Monday, December 24, 2012

How to rewrite endlessly

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, writing, editing

Several years ago a retiring colleague gave me several books she didn't intend to take home. Now I am going through the same process myself. I decided to read one of these hand-me-downs that looked interesting: How to Write So People Can Understand You by Robert S. Burger (1914-1998). Beginning in 1958, he taught a course on concise writing for more than thirty years, to a great many of America's largest corporations. He focused on saying the most with the fewest words, without seeming choppy or overly terse. The first edition of his book was published in 1969; mine is the second edition of 1971. It was not reprinted, but a few used copies are found from time to time at Amazon.

The content of the book is simply the content of Mr. Burger's writing course. In 29 chapters—after 4 short chapters of introductory material—he discusses and demonstrates 39 "agents" of bad writing. His experimental subject is the "Sloane Report". The "Stage 1" version is about 2¼ pages of typescript, with 75 numbered, double-spaced lines. At Stage 7 it fits on a half page, though now the paragraphs are single-spaced. Nonetheless, there are but 21 lines.

I have taken several business writing classes. I recall one for which we were given a bad example and asked, prior to the first class session, to try to improve it. I went through the standard sort of editing processes I had learned before, and wrote a version I thought was pretty good. After a couple of days, I wasn't so happy with it. I tackled it again. I turned in both rewrites, with a note: "The second version is what I would write if I weren't afraid of the recipient." It was clear, bold, frank, almost terse, and made the point that needed making, with sufficient backup. It earned praise from the instructor, who said to all the class that the primary "disease" we need to overcome as writers is fear of the reader's reaction.

As I compare the various Stages of the Sloane Report, I find that the 7th stage is indeed frank and fearless, in great contrast to the 1st. It makes me wonder, what if Sloane had been handed back the report with, "Fit this on half a page, and make it clear!"? Would it match Burger's version?

I found the book quite interesting, but as I read I began to be bothered. Could anyone other than Burger really go through all this Sturm und Drang over a single, 2-page report? Were Mr. Burger alive to ask, I am sure he would say he could boil it down in an hour, or perhaps half an hour. True, but could anyone else? Unlikely. But perhaps I should give him the benefit of the doubt: I am sure those who take this course do not go through a 39-step or even 29-step process with all their reports afterward. Like any other complex task, in editing we learn to recognize a collection of errors and correct them all at once. After taking a course like this, a student would have picked up at least several of the ideas and be able to apply them. Over time, the skill would grow.

However, I find it telling that the book has been out of print for forty years. The writing book I keep on my desk, and continue to refer to, is "the little book": The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. I also have a PDF of the original 1918 edition of Elements that I read through once to see what White changed after Strunk's death. White improved it. Strunk had his idiosyncrasies, but his 105-page book remains in print. The short collection of maxims under the heading "Omit Needless Words" encapsulates the spirit of all the 39 "agents" in Burger's book. "The little book" is, quite simply, not overwhelming. How to Write is overwhelming.

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