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111 of 125 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Sound of the Elements of Style
This book has a very nice cover--really, a very cool design. I'm a little more equivocal about its insides. I was excited enough by the advance blurbs I read for this book to purchase it in hardcover a week or so after it was published--an extravagance that would shock those who know me well. But this topic appeals to me, and I like to throw a little support behind this...
Published on August 19, 2004 by M. Garvey

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3.0 out of 5 stars For class
I had to get this for a writing class. I wasnt overly impressed with it and have read better books on the art of writing. This book seemed to talk more about non-fiction than fiction which was useless for me. Also I didnt see any real good solid advice that was unique and new
Published 7 months ago by Michael Melville


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111 of 125 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Sound of the Elements of Style, August 19, 2004
This book has a very nice cover--really, a very cool design. I'm a little more equivocal about its insides. I was excited enough by the advance blurbs I read for this book to purchase it in hardcover a week or so after it was published--an extravagance that would shock those who know me well. But this topic appeals to me, and I like to throw a little support behind this sort of publishing enterprise once in a while.

The book is interesting enough, and Yagoda does a good job of keeping things moving with lots of examples of and chatter about style from practicing writers. My problem is with one of the book's enabling conventions: The idea that Strunk & White's The Elements Of Style presents an outmoded and "soul-deadening" idea of style and that only books such as Yagoda's truly plumb the subject to its core.

I've seen this sort of thing before, most notably in Clear and Simple as The Truth, by Thomas and Turner--a book weirdly bent on defying its own title and premise. The idea is to construct a straw man out of the immensely popular The Elements Of Style and then throw eggs at it. But it's an approach that anyone who knows Strunk & White well will recognize as a canard.

It's largely a made-up polemic, probably caused by the fact that writers are constantly being prodded to find and exploit "the angle" of the story. Magazines prod this way, so do agents and book publishers. It's not good enough to present a solid proposal for an article or book that simply discusses an interesting subject; there must be an angle, and the more controversial the better. And though it's hardly Watergate, smearing The Elements of Style is what passes for provocative in this crowd.

Yagoda states that Strunk & White's goal is prose that offers "...no trace of the author--no mannerisms, no voice, no individual style...." And then, in refutation of this fabricated Strunk & White "ideal," he fills his book with examples of writers who write with identifiable styles--ranging from subtle to sledgehammer. The examples are fun--these are really good writers--but he's wrong about The Elements of Style.

The first four fifths of The Elements of Style are largely about style in the sense of mechanics and word usage. No trouble there--that's not the kind of style we're talking about in the Yagoda book. In section five of The Elements, though--the section titled "An Approach to Style"--E. B. White takes a stab at offering beginning writers some simple, sound advice for clearing their prose of dross and deadwood so that they can begin the project of developing their own voice and personality on the page.

White's project, then, is to help a writer clear the decks so that the "self" can escape "into the open." Yagoda's mistake (and Harold Bloom's, on page xxi of Yagoda) is in thinking that White wants writers to stop once they've swept their prose free of clutter--to end with complete, bland transparency. But he doesn't; transparency, in White's view, is simply the necessary precondition for achieving one's individual voice as a writer--just as an empty canvas is the necessary precondition for painting a picture. "As he becomes proficient in the use of language," White says, "his style will emerge, because he himself will emerge." Does that sound like a recipe for "no mannerisms, no voice, no individual style"?

I am an editor who has worked with nonfiction writers for sixteen years. I press The Elements of Style on many of them--particularly those having trouble organizing their thoughts or getting their words out in a clear, compelling way--and it usually helps. It is only after mastering the fundamental tools of clear expression (the craft of bringing thought to page relatively intact) that a writer's personality, his "voice" or style, can begin to permeate his prose.

I have to believe it's been a long time since either Yagoda or Bloom spent an evening grading undergraduate essays (if indeed undergraduates are still required to write essays). The usefulness of The Elements of Style for such writers (if they study the book and apply its lessons) is incontrovertible.

