“The editing process is rarely straightforward. You no doubt noticed that during our exertions, we constantly reread and reconsidered our choices. Even when we assumed that we had finished a section, we found more to change.”
—Steven M. Cahn and Victor L. Cahn, Polishing Your Prose
Brothers and scholars Steven Cahn (philosophy) and Victor Cahn (English) attempt something new in Polishing Your Prose: How to Turn First Drafts into Finished Work (Columbia University Press, 2013): they structure their book as a narrative, and they show the monologue that goes on inside an editor’s head.
Their book is aimed at writers wanting to improve their prose. “Here’s the situation,” they begin. “In front of you sits a piece of writing you’ve just completed…. How do you take your draft, which you know is better than ‘rough’ but worse than ‘smooth,’ and refine it?”
Cahn and Cahn answer this question in two parts. In the first section, “Strategies,” they present ten techniques for revising sentences. In the second section, “Passages,” they apply the strategies to edit paragraphs.
The strategies Cahn and Cahn advocate will be familiar to writers and editors: cut verbosity (the first four don’ts) and improve clarity and flow (the last six do’s). Rules of style have been around almost as long as the Ten Commandments — well, for at least as long as Strunk and White. So why bother with yet another book on style?
Because it’s short, readable, and entertaining.
Admittedly, the brevity of the book is both a strength and a weakness. In the “Strategies” section, Cahn and Cahn provide sentences “for practice” but no answer key. They want to leave writers free to work out their own style. But the intended audience — students trying to revise their own essays — need more help than that.
This section of the book is more suited to group study than solitary learning. I’m co-instructing a new online course at Queen’s University called Editing in Academic and Professional Contexts, and we chose Polishing Your Prose as one of the required texts. Students learned a great deal by comparing and discussing their edits of the sample sentences.
The strength of the book lies in the second part, “Passages,” where we gain access to the interior monologue of an editorial mind. Cahn and Cahn show their thinking process step-by-step, forward and back, as they edit three paragraphs from an academic essay. They ask questions to figure out what each sentence means, whether a certain word is the right one, and whether each word is necessary. They move from cosmetic corrections (get rid of adverbs) to bigger issues of clarity, demonstrating the constant rethinking that editing entails. Their attitude is refreshing: Cahn and Cahn don’t strive for perfection. They revise a passage to make it better, and move on.
In the course of editing these passages, Cahn and Cahn add three “supplementary principles”:
- maintain unified paragraphs
- remember your audience
- use a variety of words
A cautionary note for editors: Cahn and Cahn model revision for authors, who can change as much as they like. Unlike editors, authors don’t have to worry about flattening someone else’s voice. Thus Cahn and Cahn justify rewrites like the following:
original: Needless to say, this aura of fear which surrounds the study of mathematics has resulted both in a reverence and respect for those who have successfully mastered its intricate and elusive concepts.
edited: This anxiety about mathematics has engendered a reverence for masters of its abstruse concepts.
The edited version is concise, but the author’s voice is lost. As an editor, I wouldn’t go that far. An author would be justifiably upset if I did.
The brothers end the book with two personal essays about their student days, one serious and one funny, to prove that their principles of good prose work in practice. Victor Cahn’s essay, about his puffed up aims for fame – ever humble, he envisioned a Nobel Prize – is hilarious in its self-deprecation.
As musicians (Steven plays piano and Victor violin), Cahn and Cahn are alert to the rhythm and cadence of language. “Good writing is like good music,” they write. “Each is founded on melody and rhythm, and as writers we want to infuse our prose with both.”
They succeed, and their book is worth reading as a model of good writing.