variety of wordsmiths included in this cluster.
In his prologue to The Sense of Style, Pinker stresses the idea that language “changes over time,” and pushes back against classic manuals such as Strunk & White’s in a forceful way. Yet he also advocates “reading more than one style guide.” Pinker concentrates on nonfiction, but notes “the explanations should be useful for fiction writers as well.”
Channeling thoughts for others requires the use of language. Pausing to consider the craft can sharpen a writer’s pencil. Words have been my life as an editor. I tweak them for other people in various genres. Many books on the writing process line my shelves, along with a number of style manuals. Strunk & White has always been front and center. These two new volumes just earned space on my shelves as well.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.