Yagoda and Bloom, in fact, recognize the validity of White's approach, in spite of their trendy protestations. Bloom, page 159: "I have made the conscious effort to write in a more straightforward and accessible way." (Thank you, Harold.) Yagoda, page 236: "...the clearing of brush to create a walkable path, is never-ending for a writer." (That as near a restatement of White's thesis in "An Approach to Style" as you're likely to find.)

As for whether or not a writer can learn to write with "style" by reading this book, as Alex Beam's blurb on the back cover promises, the answer is no. A book such as this, while providing fun examples of style at work, is really no more or less instructive than the rest of a writer's (preferably wide) reading, from which he will sift and sort (consciously or not) the possibilities of voice, tone, and style in the ongoing effort to develop his own sound on the page.
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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One Sound Book, June 24, 2004
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With this engaging, entertaining and thought-provoking book, Ben Yagoda continues the discussion of what constitutes good writing that he initiated in "About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made." Well researched, considered and reasoned, the book opens with a fascinating cultural history of the concept of style. Arguments over whether it is best to write like Hemingway or Faulkner (or the middle-of-the-road Fitzgerald) date back, Yagoda notes, to the Greeks. In "On Rhetoric," for example, Aristotle emphasized clarity, transparency and decorum with an approach that presages some of the modern -- albeit, as Yagoda demonstrates, far from universally accepted -- message of Strunk & White's touchstone, "The Elements of Style." Yagoda then takes us on a journey across two hemispheres to discuss, with 40 different writers as diverse as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and best-selling humorist Bill Bryson, how they got their grooves. In short thematically arranged snippets and later, in extended monologues, they talk freely about: the writers who influenced them; how they arrived at their style, or styles; even the nuts-and-bolts question of how their writing implements (pen, typewriter, computer) and methods of revision affect the sound that we hear when we read their works. If you're like me, you'll find yourself endeavoring to read for the first time, or re-read, some of Yagoda's interview subjects and those they cite as seminal influences, such as the grand dame of essayists, Joan Didion.
For any reader or writer who gives a damn about the written word, this is a richly rewarding book.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In Defense of Style, May 14, 2006
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This review is from: The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk about Style and Voice in Writing (Paperback)
Yagoda's thesis of this highly intelligent, generous book is that the dogma, championed by Strunk and White's Elements of Style, which shames us for having our own writing style, contradicts the joys and pleasures of writing, namely, that writers have their own individual finger-print style or voice. A writer's voice, his or her style, is the sensibility or personality giving life to the page. Yogada interviews several writers, including humorist David Barry, for the subject. Yagoda's own voice is smart and lively but never adademic. I should emphasize that the lack of academic-speak is one of the book's greatest virtues and triumphs. Here Yagoda has taken a book about the style of writing, a topic that could have easily been hijacked by some stuffy pretentious academic, but keeps the passion and accessibility on the level of a delicious pop book. Anyone interested in writing and style and literature in general should love this book.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the Best, April 8, 2007
This review is from: The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk about Style and Voice in Writing (Paperback)
This is a tremendous book, a must-read for anyone who wants to improve their writing skills. I've read many writing instruction books, from Zinsser's "On Writing Well" to Stein on Writing to Strunk and White, and this volume stands with the best of them.

The book demystifies (partially, at least) the various tics, choices, and talents that underlie many writers' styles. It's in-depth and intelligent. Extra bonus: it's highly readable. Yagoda's own style is engaging and keeps the educational material far above the standard-issue text. I found it encouraging.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars thought provoking, January 7, 2005
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Greg Sever (Albuquerque, NM USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Think you know what "style" is in writing? This book looks at every angle till you are humbled. Style is ... voice...rhythm..."the man"...conjunction of speech and written word...a response... Hemingway said his awkwardness in writing was called his style. Yagoda's book is an intelligent and erudite look at style, and raises questions rather than hammers down an answer. It's like the blind men touching the elephant and describing ("limning") what they feel. Based on this book, I've ordered Cyril Connelly's "Enemies of Promise."
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For a Special Audience, October 18, 2007
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This review is from: The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk about Style and Voice in Writing (Paperback)
A lot of space on this page has been devoted to defending The Elements of Style Illustrated against Yagoda's abrupt dismissal. Fair enough. Anyone who's ever read undergraduate prose in the days before the kids just copied it all from the 'net has to acknowledge that clarity and simplicity are the foundations of expression. If it ain't clear, it ain't stylish.
But Yagoda doesn't seem to be denying this obvious truth. He is simply saying that obeying the rigors of S&W is not the same as style in the sense that the word applies to our best writers.

