Elements of Style: A Blind Writer’s Bible
July 3, 2019 § 22 Comments
By Beth Finke
Like so many of the other young people flocking to journalism school at the end of the 1970s, I was sure I’d become the next Woodward or Bernstein.
But then the spots showed up.
“Retinopathy,” the eye specialist said.
During my months in the hospital for eye surgeries, a social worker suggested I keep a journal. Good idea. Only problem? My eyes were patched shut. How could I write?
Just 25 years old, I’d gotten married months before the diagnosis, and my new husband came to the rescue. Mike bought me a cassette recorder. Three months in the hospital provided plenty of time to fill tape after tape with daily thoughts and impressions. Maintaining that audio journal helped me through long, dark hours in my hospital bed.
Eye surgeries didn’t work. A year after my diagnosis, I was totally blind. The Americans with Disabilities Act wouldn’t be passed until four years later, in 1990. I lost my job.
Mike arranged for low-interest loans with friends and bought me a very expensive Christmas present that year: a talking computer. Revolutionary technology combined special screen navigation software with a speech synthesizer to parrot the letters I typed. I could hear – and fix – typos as I went along, and when I was finished, I could check grammar and spelling errors by manipulating the keys to make the synthesizer read a page of type by character, word, line, or paragraph.
I set to work transcribing my hospital recordings. Entries provided me with cheap therapy, and boy, did I need it! I had already tried finding inspiration from audio books by blind authors, but most of them wrote about finding God or performing amazing feats like sailing across the Atlantic alone or hiking the Appalachian Trail with a guide dog. Was the world ready for a book by an unathletic pagan who’d gone blind? One way to find out: start writing it.
Revise and Rewrite
Writing my memoir took three years. Revising and rewriting it took ten. I found inspiration from The Elements of Style, which was required reading in my journalism school days. “Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery,” authors Strunk & White say in Chapter V, An Approach to Style. “This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.”
Long Time, No See was published by University of Illinois Press in 2003. My first NPR essay aired nationally on Morning Edition that year, too. Event coordinators began inviting me to do presentations. No matter where I spoke, or what the occasion, when it came to the Q & A part of my book presentations, nearly every question was about one thing: my Seeing Eye dog.
“Where’d you get your dog?”
“Can that dog tell a red light from a green light?”
“What breed is it?”
“How does your dog know where you want to go?”
I may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night. I knew my next book should be about Seeing Eye dogs. Not a memoir. Something shorter. A picture book? Yes! Maybe about a dog who doesn’t always like his job.
Other dogs get to play Frisbee in the park, but day after day, this dog has to follow commands, lead a blind woman around to places he’d rather not go. And speaking of going…other dogs get to lift their legs on any tree they want, but this dog has to wait until his human companion takes his harness off and gives him permission. The book would be a sequel of sorts. Long Time, No Pee.
The rejections came quickly. Most arrived via postcard, which meant poor Mike had to read them aloud to me.
Picture books are only 900 words long. Surely this one wouldn’t take me ten years to edit and revise. Or would it? Back to Strunk and White.
The “White” of Strunk and White is E. B. White, a highly regarded writer and contributing editor for The New Yorker. White was so taken by the writing tips he learned at Cornell from Professor William Strunk that he revived his professor’s guide into Elements of Style, a small 71-page book published by Macmillan in 1959.
E.B. White is also the author of the children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. He must have followed his own rules when rewriting and revising the manuscripts of those masterpieces. So I did, too.
Omit Needless Words
Known to some as a word bible, Elements of Style is jam-packed with easy-to-follow gems like “Be Clear” and “Do not overwrite.” Each short declaration is followed by a couple longer sentences explaining the importance of that rule. Examples:
Write with nouns and verbs. “In general…it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness and color.”
Avoid fancy words. “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”
“Omit needless words” is probably the most famous guideline from Elements of Style, but “do not overwrite” and “avoid fancy words” are sensational supporting actors.
Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound was published by Blue Marlin Publications in 2007. I’ve been visiting schools regularly ever since, talking with kids about disability, trust, adapting to change, bonding with animals, service dogs, teamwork, diversity and dealing with bullying.
Do Not Overwrite
I lead memoir-writing classes for older adults, too. We meet once a week, I assign weekly prompts for them to work on at home, and I borrow tips from Strunk & White when editing their work: essays have to be shorter than 500 words so every student gets a chance to read aloud in class every week. What a privilege it is to spend hours a week with people 65 and better, and then make a school visit that same week with kids 14 or under. Spending time with both age groups leaves me feeling young.
Beth Finke lives in Chicago with her husband, Mike Knezovich, and her Seeing Eye dog, Whitney. Her latest book is Writing Out Loud: What A Blind Teacher Learned Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors, and she recently launched Memoir Teacher Masterclass, a short course to encourage and support writers who want to organize and lead their own memoir-writing classes.