August 15

The perfect gift for your writer friend (/yourself)

13-08-15styleguideDuring the occasional afternoon free from my kids and business, my secret vice is to aimlessly browse the writing section of my local Houston bookstore (Brazos, if you live nearby). Independent booksellers have such good taste, and they select unique pieces, target directly toward the quasi-intellengsia, nostalgic sort of consumer (e.g., me).

A couple of weeks ago, I carried my coffee in my diaperbag-less hand, and went straight to the writing section, in the back, quiet corner. My tracing fingers came across what looked like a familiar title, “The Elements of Style,” but the thick, black letters sat raised up on the spine a bit, and I saw that there were three authors, “Strunk, White, and Kalman.” Well, Strunk wrote (and later White added editions to) the original and most commonly used style guide out there, but I'd never heard of Kalman.

When I pulled the book off the shelf, I expected to see a rather plain cover, but I met eyes with a water-color painting of a very cute hound dog. I flipped through the pages, reading Strunk and White's oft-cited discussion of the basics of writing and pausing to see how Kalman's beautiful, whimsical water color paintings illustrate the dry rules.

13-08-15rugMy favorite illustration in the book is of a man, lying on a rug in the middle of a very posh, upperclass sitting room, where another man and two women are drinking wine near a fireplace.

Strunk's original rule says that you should keep related words together.

If you say, “He noticed a large stain in the rug that was right in the center,” the reader has no idea whether the stain is in the center or the rug is in the center. Kalaman's interpretation shows a bloodstain, from a man's head (!) in the center of the rug, and the rug is in the center of the room.

Strunk recommends, instead, that you say, “He noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug.”

Either way, really, there could be a man's blood staining a rug.

Kalman chose not to illustrate the (even) more risqué images. Although, I wish he had for this one:

“New York's first commercial human-sperm bank opened Friday with semen samples from eighteen men frozen in a stainless steel tank.”

When you should really say, “New York's first commercial human-sperm bank opened Friday when semen samples were taken from eighteen men. The samples were then frozen and stored in a stainless steel tank,”

I would very much like to see an illustration of men frozen in a tank inside a human-sperm bank.

What a find! A guide for beautiful, clear writing, complemented with striking, lovely images. Of course, I bought it, and I've kept it in my purse (or diaper bag), for the last two weeks. When I have a few minutes, I revisit my favorite, classic style guide and laugh or am inspired by Kalman's visual interpretation.

Go get yourself a copy and be ready for a seriously beautiful writing guide. Or maybe it's the perfect gift for your writing friend. One for you, one for her.

Find Strunk, White, and Kalaman's The Elements of Style Illustrated here.


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