Jul/Aug 2023  •   Nonfiction

Write Aide: the Shock-Proof Shit Detector

by David Comfort

Photo Art by Michael Dooley

Photo Art by Michael Dooley

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. —Ernest Hemingway

Long ago, the Walden literary autodidact, Thoreau, declared, "Any fool can make a rule and every fool will follow it." Later, Somerset Maugham added: "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

Since he was no fool, Hemingway cut to the chase and declared bluntly that the good writer required, above all, no rules but that most rare instinctual aptitude: the "shockproof shit detector."

The future Nobel laureate's first novel, The Sun Also Rises, highly praised for its unadorned but compelling simplicity, seemed to show the former journalist already had a well-developed detector. A few years before the book's release, Cornell University professor, William Strunk, Jr., self-published The Elements of Style which laid out shit-detecting composition laws in a benign but Biblical manner. Unexpectedly, the primer gained such a devoted following among professionals and amateurs, it was eventually picked up Macmillan and became a bestselling classic and a staple on college syllabuses.

In the introduction, Professor Strunk's student, E.B. White, boasted his 70-page manual fit the writing "rules and principles on the head of a pin." The Stuart Little author went on to reveal the purpose of what he called his teacher's Parvus Opum, or "Little Book": to rescue the writer "floundering in the swamp... delivering his man up on dry ground... or at least throw him a rope."

Considering its popularity, The Elements of Style did indeed deliver many drowning scriveners to dry ground. White concluded, "Longer, lower textbooks are in use nowadays, I daresay—books with upswept tail fins and automatic verbs." But he insisted none "come to the point as quickly and illuminate it as amusingly."

Thanks to the countless ropes tossed into the high seas of literature since the Elements, today's writer, now with more on him than Gulliver under the Lilliputians, must decide which are lifesavers and which are nooses.

In his own 2000 title, On Writing, Stephen King declared that, unlike other books, TheElements of Style contained "little or no detectable bullshit." Though the primer didn't register on the bestselling novelist's shit detector, linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum's sounded off: "Both authors were grammatical incompetents... The book's contempt for its own grammatical dictates seems almost willful, as if the authors were flaunting the fact that the rules don't apply to them."

Even so, most would agree that Strunk's stylistic rules are bulletproof and timeless. But does Shakespeare, his and most everyone else's god, flaunt the fact that the professor's rules didn't apply to him, either?

Don't overstate, overexplain, or pontificate.

Omit needless words: be clear and concise.

Don't use a twenty-dollar word when a ten center will do.

Don't affect a breezy manner.

A heretic might say that in their bloviations, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Falstaff not only bend these rules, but bury them.

Was the arbiter of style and his supporters—Gardner, Zinsser, et al—blinded by the Emperor's New Clothes? Shakespeare turned the King's English into Elizabethan ebonics. For every page of a published play, half is dedicated to explanatory footnotes. Did the Bard commit Strunk and White's own "most unpardonable sins": "showing off," "using mannerisms, tricks, adornments"?

Shakespeare hagiographers insist the bard created the deepest, most dramatic, eloquent characters in history. His detractors call them breast-beaters and chicken-littles. Stylistically, he tops Thomas, Yeats, Joyce, and other peacocks as a verbal dandy.

According to the shit detector, is Shakespeare's style exemplary or much ado about nothing?

The latter, said Voltaire. He called the playwright's masterpiece, Hamlet, "a vulgar and barbarous drama which would not be tolerated by the vilest populace of France or Italy."

Grading Shakespeare's composition, Samuel Johnson said he had to red pencil every "six consecutive lines." Dickens found his stories "so intolerably dull that it nauseated me." Tolstoy, who rarely criticized anybody, called the tragedies and comedies "rude, vulgar, and senseless." And George Bernard Shaw threatened to "dig him up and throw stones at him" for "his monstrous rhetorical fustian, and unbearable platitudes."


The premise of Strunk's Elements of Style is this: "A careful and honest writer does not have to worry about style." Implying that those who are careful and honest don't need his book, and those who are uncareful and dishonest do? In any case, most authorities agree on the importance of the honesty. Gordon Lish, aka Captain Fiction, told Dick Cavett: "The secret of good writing is telling the truth." The esteemed editor seemed to change his mind later: "Never be sincere—sincerity is the death of writing."

This sort of mixed message or apparent contradiction is what gives the aspiring writer indigestion—the elements of bile, not style.

