I know many writers have a special fondness for the classic writing guide The Elements of Style. After all it’s de rigeur in most college writing classes. But writer and editor Mark Garvey took his Strunk & White affection to a whole new level for his new book, Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.
Here, Garvey answers shares what he learned about Strunk & White while researching and writing Stylized. And he also offers some sound advice to writers who want to get their books out into the world.
1. When did you first become obsessed with Strunk & White and why?
The Elements of Style has been an important touchstone for me since I was a teenager, in the mid-1970s. But the book really hit home with me in college, when I was becoming interested in writing myself and trying to figure out how writers got their work done.
Strunk and White provided a path that appealed to me—in their calm presentation of a few helpful guidelines, in their attitudes about simplicity, concision, and brevity. The book also reassured me that if a writer was paying attention in his life and working hard to write with care and clarity and honesty, he stood a decent chance of putting his finger on some real truth from time to time and passing that along to his readers.
Finally, White’s Chapter 5 essay, “An Approach to Style,” widened the Elements message to include the subject of self-discovery, offering sage advice about clearing the brush and deadwood from your prose so that you can emerge on the page (which, it turns out, is the final secret of achieving “style”).
2.How did you go about your research for this book?
In 2005, I noticed that The Elements of Style was approaching its 50th anniversary, in 2009. That anniversary seemed the perfect time to tell the story of Elements and to give some thought to the reasons for the book’s staying power. I had been an E. B. White fan for many years, and I wanted to learn more about White’s work with Elements. I was also intrigued to learn more about William Strunk, a man we didn’t know much about beyond what White had written in his introduction to Elements.
I thought other admirers of The Elements of Style might appreciate the opportunity to learn more about the book and the men behind it. I began with the idea of interviewing other writers about the influence that The Elements of Style had on them. I talked with a couple of New Yorker writers, Alec Wilkinson and Adam Gopnik, and that pretty quickly opened doors that led to other writers who wanted to talk about Elements. Simultaneously, I dove into research on both the Strunk and White families. I secured the help of descendants in both families, and I made arrangements to spend time working in E. B. White’s archives at Cornell University. I also gave a lot of thought to the thematic threads I wanted to explore, drawing out those qualities of Elements that I find appealing and that I believe are responsible for its longevity. Other research paths opened up as well: I explored the book’s history in academia, I interviewed a fair number of writing teachers, and I got fairly deep into the book’s publishing history.
3. What was the most surprising thing you discovered during your research?
There were several surprises along the way. The first was learning that William Strunk had grown up about five miles from my home in Cincinnati—in an old Victorian house that’s still standing. I was also surprised to learn that Strunk and White, in addition to being teacher and student, were actually friends for many years. White was a regular visitor at the Strunk house during his Cornell days, and in fact he went on at least one date with Strunk’s daughter, Catherine. After White’s graduation, Strunk followed his famous student’s writing career with avid interest, and he occasionally visited White in New York. Another surprising fact is that William Strunk, the quintessentially bookish professor, spent a year in Hollywood serving as a consultant on the Irving Thalberg production of Romeo and Juliet. Hollywood seems to have charmed Strunk completely, and vice-versa.
4. How has The Elements of Style stood the test of time so well?
In my view, the book has lasted because of the qualities mentioned earlier. It provides, in an entertaining and concentrated form, a few helpful rules and some clear reminders about the value of simplicity and clarity and organization. And the extra dimension, provided by White in Chapter 5, offers a seasoned pro’s considered opinions on the most helpful attitudes to bring to your work as a writer. The Elements of Style has stood the test of time because so many of the principles it illuminates are themselves timeless. Many of them go right back to Aristotle.
5. What was the process of getting your book published like? Was Stylized a difficult sell?
The publishing process for Stylized was pretty typical. After I had developed the kernel of the idea, got a few writers on board for the interviews, and felt fairly confident that I’d have access to the research materials I’d need, I created the proposal. It consisted of an overview of the project, my assessment of the market and the competition, a table of contents, a sample chapter, and one of the writer interviews (Adam Gopnik).
It took me a good three or four months to get the proposal into solid enough shape so that I felt comfortable sending it out. It ended up being a 50-page packet. My agent began sending the proposal around to publishing houses in the summer of 2007, and we struck the deal with Simon & Schuster around Christmas, 2007. I wouldn’t call the selling of Stylized difficult—I think it had a clear appeal for “book people”—but getting the proposal into tip-top shape certainly took a lot of time, thought, and effort.
6. Your day job is in the publishing industry. What would you most like to say to writers who are trying to sell their books?
There are plenty of things writers should keep in mind as they approach the marketplace with their work. Near the top of that list are understanding the market you’re going after, learning how to craft a proposal, and conducting yourself in a friendly, businesslike way.
Understanding the market: This comes down to reading widely in the type of work you’re trying to publish. If you don’t have some idea of what the market regards as good work in your chosen area, you’re at a disadvantage. For instance, in my day job I publish nonfiction books about music technology—the software and hardware used in the creation, recording, and performance of music. Our books are rather technical, and we publish in a relatively narrow niche. Writers hoping to write for us need to have some expertise in the subject, and they should definitely know what kinds of books we publish (this is easily accomplished by viewing our catalog on the web). It’s helpful, too, if they’ve studied the market enough to know where the holes are. if they can come in with a strong proposal for a book that plugs a gap in our coverage, I can’t sign them fast enough.
The proposal: Not all proposals need to be 50 pages long, but they all should contain certain standard elements, such as a consideration of the market and the competition for your book, an outline or table of contents, and a good sample of your writing. Practical advice on constructing a proposal can be found in any recent edition of Writer’s Market. I dwell in the nonfiction publishing world. Selling fiction works somewhat differently, but the basic how-to on that is also covered in easily available reference books (for instance, Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market).
Be businesslike: This should go without saying. Editors appreciate politeness, succinctness in your communications, and an upbeat attitude. Keeping things professional helps the process run smoothly. And maintaining a businesslike attitude about your own work can cushion you from the inevitable blows the business will deal out. Writers have a big emotional investment in their work and it’s easy to be wounded by the seeming cold-bloodedness of the process. Don’t take the hurdles personally. Learn what you can from every rejection and move on to the next market.
Check out Stylized on Amazon.
Are you a Strunk & White fan? Give the dynamic writing duo a shout-out here.