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A Most Intimidating Book Review

It was just after Christmas and I had some gift cards and a book to return to Barnes & Noble.  In the hustle and bustle I left the house without the “wish list” I had printed out, which contained my reading list.  Since I would rather spend my time treasure hunting on book shelves than slaloming through post-holiday traffic, I decided to troll. One of the books on my list was to pick up a styles manual, as humdrum as that is. Luckily, however, I saw “The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing” by Francis Flaherty and decided to go ahead and purchase it. The good news is that reading this book was a transformative experience. The bad news is that I am now burdened with reviewing a book penned by a New York Times editor.

The Skinny

Why It Rocks:
Flaherty groups fifty rules into seven parts, presenting them with vivid examples and none of the pretentiousness you might expect from a New York Times Editor.

Why It  Doesn’t:
At the risk of sounding spineless, the only complaint I have about the book is that there were not a hundred rules.

Who Will Dig It:
Bloggers, of course, but also anyone who needs to write articles, posts, reports, proposals, and any other non-fiction prose.

The Essence

Previously, I had read a few books about visual design.  A consistent theme of design is simplicity, which is captured in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s famous quote: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” I immediately recalled this quote after Flaherty closed out Chapter 5 by saying, “To write is to choose, which is to exclude.” That’s when the sea parted for me; writing is design using words. The same rules of simplicity, contrast, color, motion, proximity, etc. apply to writing as well.  With this in mind, I began to think of writing in a whole new context.

Flaherty groups his fifty rules into seven groups:

  1. A Human Face
    “Every story, even the driest, has a human face. Draw it well and put it on display, for to readers it is a mirror and a magnet.”
  2. The Theme
    “The writer must be loyal to his major theme. He must study all its facets, and he must tamp down other topics that threaten to displace or diminish it.”
  3. Motion
    “Good stories are a brisk journey, and the reader can always feel the breeze in his hair.”
  4. Artfulness
    “The artful writer sees what others see. He just sees it in a drawn-fresh way.”
  5. Truth and Fairness
    “Writing is an art, and art bestows a license. But the license is a limited one, and it never sanctions material omission or unfair play.”
  6. Leads and Other Article Parts
    “Leads and settings, transitions and kickers: Each part of an article demands its own peculiar art.”
  7. The Big Type
    “Titles and subtitles are turbocharged text. They are your work distilled.”

I would not argue strenuously if you said it’s a bit lazy of me to reproduce the Table of Contents here. However, part of the charm and lure of this book is Flaherty’s masterful use of words and particularly the economy with which he employs them. Therefore, I felt it would be most effective for his work to speak for itself at least a little.

The Verdict

I found “The Elements of Story” to be as enjoyable as it was informative. Flaherty’s writing style is easy on the brain and ripe with understated – almost British? – humor. I consider it required reading for bloggers and strongly encourage anyone interested in improving their writing craft to give it a read.

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