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  • Steven Cahn and Victor Cahn

Polishing Your Prose, by Steven Cahn and Victor Cahn

Updated: Jan 28, 2023


Brothers and scholars Steven Cahn and Victor Cahn attempt something new in Polishing Your Prose: How to Turn First Drafts into Finished Work (Columbia University Press, 2013): they show us what goes on inside an editor’s head.

This slim volume (85 pages) is aimed at writers wanting to write better sentences and paragraphs. “Here’s the situation,” the authors 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?” Steven Cahn, a professor of philosophy, and his brother Victor, a professor of English, 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 editing paragraphs.

​The strategies Cahn and Cahn advocate will be familiar to writers and editors:

  • cut verbosity (the first four don’ts)

  • 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 this one is short and entertaining. The brothers' conversational style and sense of humour make the book fun to read. 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. I guess they want to leave writers free to work out their own style. But the intended audience—probably students trying to revise their own essays—needs more help than that. The strength of the book lies in the second part, “Passages,” where we gain access to the interior monologue that goes on inside an editor's mind. Cahn and Cahn think through word choices and syntax (the order of words), ask themselves questions, and circle back to improve their own edits of three paragraphs from an academic essay. They show that the editing process is "rarely straightforward." But they're also realistic in pointing out that writers should not "tinker forever," that those who strive for a perfect manuscript are "doomed to despair." Writers have to be content with "good enough."

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: As a teacher of mathematics, my belief is that mathematics deserves a place within the liberal arts program, that it is a subject which non-majors should be exposed to.

edited: Mathematics deserves a place within the liberal arts program.

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 further 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. I recommend the book as a model of good writing and a window into the writing mind.

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