Elements of Style: A Blind Writer’s Bible

July 3, 2019 § 22 Comments

finkeBy 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.

Be Clear

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.

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§ 22 Responses to Elements of Style: A Blind Writer’s Bible

  • Joanne says:

    This was fascinating–thank you for widening my world. I especially enjoyed your sense of humor throughout.

  • bethfinke says:

    Aw, shucks, Joanne. Thanks! I could go on and on here, but will abide by Strunk & White’s rule: Do Not Overwrite.

  • herheadache says:

    Love the title of your book. I depend so much on modern speech software and technology to write, I can’t imagine life without it. Yes, sometimes it’s nice to read a book where the writer doesn’t have to do miraculous things, but just a story to share like any other. I think we should all write a book about our guide dogs, from their perspective.

    I like how you made audio journals when you were in hospital. I wish I had thought of that when I was hospitalized.

    • bethfinke says:

      Thanks for commenting, and do consider writing a piece about your guide dog! I’ve had good luck getting essays about each of my four Seeing Eye dogs published online and in magazines over the years: Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine published one, as did Dog Fancy, and for a while I was blogging pretty regularly for The Bark, too. My current dog will be retiring soon, and lately I’ve been wondering if AARP might be interested in a story about that. Thanks for reminding me — I’ll query them now. And who knows? Maybe someone will put together an anthology of essays about guide dogs sometime?

  • So wonderful to read more of your writing, Beth!

    • bethfinke says:

      Oh,Irene, thanks for reading my essay and taking the time to comment here. Hoping your memoir Snaggletooth’s Daughter will come out in an audio version sometime? You would be the perfect one to read it out loud, you have such a lovely voice — in many ways.ld especially be

  • Thanks for sharing your story here. As a memoir writer struggling to get up the courage to publish, I realized some common Strunk & White cautions I need to take more seriously. Love your sense of humor!

    • bethfinke says:

      The decision to publish can be a struggle. Strunk & White might teshrug and tll you to be clear, and omit unnecessary words. Ah, if only it were that simple…. ,

  • I enjoyed this. I do have a copy of Strunk and White, although I only use it for general advice as I write in British English. I use New Hart’s Rules for the nitty gritty. Your mention of the computer brought back a memory. My mother was also totally blind from retinopathy and she had a Toshiba T1000 around 1990/91. I inherited it after she died. It was my first computer at university because we didn’t have a lot of spare cash to buy me a different one. It did the job for all of my undergraduate years. I have no idea what happened to it…

  • bethfinke says:

    Wow. If your mother had a talking computer in 1990 se was cutting edge. What a generous soul to give it to you when you needed it. And makes sense to me that Elements of Style might not apply as well if you write British English. Interesting thought, something that never occurred to me before. Thanks for sharing.

  • “I may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night.” I love your humor, and I love reading how you went forward in your life and made it so rich!

    • bethfinke says:

      Oh, Marie, thanks for saying so — you make me feel good! by reading my comments above you can see how much I benefited by working with talented editors, embarrassing to reread and notice all those typos! Just shows you how excited I am to receive — and how I rush to respond to — such kind and encouraging comments, thank you so much for yours.

      _____

      • My pleasure, Beth! We all can benefit from working with talented editors. I’ve worked as an editor, but when it comes to my own writing, I would never rely on just myself. It’s hard to get enough distance to go back through one’s writing objectively. That’s where editors and beta readers are worth every penny. Best wishes to you and your continued writing 🙂

  • equipsblog says:

    I love this post and your insight into your guide dog’s side of the story. I have heard of Elements of Style for ages but after reading this I want to check it out for myself. Thanks!

    • bethfinke says:

      You are welcome. I meant every word of this essay — Strunk & White has served me well! And writing that childrens book from my dog’s point of view has turned out to be especially helpful when giving presentations at elementary schools, where students are being taught to empathize and look at things from other viewpoints. I wasn’t thinking that when I wrote it, it was just fun to do it that way. Glad you like the idea, it worked! . _____

  • Tarun says:

    A great book.

    • bethfinke says:

      Oh, you liked “Writing Out Loud”? Thanks! It took a long time to write and a longer time to find a publisher and the marketing wasn’t exactly what we’d hoped and it didn’t win an award like my children’s book did but it has put me on the map for teaching memoir and some of the writers from my classes who I featured in it have died since so I’m glad we rushed to get it published so they could see their work in a book and… and.. Oh. Wait. you mean “Elements of Style” is a great book. I agree!

      _____

  • Excellent blog on quality writing! Back in school we had to retell stories in writing as a way to learn about plot, characters, build vocabulary, etc. I was often criticized for being overly concise. ‘It sounds like a telegram.’, my teacher said once. I’m glad ‘twenty-dollar words’ are not always the way to go.

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