Experts generally agree good writing—publishable writing—should be clear, concise, and compelling. But after the Three C's, it's a free-for-all of conflicting rules and regulations.

Death to adjectives, adverbs, verbs-to-be, colons, semi-colons, the second person, frags, ellipses, exclamatories, passives, paraphrastics, pluperfects. And, above all, death to rhetorical darlings. But sometimes not!

Never use multiple points-of-view, even in the omniscient Third. The more points of view the better!

Always start at the beginning. Never start at the beginning—in media res!

Beyond usage and mechanics, the debate heats up on the larger issues.

"Less is more," said Robert Browning and so many after him. "I don't believe that less is more. I believe that more is more," said Stanley Elkin, speaking for Melville, Faulkner, Joyce, and so many more.

Insist most story gurus: the indispensable building blocks are plot, character, setting, and theme. "The true enemies of the novel are plot, character, setting and theme," said novelist and Harvard prof, John Hawkes.

"Never try to make anything up—neither plot nor narrative," Dostoyevsky advised young writers. "If you want to be true to life, start lying about it," John Fowles countered. And, according to critic, Grigory Yeliseyev, Fyodor did, too: he called Crime and Punishment "the most stupid shameful fabrication."

Even the audience question is a bone of contention among the masters. "I write to please myself," said Tobias Wolfe. "What shit... Write for yourself—why?" said his friend, Richard Ford.

The late great novelists were especially vehement in their stylistic denunciations of one another. Trollop called Dickens' work "jerky, ungrammatical, and created by himself in defiance of the rules... No young novelist should ever dare to imitate it." H.G. Wells charged that Henry James "splits his infinitives and fills them up with adverbial stuffing... His vast paragraphs sweat and struggle... And all for tales of nothingness." Faulkner called Mark Twain "a hack writer who would have been considered fourth-rate in Europe." And when the shit detectors of New Republic critics went off on the alpha shit detector himself, Hemingway got frisky: "I would like to take a tommy gun and open up at the N.R. offices or any place you name and give shitdom a few martyrs and include myself!"

Today's experts, however, continue to tout these masters as style role models who spoke with a single voice. What really causes student writer heartburn is the party line double standard: The Great X, Y, or Z did it, but you can't.

In his "Ten Rules of Writing," Elmore Leonard said: "Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered." Might this not lead to under-developed, 2-D, or stereotypical characters—the great pitfall of storytelling? And, because Steinbeck offered such detail, and Dickens before him, all the way back to Homer, nobody else should be allowed?

"Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue," Leonard went on. Death to "he jested," "ejaculated," "trumpeted," "chortled," "chirped," "hissed." Good. But might 1,000 saids lead to another universally acknowledged pitfall—Monotony?

Exclamation points are even more horrifyingly melodramatic to the bare-bones school than semi-colons. Leonard's Rule 5: "You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words." But some masters loved them, especially the Russians. Not to mention, a certain bestselling American. Okay, then, "If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful," allowed Leonard.

In this, the Get Shorty creator was more charitable than many an MFA or writer's conference mentor. Most will red-pencil a sentence or passage that violates current canon. "But Tolstoy did it," the student objects. Which activates the professor's shit detector, "So, you're Tolstoy?" s/he demands. Which of course is the same question Tolstoy got when his teacher caught him imitating Shakespeare.


The greatest style disagreements have always arisen between the two schools of writing: The More-Is-More Montagues versus The Less-Is-More Capulets. The first camp writes by addition, the second by subtraction.

MM stylists like 1,000-word sentences (Faulkner through Bolano). They make editors cut hundreds of pages (as Perkins did for Wolfe). Or, loading their Royal with a 120-foot scroll, they type 150 words a minute for 21 speed-fueled days. That's how Kerouac wrote On the Road. Some called it genius. "That's not writing, that's typing," sniped Truman Capote, the great evangelist of his own genius.

The LM stylists follow the Hemingway credo: "Every first draft is shit"; "Writing is re-writing." Their sentences are clean and well-lit, their words served in carefully budgeted food groups. Nouns are meat and potatoes. Verbs, water. Adjectives and adverbs, sugar and fat (removed in the second draft). The result is a muscular, fat-free LM narrative, its paradigm Papa Hemingway's famous six-word story dispensing with character arc, much less message: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Despite their religious fervor, insider spats have erupted in each writing school. Papa said of his rose-is-a-rose co-founder, Gertrude Stein: "She learned to write dialogue from a book called The Sun Also Rises. I thought it was splendid she had learned to write conversation."