*S&W talk about what makes style possible for any writer.
*Yagoda talks about the nature of style itself after the brush has been cleared, the foundation laid and all the unnecessary metaphors put away.

That said, this is a delightful and provocative book. It suffers, as any book on literary style must, from the necessity of using its subject matter as the means of its own discussion. That is, the style of a book about style is bound to be a little strained. (See Insights and Illusions of Philosophy for both explanation and evidence.)

The best use for this charming book is in forcing the reader's attention to words and style. The most horrific part is that it forces a writer's attention to his own words and style. It's nourishment for the former, medicine for the latter who would be well-advised to take small doses and continue writing.

--Lynn Hoffman, author of New Short Course in Wine,The and
the slightly stylish bang BANG: A Novel
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A recommended title for your "how to" shelf, July 1, 2010
This review is from: The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk about Style and Voice in Writing (Paperback)
As nearly as I can recall, I began consciously trying to write sometime in junior high. I had found an enormous old bound, lined ledger book and all those empty pages demanded I try to fill them. I wrote execrable short stories, I wrote self-conscious essays of opinion, I wrote terrible verse. If I thought about "style" and "voice" at all, I suppose I thought such things were intuitive. They would appear on their own; all I had to do was keep writing. I took a couple of creative writing classes in high school and I wrote dozens of feature articles for the school paper, which taught me discipline and how to think about what I was doing, and (most important) how to rewrite and revise. I ended up becoming an historian instead of a novelist or a journalist, and making a career in library science and archives management, but I've never ceased to write. The difference now is, I know full well there's very little that's "intuitive" about the process of getting thoughts and inventions down on paper, and so I've read quite a few how-to books on writing. Ben Yagoda made his own reputation at THE NEW YORKER and is a noted critic and historian of "literary journalism," as well as an academic teacher of writing, so what he has to say about his field automatically deserves some attention. While this is not a how-to manual for wannabes, he does an excellent job on those mysterious authorial qualities of style and voice, from the use of self-conscious idiom (like "Black English") and a fondness for certain parts of speech (adverbs are painfully popular) to the influence of writers on other writers and even the impact of word processors and computers on the development of style. (I know I write quite differently on a yellow pad with a pen than I do in Word.) He depends heavily on dozens of interviews with working writers, some well-known, some not so much. (Though you shouldn't miss Andrei Codrescu, New Orleans NPR's very own S. J. Perelman.) The result is a mix of Yagoda's own thoughts and his commentary on the observations of those who make a living at this stuff. The style is easy and flows nicely, as you would expect from a top non-news journalist. Highly recommended to anyone who thinks they want to be a writer.
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3.0 out of 5 stars For class, January 15, 2014
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I had to get this for a writing class. I wasnt overly impressed with it and have read better books on the art of writing. This book seemed to talk more about non-fiction than fiction which was useless for me. Also I didnt see any real good solid advice that was unique and new
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4.0 out of 5 stars Writing, August 31, 2013
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This review is from: The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk about Style and Voice in Writing (Paperback)
This is a great collection of perspectives and how to's. After reading this you can't help but appreciate the effort it takes to write something great.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All about voice, July 8, 2013
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This review is from: The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk about Style and Voice in Writing (Paperback)
As a teacher and writer, I realize that authenticity is the major factor behind voice, but there is more. Finding one's voice takes time and much reading of other writers so that when it feels right, it does so because it is right.
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The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk about Style and Voice in Writing
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