Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Good Writing Is All About Getting the Details Right

The classic book The Elements of Style, which I think every writer should reread annually, contains an especially illuminating passage that I return to again and again, both for my own writing and when I speak to others about the subject. It's a message worthy of constant repetition:
'If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader's attention is by being specific, definite and concrete. The greatest writers--Homer, Dante, Shakespeare--are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up

A couple of Saturdays ago, New York Times TV reporter Bill Carter published an interesting piece (alas, now available online only via paid archives) about the head writer of the long-running sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," a fellow named Phil Rosenthal. While I'm not necessarily a fan of the show (though it has been known to hold my interest sometimes for a couple moments while I idly channel surf), I found this piece about the collaborative effort that went into its writing fairly fascinating, as well as a reminder of Strunk & White's crucial maxim. Rosenthal attributes the show's popularity to its specificity. "What really made the show stand out, Mr. Rosenthal said, was faithful reliance on truly specific--sometimes minutely so--details of married life," Carter writes. "The details were so specific because they almost always came directly from the lives of Mr. Rosenthal, Ray Romano [the star], or one of the phalanx of married men, and occasionally the women, who kicked around ideas (as well as one another's egos) inside the show's writing room."

And what were his creative influences, you ask? Rosenthal says he came by his respect for such specificity in plot lines by watching The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Honeymooners as a kid. In their day, they, too, followed Strunk & White's suggestion, though perhaps without even realizing it.


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