Her shockproof shit detector sounding, Ms. Stein knew the boxer was again dangling his modifier. She insisted he'd learned not just dialog, but everything, from her.

The Lost Generation matriarch only credited learning one lesson from one master: punctuation, from her poodle, lapping water. As for other mechanics, enlightened by her dog or not, she declared: "Forget grammar, think about potatoes."

Like Hemingway and Stein, writers, whether they admit it or not, learn far more from reading each other than they do from professors or style manuals. "I have played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Defoe, to Hawthorne," said Robert Louis Stevenson. "That, like it or not, is the way to learn to write."

The same goes for sports. Countless titles have been written about how to improve your golf game, for example. But the best way is to toss the book, forget all the rules, and just watch Tiger or Mickelson on the tee, in the traps, on the green.

Like golfers, some writers are long-game specialists, swinging for the fences with breathtaking, unpunctuated drives; others are short game masters, laying up, then sinking chips and surgical putts. Some have a beautifully powerful but volatile swing like Daley; others have an ugly but dead-on chop like Palmer. Different strokes for different folks.

The writer decides which is most suited to his or her own natural abilities and inclinations; then s/he imitates one, playing the sedulous ape; then s/he parrots a few others; then s/he cross pollinates and, with luck, creates his or her own eclectic style. Of Hemingway, Gore Vidal once said: "I detest him... I thought his prose was perfect until I read Stephen Crane and realized where he got it from." In fact, the Hemingway recipe was not so simple. In addition to three cups of Crane, he is two cups Twain, one cup Stein, and a pinch of Pound. All of which, when baked, make something more than the sum of its parts: Hemingway.

Though some novelists have been called "sui generis," neither Gore Vidal nor anybody else has reinvented the wheel. The few who tried have regretted it. The dying words of Joyce, though he had read everybody and experimented with every style, were: "Does no one understand?"


If the subject of style is controversial among the experts, the subject of storytelling is even hotter. Countless plot Dr. Phils have weighed in over the years, providing their own foolproof guidelines for a story ready for Hollywood. But why haven't any followed their own formulae and a written bestseller?

As with style experts, story experts disagree on many issues. There's only one consensus rule among them dating back to The Iliad: Don't bore me.

Today's reader, raised on YouTube and Instagram, bores more quickly than yesterday's. He warns the author: You've got 30 seconds to terrify me, thrill me, break my heart, give me enlightenment or an orgasm.

When an editor or agent rejects a manuscript, saying, "Where are the plot points? What's so-and-so's motivation? Where is the character arc? What is the message here?" what they mean is: you're boring me. Even so, some bestsellers—not just diet or cookbooks—have no plot points, no motivation, arc, or message. Still, they don't bore anybody.

In his How to Write a Damn Good Novel: A Step-by-Step No Nonsense Guide to Dramatic Storytelling, James Frey identified the three antidotes to boredom: jeopardy, conflict, and surprise.

Some call popular fiction "formulaic." But not all jeopardy, conflict, and surprise are created equally. What is conflict for one reader is catatonia for another; what is surprise to one is an anti-climax to another. Two writers tell their stories around the campfire: the facts are the same, but one bores, the other grips. Which brings us back to the How. The delivery. The voice. The je ne se quoi.

As with the Stylists, there are two schools of Storytellers: the Less-is-Mores, and the More-is-Mores.

The first are born of the Just-the-Facts, Jack, Dragnet school dedicated to Elmore Leonard's "If it sounds like writing I rewrite it" school, popularized by Hemingway. They are Trompe d'Oeil realists, not impressionists or expressionists. They hide brush marks. They cut all words that call attention to themselves, fog up the story, or weigh down the action. Sentence by sentence, they bulldoze plot speed-bumps—whatever seems clever, thoughtful, or ornamental.

The anti-writers are now preferred by many literary editors. Algonquin's Chuck Adams told Poets & Writers he joked about putting a sign over his desk that read, "Quit writing and tell me a story."

The two building blocks of old Literature and new Genre remain the same: Character and Plot. Since nobody cares about a plot if they don't care about a character, the novelist, in trying to make the old new, must concentrate first on beefing up his or her protagonist. The hero/ine is often an author alter-ego, but experts urge authors to avoid solipsist personal details no less than stereotypes.

