Friday, July 08, 2011

Ain't nothing changed but the year it is

by CWK

... if you need a reminder, here it is.

From Elements of Style:

Do not affect a breezy manner.

The volume of writing is enormous, these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it, almost as though the author were in a state of euphoria. "Spontaneous me," sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribblers who would one day confuse spontaneity with genius. 
The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day. Open any alumni magazine, turn to the class notes, and you are quite likely to encounter old Spontaneous Me at work-- an aging collegian who writes something like this:

'Well, guys, here I am again dishing the dirt about your disorderly classmates, after passing a weekend ing the Big Apple trying to catch the Columbia hoops tilt and then a cab-ride from hell through the West Side casbah. And speaking of news, howzabout tossing a few 
primo items this way?'


We should always aim for EFFECT (to create a lasting impact) in writing and speaking, but never for AFFECT (striking a phony pose). AFFECT is taking on a false persona: pretending to be something you are not. In the above selection, Strunk and White are warning of us of tying to AFFECT a breezy style: pretending, for the sake of cool points, to be detached and carefree. For my money, a breezy style has a place -- but not as an AFFECT -- not as a put on, or gimmick.

Yet, the heart in the matter is the heart of the matter. The problem with an affected breezy style? Often, it flows from a heart that is more concerned about serving self than serving the reader or listener. The real problem is not the style, but the heart of the style. The real problem is vanity. This problem has to do with the:

"... egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day."

Affectation of all kinds usually involves image -- I want people to perceive me in a certain way: cool, a good writer, smart, or funny. Writing like the example above is certainly egocentric: written, ultimately, for pride. It's not written out of love. It is not written to communicate. It is not written for fun. It is not written for joy, or pain, or love, or to waste time, or any of the other noble motives. "Affected" writing is written for pride. I can think of about 1000 other better reasons to write.

A lot of things change: writing style, pop culture, standards of cool, but the human heart never changes, and the human heart always gravitates toward pride and egocentrism. We are all tempted to write for silly pride,  to stoke a sinful self esteem, and find our glory in vain glory. Elements of Style was written in 1918. Then, a check was needed against egocentric writing. Well, ain't nothing change but the year it is; if you need a reminder, here it is:

"...the same wind blows, at lesser velocities, across vast expanses of journalistic prose. The author in this case has managed in two sentences to commit most of the unpardonable sins: he obviously has nothing to say, he is showing off and directing the attention of the reader to himself, he is using slang with neither provocation nor ingenuity, he adopts a patronizing air by throwing in the word primo, he is humorless (though full of fun), dull, and empty. He has not done his work (From Elements of Style, "Do Not Affect A Breezy Manner)."

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