Polishing Your Prose by Steven M. Cahn and Victor L. Cahn
As an instructor of composition and rhetoric, I often get emails and offers from academic publishers wanting to know if I would be interested in exam copies or discounted copies of their books, especially if I consider implementing them in my classroom. About two years ago, I received an offer for a free copy of Polishing Your Prose, which I thought might be a great way to discuss the revising and editing process with my students. As it turns out, it’s helpful to more than just undergrads.
Steven M. Cahn and Victor L. Cahn are both those old-school professors who are particular about prose. But their philosophy is far less pedantic and far more practical. They provide rules for thinking about clear, crisp writing and examples to practice on. Seriously, my college students need this. They often think that “more is more,” when less is quote enough, thank you. Plus, the Cahn brothers move into actually working on whole passages to improve the writing and demonstrate the process that goes into tightening one’s prose. I found it helpful.
The collection is only marred by the personal essays at the end. One of the brothers writes about a professor who told him he was amaaaaazing, and raved about all his essays for all the classes he took. I totally get that he’s probably sincere about this encouragement leading him to get the PhD, but c’mon. As someone who went down this route, it’s not that easy and it’s not that fairytale for everyone. I wrote an essay for the man who would become my dissertation director, and his feedback? Was that I had interesting ideas but lacked an argument. Frankly, this was the very thing I needed to hear. My crappy essay helped me turn my ideas into a productive dissertation that will, I hope, help me write a much better book. Writing is a long and arduous process, and encouragement from a professor is one piece, but it’s no magic wand. We will not discuss the self-importance of the other essay. We. Will. Not.
Like I said, the handbook aspects are terrific, but the personal essays at the end are very much worth skipping.