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.