Thursday, March 31, 2011

Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style": Essential Reading for Writers in English

I finished this book in a couple of weekdays: sneaking one chapter in at lunchtime, one after dinner. Much of it's pretty basic, but pretty good basics. Even if you only write emails and performance reviews (and especially if you need to adopt American usage), this book will help you. Yes, it's expensive (and a small enough book for that price), but think of it as career development. 

In fact, I'd say this book is even better for non-professional writers, for people who don't depend on writing for their livelihood. (If you do, you probably know all the principles in this book already, and probably enough to even flout some of them.) 

The book has only six chapters (including a 2-page chapter on spelling) and 123 pages, so it shouldn't daunt even an occasional reader. 

Not convinced yet? Let me quote two paragraphs from the book that I love (and are quoted often, as I remember reading them before I laid hands on the book).
Omit unnecessary words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. 
This principle is emphasized often, but not enough! One of my earlier bosses, himself a good business writer, schooled me quite a bit in this regard, and I still watch out for my liking of using two words where one will do. Sometimes--rarely--it serves to make a point, but most of the time it's just sloppy writing. 

The second is actually even more important.
Clarity is not the prize in writing, nor is it always the principal mark of a good style. There are occasions when obscurity serves a literary yearning, if not a literary purpose, and there are writers whose mien is more overcast than clear. But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. And although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one. Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, "Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!" Even to writers of market letters, telling us (but not telling us) which securities are promising, we can say, "Be cagey plainly! Be elliptical in a straightforward fashion!"
I also loved the edition I got because of the lovely illustrations by Maira Kalman. Even for a person who prefers reading to most other things, these illustrations made the book much more fun. (Read a nice little review of this edition here.


Deborah said...

I agree. There are many criticisms of Strunk and White, but I learned a huge amount from it, including the value of clarity.

Anita said...

Nice! I am not a writer looking to polish my skills but this stuff seems like enteratining reading. Atleast going by the tidbits posted.