Bill Walsh: The Elephants of Style

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Most of the famous quotes about consistency firmly dismiss the concept. Such doubts may well be true with regards to artistic invention and new ideas, but when the time comes to convey those thoughts in writing, consistency is a virtue.

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That’s what stylebooks are all about, and style in that sense is what The Elephants of Style is all about. Newspapers, magazines, and publishers have style rules to maintain consistency. Bill Walsh walks his readers through many of the fine points of such decisions, admitting with wry humor that many of the rules (which often differ from one publication to another) are arbitrary. Which numbers are spelled out, which given in numerals? Which words should be capitalized, and when? Abbreviated? How do acronyms work? Which spelling should be used? (When I was in college sometime in a previous century, I studied American archeology. Archaeology was strictly British. Now, says Walsh, archeaology—which Scrivener, a program designed and written by Brits, marks as a misspelling—is preferred. That may be a harder habit for me to break than typing two spaces after a period!)

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And of what use is all this to a writer of fiction, you ask? Well, if you are interested in independent publishing, or even if you just want to produce a clean manuscript for a traditional publisher, it’s a good place to start developing your own style sheet. AM or p.m.? Percentages? Ages? Measurements? Money!

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Walsh also includes a lot of useful information on what fiction writers think of as style, particularly under Elephant No. 13: Flair! Elan! Panache! A Few Potshots About Style-With-a-Capital-S. (Note the use of No., which could as easily have been Number or even #, depending on style.) He also offers his thoughts on cliches, split infinitives, and quite a few words that are easily misspelled or misused, often with considerable humor.

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There’s a lot to think about in The Elephants of Style, from developing your own rules for consistency to enjoying word play and the finer points of usage, along with some interesting insights on editing.

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Walsh sums it all up, I think, with this: What you write is always clear to you; good writers have the ability to read their words through an outsider’s eyes and make sure it will be clear to others. We all know how tough that is, but it is definitely something to strive for, and this book might help.

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