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Polishing Your Prose

Polishing Your Prose: How to Turn First Drafts Into Finished Work

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 104
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  • Book Info
    Polishing Your Prose
    Book Description:

    This singular book illustrates how to edit a piece of prose and enhance its clarity of thought and felicity of style. The authors first present ten principles of effective composition, and then scrutinize three extended paragraphs, suggesting with remarkable specificity how to improve them. The volume also offers challenging practice questions, as well as two finished essays, one serious and one humorous, that demonstrate how attention to sound mechanics need not result in mechanical writing. Steven M. Cahn and Victor L. Cahn help readers deploy a host of corrective strategies, such as avoiding jargon, bombast, and redundancy; varying sentence structure; paring the use of adjectives and adverbs; properly deploying phrases and clauses; and refining an argument. Here is a book for all who seek to increase their facility in written communication.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53201-3
    Subjects: Education, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-XII)

    The authors want to have made this book both short and readable: a double bravo. And it is both those things, as well as eminently useful. Before you plunge into reading this “how to” guide, you might well wonder what use it would serve. Even should you be without desire for improvement in your writing—more clarity, more concision, more, well, all sorts of things—you might actually enjoy reading these pages.

    I would make the rather peculiar suggestion of starting from the end—peculiar because the tendency in reading whatever kind of document is to start at the beginning....

    (pp. XIII-XVI)
    (pp. 1-2)

    Here’s the situation.

    In front of you sits a piece of writing you’ve just completed. You probably began with several ideas that evolved into a working thesis, which you then supported with argument and evidence. Along the way you may have discovered that your perspective on the subject had changed, and therefore the thesis had to be clarified, modified, or even recast. But you handled this task as well, and thereby unified your thoughts from introduction through conclusion.

    Thus the toughest part of the creative process is over. What remains, though, is still a challenge: fine-tuning your product so that...

    (pp. 3-24)

    If we were asked to select the one fault common to most bad writing, our answer would surely be verbosity. Everyone has experienced the frustration of trying to read an article or book in which the author’s concepts are stated so wordily or ostentatiously as to blunt their impact. The reality is that fewer and simpler words both create energy and elucidate meaning. Therefore our first three suggestions all concern ways to eliminate prolixity.

    Here’s a familiar sentence opening:

    There is a simple reason for Susan’s decision . . .

    At once the author is overwriting. Whenever possible, avoid “there...

    (pp. 25-66)

    Now that we’ve proposed ten strategies for editing, and you’ve tried to apply them to various sentences, let’s consider some larger blocks for revision. We’ve selected three substantial paragraphs, all taken from a single contribution to a book of essays. The author was a celebrated professor of mathematics, who in the piece under study reflects on the values he acquired and the lessons he learned during his long teaching career. He offers a wealth of intriguing ideas, but as he himself has acknowledged, he is a less than gifted writer. After extensive emendation, the work was eventually published, but for...

    (pp. 67-68)

    What have we accomplished?

    First we considered ten basic editing strategies; then during our rewriting efforts added three more. In the meantime, we applied all of them to improving three particularly challenging passages.

    We would never claim, however, that our methods are the only ones that work. The paragraphs that we have considered could have been refined in other acceptable ways, for just as great actors can interpret a role from different perspectives and with different techniques, so writers can succeed with their own styles.

    Incidentally, you may wonder why we have not provided additional passages for you to edit...

    (pp. 69-82)

    Here, as promised, are two samples of our own work. Each is autobiographical and describes a seminal experience from our education. As you will see, however, they contrast notably in tone and theme.

    When you read these pieces, you may discover that we’ve violated some of our own rules. If so, we like to think that the results vindicate us.

    In 1963, having just received my bachelor’s degree from Columbia College, I enrolled as a graduate student in Columbia University’s Department of Philosophy. I was unsure, however, that I was taking the right step, and wondered whether I ought instead...

    (pp. 83-86)