Eva van Emden, Freelance Editor

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December 29, 2013

The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts into Words by Arthur Plotnik

Arthur Plotnik: The Elements of Expression There’s an expression in Dutch: Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg. It translates approximately as, “Why don’t you just act normal? That’s already crazy enough.” And how right the Dutch are: rhetorical flourishes, weak jokes, arty effects, obscure language, and the breezy style that Strunk and White warned against are all reasons to toss a book over your shoulder. But, taken too much to heart, won’t this keep-it-normal philosophy result in Soviet-cell-block-grey writing? The literary equivalent of overcooked cabbage and brown rice without salt may not get thrown across the room, but it will end up gathering dust under the bed.

Somewhere between these two extremes is writing that catches attention without bolting on superfluous ornaments. The Elements of Expression tells you how to use concrete images and unfamiliar combinations of words to produce writing that is fresh and expressive and brings delight to the reader. Arthur Plotnik provides techniques for injecting force and power into your writing, and suggests a variety of places, from rap music to Shakespeare, to find new language. Most importantly, he tells you how to make this new language your own.

Don’t waste time finding your single real voice. We rarely find our real voice . . . Our voice can be a new voice—or several—that we make real, a voice in harmony with our roots but capable of expressing the full flower of the evolving self. Like everything that breaks from the ordinary, the new voice entails risks, apprehensions, missteps. These are reasonable costs of liberation.

I expected this to be a book about writing, so the chapter on oral presentation was a delightful added bonus. We’ve all been tortured by the People Who Should Be Banned from Presenting (the flaunters of their unpreparedness: “Prepare? Do gods prepare?”). In keeping with the theme of adding expressiveness, Plotnik pleads for effective voice modulation. In the past, the baby-talk sound of the kindergarten teacher who traversed an entire octave in one word and the android-like delivery of newscasters made me think that the best modulation is the one that nobody notices (“just act normal . . .”), but when you’re a small figure on a distant stage, the audience needs more animation than you would use when speaking face to face. Plotnik tells you how to use volume, tempo, and phrasing to make your presentation sing. He finishes with his own checklist of methods for reducing the terror (bring a marked text and an extra copy).

As always, Plotnik is a joy to read. He shares his secrets generously, and he empathizes with the yearning for effective expression that all writers, however casual, feel.

Other books by Arthur Plotnik

Better than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives (review)
Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style (review)
Elements of Editing: A Modern Guide for Editors & Journalists
The Elements of Authorship (review)

Reviewed from my own copy of the book.