Ten Ways to Tighten Your Prose:
Toronto: Wordwrights Canada, 1994. 15pp, paper, $4.95.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by T.S. Causabon.
Consider how flat the following account sounds: "Harriet came to the clearing. She got out of her car and looked across the landscape. `It's too late. He went away,' she said."
Such sentences reduce life to an outline. Instead, brick in the blanks with precise details. How did Harriet get out of her car and looked across the landscape. What make of a car was it? Where exactly did she look?
Imagine rebuilding the passage: "Harriet swerved into the clearing. She slammed out of her Porsche, and glared across the bracken. `Too bloody late,' she hissed, `the blackguard slipped away.'"
ONE OF A SERIES of slim booklets Wordwrights Canada has put out to help writers, Ten Ways to Tighten Your Prose attempts to help the novice writer with a system. I shall declare myself now: I don't believe in systems, either for writing or global political organization.
But Ioannou's system is for writers to hunt through their prose (she suggests using the search function on a word processor) for ten classes of "warning words." She points out that sometimes the words or syllables in her list are appropriate, but that they can alert you to areas that might benefit from re-writing.
Some of Ioannou's suggestions are good ones for writers of any age -- replacing phrases involving the adverb "very" with a single strong word, for example, or using concrete Anglo-Saxon words to replace general Latinate terms. Often, Ioannou employs visual metaphors, advising writers to sharpen their descriptions as a photographer focusses a camera, or to put their images in motion like a movie.
In her drive for active prose, however, Ioannou encourages writers to begin sentences with gerund phrases ("Twisting her handkerchief, she. . . "). This is dangerous advice for novice writers; sentences that use that structure to describe action tend to be trite and confusing, if not actually impossible. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says this is such a common and tiresome problem that any sentence begining that way should be presumed guilty.
At other times, the life Ioannou wants to see in a writer's prose sounds decidedly artificial. In the excerpt above, for example, her "bad example" is flat -- but often people's emotions are too, at times of great stress. The "bad example" might be understated, but Ioannou's rewrite sounds like something from a cheesy romance novel (blackguard?). And using almost any word (much less "hissed") instead of "said" would go in my list of ten "warning words."
There are other places where one could quibble about Ioannou's advice, but a final reservation about using this slim volume in the classroom is that she relies on a level of knowledge about formal grammar that many high-school students simply won't have. Ioannou uses "active voice" and "passive voice" without defining the terms, for example, and uses "pluperfect" as though everyone knows what it means. The novice writers most likely to benefit from Ioannou's advice probably don't.
This short volume is economical, but it's an even bet whether it will make students' writing better or worse.
T.S. Causabon is a freelance writer in Winnipeg.
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