Eva van Emden (she/her), freelance editor

Certified copy editor and proofreader


December 28, 2010

Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style

Arthur Plotnik Spunk and Bite
“I can see dead writing” confesses Arthur Plotnik, and his mission is to teach people to make their writing come alive. To this end he advocates some controversial techniques (dialogue tags! obscure vocabulary! taken from the thesaurus!), but always with sensible advice about how to make them effective. He also goes after a few good, old-fashioned writing flaws, and I found his chapter on eliminating danglers (“Slathered with cream cheese, she brought over the bagels”) very useful.

The chapter on semicolons has a very good example of how the choice of punctuation affects the reader’s experience. Referring to President Kennedy’s famous “Ask not” line, Plotnik discusses how the pause between “Ask not what your country can do for you” and “Ask what you can do for your country” can be punctuated: comma, dash, period, colon, or semicolon? He says:

My own judgment would be based on these considerations:
  • The comma seems too hurried, too trivializing, as if one were saying: “Ask not for the large pizza, ask for the small one.”
  • The dash is too abrupt. With a dash, one expects an indirection, like, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask how you can get heartburn relief.”
  • A period (full stop) allows time to anticipate the locution and to think, “Yeah, yeah, I get it.”
  • And a colon warns of some tedious enumeration: “Ask not what your country can do for you: Ask what you can do about poverty; ask what you can do about the environment; ask what you can . . .”
For more great writing advice from Arthur Plotnik, see Better than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives (review), and his new edition of The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts into Words (review).

Reviewed from a copy borrowed from the library.