E.B. White, writing in Maine

I just reread Elements of Style, and several bits of wisdom have taken residence in my mind.  This was the first time I’ve read the fourth edition.  I found the updates to this edition helpful, in particular, some of the tidbits in the final section on style.  If you haven’t read it, do.

I’ve been working through a novel, editing, pruning, and rearranging.  Strunk and White remind me of point 22, on p. 32 of this edition: “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.”  This can apply to sentences, paragraphs, lines of poetry, and even words: the beginning and end of these units carry the most power, the most weight.  The middle can be incidental, or worse, ignored.  Here’s a clever example (possibly urban legend, but interesting anyway) of how words can work with mixed up middles becoming invisible, and yet the content is still clear.  (Thanks to my friend Lara for digging this up when my human memory failed.):

“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

Beginnings and ends of these words are stable, are what we expect, and therefore they guide in reading through the garble.

Another thing that Elements of Style illustrates is more visual than literal.  Writers have to learn the twin arts of making a mess (making a creation, a draft) and then cleaning it up (editing, revising).  If you look at the layout of the examples in Strunk and White, you could consider the left column (before the makeover) as the making of the mess, and the right column (after the makeover) as cleaning it up.  I’m going to use this idea when I talk to students.  I think it helps to put the implicit and explicit judgment of Strunk and White into a context: all writing is a process, a walking through and then away from the muddy, toward the clear.  Start somewhere.  Edit as needed, strive to improve the mess, to communicate better.

Maybe the most important advice is point 17, on p. 23, “Omit needless words.”  An anthem for some people who write, an ideal to strive toward.  I’ve been polishing, weeding the needless, plucking extraneous words from overburdened sentences.  Sometimes it takes years to realize a word is needless.  Omit needless words is a noble mantra and practice.  With time, I could whittle this paragraph down even more than I have, but in the battle between how the blogosphere measures time and my tendency toward perfectionism, I go for speed and risk flaws.  This time, for the first time, I found (or noticed) the sub-mantra of Omit needless words on p. 19, under point 14.  “Note, in the examples above, that when a sentence if made stronger, it usually becomes shorter.  Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

It’s worth repeating: “…brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

That is such a beautiful fact, and beautifully put.  No wonder I am tired, this revision has been vigorous.  The novel is shorter.  And, I hope, stronger.

5 thoughts on “Vigor takes work

  1. I have to disagree with you here, not about the value of getting rid of words that don’t move the story forward, but about the value of Strunk & White. I wrote about it here, and my criticism of it is mild compared to that of many linguists. The NY Times ran a group of opinions about it on the book’s 50th anniversary. I tend to agree with what linguist Geoffrey Pullum says in the Times piece: “Again and again, Strunk and White recommend the stuffy and unidiomatic, and warn against what sounds effective and natural.”

    (I so rarely disagree with you — I either find myself nodding in agreement or thinking about something from a new perspective every time I read your blog — that I felt compelled to note our difference on this issue.)

    1. Nancy, thanks for posting. I hope I didn’t sound like I was saying people should cleave to Strunk and White rather than reading lots of good (and bad) literature. (Francine Prose, in her book Reading Like A Writer–another book I’m using for teaching–argues that reading is the best way to learn to write, better than good teachers, better than workshops.) I agree with your blog post, writing is learned from many sources, from reading, from listening, by ear, and most of all by practice. Grammar is learned by listening and reading, much more than by looking at any book about grammar. Learning to edit is crucial, as you know (and practice!) but you’re right, no one book should be deified. As you put it so well in your post: “Just don’t mistake any style book for the Gospel. (Actually, maybe you shouldn’t mistake the Gospel for the Gospel, but that’s a topic for another post.)”

      In defense of Elements of Style, for me, there is something very reassuring about reading that book that I can’t quite articulate (I will work on it). Maybe it’s just that I bought into its mystique, but I think it has to do with the active examination and knocking up against the RULES or the PREFERENCES which are (to me) beautifully written. Maybe it’s that I have a barely hidden desire to be around the DOs and DON’Ts–maybe it’s revealing my tendency to follow rules. (I am a rule follower, usually, and am sometimes courageous enough to break rules.) Also, maybe it’s softened in this edition of S&W, or maybe it’s my increased confidence in my own ability (and right!) to pick and choose which rules I follow, but the tone (in places) of this edition does seem less absolute–putting the choices in the hands of the writer. (And, like any book that’s reread, the book is different at each reading, based on the era of the reader’s life.) But/and/so, a lot of S&W simply doesn’t apply to fiction. For instance, sentence fragments have a definite place (in my opinion) in fiction, and in other forms, and I am not bothered by them. In the least.

      I will go now to read the further bashing of Strunk and White. Thanks for the debate!

  2. I also love Francine Prose’s book. I heard her speak at a conference in DC, and was so inspired I rushed out and bought it. Her discussion of long sentences (a la Virginia Woolf) gave me confidence to try them — due to my upbringing, I tend toward the journalist’s habit of short sentences and paragraphs.

    I don’t have any active personal hostility to Strunk & White — it just never made an impression on me. But after reading all those bright linguists trashing it on Language Log, it occurred to me that I probably wasn’t impressed by it because it talks about writing in a way that doesn’t work for me. I must say I detested grammar class when I was in high school. I tend to judge whether a sentence works by how it sounds to me, not whether it fits a particular rule. I’m just not a prescriptivist by nature.

    Regardless of what you think of the Language Log posts on Strunk & White, I think you’d enjoy the site. They sometimes get carried away with professional linguistic analysis that’s over my head, but a lot of the time they just point out the very funny language foibles out there.

  3. Be-latedly, sorry!

    I usually base how a sentence works on sound, too. I don’t know why the rules thing appeals to me, but for some reason, it does. I will have to spend some more time on that site. Thanks for passing it along.

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