Mark Twain on Style

Here’s some fine advice from Mark Twain, no slouch as a stylist himself, on the virtues of writing that is plain and succinct:

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

(I stumbled across Twain’s wisdom on a post on Advice to Writers, a wonderful source of pithy, useful suggestions for how to make your writing better.)

Take a look at this passage from the opening chapter of Huckleberry Finn to see how masterfully Twain puts his advice into practice, as we watch poor Huck grapple with feelings of loneliness and restlessness in the home of the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson:

I set down in a chair by the window and tried to think of something cheerful, but it warn’t no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that’s on its mind and can’t make itself understood, and so can’t rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that way every night grieving. I got so down-hearted and scared I did wish I had some company. Pretty soon a spider went crawling up my shoulder, and I flipped it off and it lit in the candle; and before I could budge it was all shriveled up. I didn’t need anybody to tell me that that was an awful bad sign and would fetch me some bad luck, so I was scared and most shook the clothes off of me. I got up and turned around in my tracks three times and crossed my breast every time; and then I tied up a little lock of my hair with a thread to keep witches away. But I hadn’t no confidence. You do that when you’ve lost a horseshoe that you’ve found, instead of nailing it up over the door, but I hadn’t ever heard anybody say it was any way to keep off bad luck when you’d killed a spider.

I set down again, a-shaking all over, and got out my pipe for a smoke; for the house was all as still as death now, and so the widow wouldn’t know. Well, after a long time I heard the clock away off in the town go boom — boom — boom — twelve licks; and all still again — stiller than ever. Pretty soon I heard a twig snap down in the dark amongst the trees — something was a stirring. I set still and listened. Directly I could just barely hear a “me-yow! me-yow!” down there. That was good! Says I,”me-yow! me-yow!” as soft as I could, and then I put out the light and scrambled out of the window on to the shed. Then I slipped down to the ground and crawled in among the trees, and, sure enough, there was Tom Sawyer waiting for me.

Lovely, isn’t it? What works in fiction works in a blog. Try it!


“Awkward Family Photos”

I just stumbled upon this blog called, “Awkward Family Photos” and not only do I find it very entertaining, I find it very unique.  I particularly enjoy how the author pokes fun at family pictures through a glance of an actual picture with a very humorous one-line caption.  Though it is atypical of a writers blog, the one-line captions are very effective.  They are short and hilarious and often lead to very long threads from the readers.  Further, the two authors, Mike and Doug, break their blog into appropriate categories, such as Awkward Baby pictures, which makes navigating the blog very easy.  This blog is particularly successful because it is a funny experience every person can relate to.  Who hasn’t had an awkward family picture?  Through these clever one-liners and hilarious photos, this blog achieves its targeted goal: to make viewers laugh and want to come back for more.

“If you shock a flatline, I swear I will come to your home and beat you with a wet chicken.”

Here is the post.

I found this through the Detail Oriented livejournal community, which is dedicated to assisting writers in researching the details they want to put into their stories.  Doctor Grasshopper is a doctor who blogs about medicine in fiction, and offers advice to writers about how to do scary things to their characters in a way that won’t cause people who know more than they do to either laugh or throw things.  The blog was started when DrG was a med student.   The blogger has an amusing writing style, and presents technical information in layman’s terms.  The blogger also has the good sense to post a disclaimer at the bottom of every post with medical details, because one of the stupidest things people routinely do with the internet is make amateur diagnoses.

This post is all about electrical activity in the heart, the defibrillator, and what writers get wrong all the time.  The paragraphs are short, which is good because nothing deters readers like a wall of text, especially when the information being presented is technically complicated.  Important points and section headings within a post are bolded, and there are diagrams illustrating and embedded Youtube videos demonstrating.  Also, I like the title, which is both informative of the content, and funny.

DrG starts with the recurringly erroneous TV scene, then explains under what circumstances the use of the defibrillator would be correct, then explains what should really happen when a character flatlines instead of using the defibrillator (the source of DrG’s rage).

There’s also a later follow-up post, all about CPR, with a collection of Youtube videos showing really bad resuscitation technique.

“Cupid Ain’t Stupid.”

I chose to write about this post from DANA JEANius because I think it is the prime example of what a blog post should be. It is revealing of her thoughts, yet not too exposing of who she is. It shares not just an idea, but something that many of her readers can relate to. I have actually read a few of her posts and have enjoyed them so much because unlike so many other blogs out there, she is actually a great writer whose posts aren’t littered with misspellings and grammatical errors, one of my big pet peeves in literature. I also appreciate her tone in this post. It is informative, not preachy, and while she uses plain, everyday language her post is still very lively. When I read this post it’s as if she is having a conversation with me and I like to read blogs who use that conversational style. Other than that, the statement she made about people who criticize Valentine’s Day being “jaded lovers or lonely losers” was quite funny. I am actually going to continue reading her blog, just to see where she takes it.

“Menswear is a noun”

I chose this post from the blog Fuck Yeah Menswear. I really like this particular blog because it is CRAZY unique! There is really nothing informative about Fuck Yeah Menswear and it’s definitely not trying to address any political or social issues. But! I love it! It’s pure entertainment. The style sticks out to me because it breaks all the rules in the best way.

Like all the posts to Fuck Yeah Menswear, the format follows a rhyming almost rap of short verses, throwing normal sentence structure to the wind. This blogger also always goes crazy with references from both academia (Manifest Destiny?) and childhood (the Lorax!), and mixes sophisticated references (Dark and Stormy) with ridiculously dirty language (“fuck no bitches”). I really enjoy the humor of this bloggers style and the sense that he is not taking himself seriously in the least bit. This style is accessible, funny, smart, and entertaining.

100% in love with Gala Darling’s Biba post

I chose to highlight Gala Darling’s latest post, an informational article about the British clothing company, Biba, mainly because I admire its formatting. The information is neatly organized in a format that is easy to read, despite the fact that it is much longer and written more formally than her usual posts (this entry is by no means difficult to follow, but readers’ expectations can really affect how they feel about a post). The text is broken up into short paragraphs, pictures punctuate different sections of the article, the sections of the article are well-organized and flow in a logical chronology, and block quotes highlighted in pale pink add even more visual interest and variety to the post. Gala’s writing style and formatting aesthetics make her article seem so approachable and undemanding, from the clear distinctions between sections (a picture, a line, and the casually-toned title of the next section in huge font) to the bursts of pink in the links and quote. I believe that the ability to inject personal style into the formatting of one’s posts shows true blogging skill, and Gala is simply wonderful at it.

Concussions and NCAA Scholarship Rules

The post I am introducing to the class is a post from Deadspin contributor Emma Carmichael about Divison I football players quitting football because of repeated concussions, and the NCAA’s policy regarding those athletes scholarships.
At this point, the issue hasn’t become that big of a deal, because out of the four players that have quit due to concussions this year, one was a graduating senior, while the other three were allowed to become player-coaches and continue their scholarships.  What this post brings up, however, is that in the future there will be a point when a program that cannot afford to spend a scholarship on a player who can’t play on a concussed player, and will then be faced with the ethical dilemma of taking away his college education because he was hurt performing for that very school.  The NCAA has scholarship exceptions for players who suffer more tangible damage, such as torn knees and shoulders, but the language they use for concussions is extremely vague, as is the diagnosis methods used by many schools.  In the near future, as we learn more about concussions and their effects, this should only continue to be a growing problem, and the post discusses how the NCAA needs to make changes in order to protect players who quit football in order to protect their long term mental health.