POLISHING YOUR PROSE, BY STEVEN CAHN AND VICTOR CAHN
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:
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:
The edited version is more 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.
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.