The heart of a story remains the same today as yesterday: something bad has to happen, or be about to happen, to somebody. The worse the better. Plot gurus call this Stakes. Regardless of the genre—Romance, Horror, Thriller, YA, even Chic Lit—the hero/ine must have something at stake: career, family, sanity, salvation, life & limb, the world itself.

The novelist mustn't forget that to win an audience, s/he is competing with TV, social media, and video games. So, s/he must orchestrate struggle engagingly and without interruption before climaxing with the compulsory uplifting triumph of the human spirit.

The challenge is to create stakes new in a world where, as the cliché goes, nothing is new. "Make it new!" was Ezra Pound's command a century ago. But Robert Frost countered, "There are no new ways to be new."

So, what's left for today's Alcotts, Brontes, or Twains?


Today's editors and agents generally agree, nine out of ten fiction submissions are unpublishable. This was said to be true in the old days as well. In his memoir, At Random, Bennett Cerf wrote that, after lectures, he was beset by students who told him, "'Well, I'm a young writer and I have a work of genius,'" only to discover on review it was "unbelievable junk."

In his Introduction to On Writing, the usually long-winded Stephen King began: "This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit."

In a 1993 speech to the country's leading magazine publishers and editors, Ray Bradbury got a standing ovation when he declared: "Can you keep downgrading people's intelligence and insult them with the shit you're publishing?"

Hemingway, even sounded off on his Nobel predecessor: "Hail Faulkner full of shit corn."

Other greats were ruthless with themselves. "Oh, with what trash I began!" lamented Chekhov. Vonnegut, the inventor of the asshole-asterisks signature, warned Playboy at the beginning of his interview, "You understand, of course, that everything I say is horseshit."

"The world is prepared to praise only shit," declared America Book Award winner, William Gass. Some bestselling authors agreed. "If I'm a lousy writer; a helluva lot of people have got lousy taste," said Grace Metalious whose Peyton Place outsold all the works of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Melville, Dreiser, and Joyce combined. "Seventy percent of the fiction and nonfiction best-seller lists is dreck, and that The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, stands as a prime example," Stephen King told Entertainment Weekly.

Poet John Dolan called James Frey's A Million Little Pieces "A Million Little Pieces of Shit." Liar's Clubauthor, Mary Karr, considered it "horse dookie," while Gawker dismissed it as "a pile of shit," and the New York Daily News branded Frey himself as "a lying sack of dung."

The screenwriter turned novelist begged to disagree. "Let the haters hate, let the doubters doubt—I won't dignify this bullshit with any sort of further response." By 2011, realizing the best defense is an offense, he told Esquire magazine he "for sure" thinks he'll be a pillar of the future literary "canon." But, after his primetime Oprah dressing down, he complained: "I've been through so much shit... I've been stabbed over and over and over again. All I want to do is make shit that I think is cool."

Which is what every writer has done, from Homer to Shakespeare to Proust to Patterson. Only their definitions of cool shit have differed.

However, in an industry where disagreements far outweigh agreements, everybody seems to agree on this: To get to good shit, readers have to wade through a lot of bad shit. Especially junior editors and agents, the first screeners at the treatment plant.

Publishers concede, some good writers "fall through the cracks." To borrow the phrase of Salinger's hero, Holden Caulfield, they "fall off a crazy cliff." Editors try their best to be Catchers in the Rye, rescuing good new authors from being buried in the slush, but they can't save everybody.

In the old days, when an author didn't make the cut, he or she often received an apologetic note from the editor. Now such notes are rare. There are too many manuscripts, too few readers, and not enough hours in their day. In our digital age, the ms doc or pdf goes out and too often goes MIA in the metaverse with no trace of its submission. The process would be less dispiriting, and the writer feeling less shitty, if publishers would bring back the old Elements of Style form rejection—like this one from the Max Perkins of Chinese editors:

Illustrious Brother of the Sun and Moon—

Thy honored manuscript has deigned to cast the light of its august countenance upon me. With raptures I have perused it. By the bones of my ancestry, never have I encountered such wit, such pathos, such lofty thoughts. With fear and trembling I return the writing. Were I to publish the treasure you sent me, the Emperor would order that it should be made the standard, and that none be published except such as equaled it.

Your servant's servant