50 Years Later: Elements of Style (and Life) with Strunk & White

On Twitter last week, the following “tweet” caught my attention: Classic writing guide marks golden anniversary. Clicking the link, the old English major in me felt happily nostalgic, learning that the Elements of Style (often referred to simply, as Strunk and White) is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in print.

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style has sold more than 10 million copies since its initial publication in April 1959. Its present-day publisher, Longman Publishers, has put out a special black leather-bound, gold-embossed edition in tribute of the 50th anniversary.

Given the rise of Twitter, a microblogging service with 140 character limits, the timing of Strunk and White’s anniversary reprint couldn’t be better, as it is “the Bible of good, clear writing” (from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., at opening of the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition) in American English and belongs to a long tradition of brevity (see From Antiquity to Twitter, Brevity’s Long History).

After learning about the new Strunk and White edition, I stopped at a bookstore the very next day (something I don’t ordinarily do these days, as it’s usually so much easier to shop online). But no, for this special purchase, I wanted to claim my copy of the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition off the bookshelf myself, the old-fashioned way. Thumbing through the crisp new pages, standing in the bookstore aisle, I noticed the testimonials at the opening of the book, including this representative tribute:

I don’t believe there is a serious writer alive who doesn’t have a worn copy of Strunk and White on his or her bookshelf.
~Mignon Fogarty, author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

(Peg’s note: My original Strunk and White, I’m ashamed to say, is packed away somewhere, but I do still have it.)

As I read the anniversary edition this week, the familiar voices of Cornell Professor Will Strunk, Jr. and his celebrated student, E.B. White (of Charlotte’s Webb and Stuart Little fame) came back to me. I was brought back some twenty years ago, to the young writer I was in school, turning the pages of The Elements of Style for the first time.

Using Active Voice

In the “Elementary Principles of Composition” chapter, Rule 14 immediately came to mind.

Use the active voice…The habitual use of the active voice…makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and empathic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.

Reading this passage brought back memories of my sophomore year in college. My Advanced Writing instructor asked me to revise my papers a second and then third time, each time replacing “is” with active verbs, and active verbs with even mightier verbs (see Shannon Paul’s Six Very Official Ways to Improve Your Writing).

Through that well-remembered writing exercise, I fell in love with the iterative power of language and grew to understand that when a sentence “is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor” (p. 19).

Omitting Needless Words

“Omit needless words” (p. 23). For example, Strunk suggests these improvements:

  • “in spite of the fact that” -> although
  • “the reason why is that” -> because
  • “call your attention to the fact that” -> remind you (notify you)

In graduate school, I remember edits from my Style and Grammar professor. With a BA in English, and a MA license in teaching secondary English, I considered myself a good writer. I considered myself a good writer, that is, until I received my first graded assignment. The paper just oozed with red injuries. The instructor (also a professional editor in the science field) found a way to tighten about every line. Sometimes, she called in question my most basic word choices, usually suggesting a more precise word. As brutal as my instructor’s edits were, the writing exercise taught me to think about each word choice and appreciate how much fat we can usually trim, from even our best writing.

For ways to avoid wordy expressions, see these excellent online resources:

CliffsNotes.com. Wordy Expressions. 6 Apr 2009
Effective Writing: Prune those patterns of redundancy, wordiness

Using Specific, Concrete Language

Elsewhere, Strunk recommends “Use definite, specific, concrete language” (Rule #16 ).

If those who have studied writing are in accord of any point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures (p. 21).

The best language encourages us to think in pictures. In a recent post, Painting A Picture, Ann Handley notes that because she makes her living “attempting to make …words paint a picture—or at least a good doodle—” she doesn’t ordinarily “subscribe to the hooey about a picture being worth a thousand words.” Whether the picture or thousand words is better, may be a source of continued debate, but the visual quality of strong writing remains clear.

This visual element is probably why, of all the 140 character tweets, which have passed through my Twitter stream, I remember this tweet, and the image-laden tweets like it, best:

@eracose #haiku: Twigs sparkling crystal / Rocks glistening Labradorite / Sleet – nature’s jeweler #nltwitter #newfoundland
(Note: @eracose on Twitter is Margaret Ayad, Owner of Baccalieu Consulting.)

Avoiding a Succession of Loose Sentences

Another rule I especially like: “Avoid a succession of loose sentences (those consisting of two clauses, the second introduced by a conjunction or relative)” (Rule 18, p. 25). Instead, Strunk advises writers to vary their sentence types:

A writer who has written a series of loose sentences should recast enough of them to remove the monotony, replacing them with simple sentences, sentences of two clauses joined by a semicolon, periodic sentences of two clauses, or sentences (loose or periodic) of three clauses—whichever best represent the real relations of the thought.

Here, I remember the ninth grade English teacher, who each week, put a variety of example sentences on the board, asking us to use our assigned vocabulary words in specific sentence types of our own (simple sentences, compound, complex, and so on.)  This writing exercise helped me learn how to vary my sentence structures and make my writing style more interesting.

Achieving Clarity in Writing

Though I enjoy Strunk’s succinct writing advice and no nonsense approach, my favorite part of the book is Chapter 5, “An Approach to Style,” written entirely by his protégé, E.B. White.

While working on a column for the New Yorker in 1957, White rediscovered and edited his former college professor’s self-published manuscript, from thirty years earlier. He also added a new chapter, with reminders for better style.

Of White’s style reminders, Tip #16 is my favorite: “Be clear.”

Clarity, clarity, clarity. When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh…Usually what is wrong is the construction has become too involved at some point; the sentence needs to be broken apart and replaced by two or more shorter sentences (p. 79).

Yes, when your sentence really isn’t working, start over. (By the way: Notice that preposition at the end of my sentence?  White surprisingly advises that it’s OK.)

Breaking the Rules

As far as breaking the rules, Strunk acknowledges: “the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of  rhetoric.”

When they do so, however the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he [she] is certain of doing as well, he [she] will probably do best to follow the rules” (p. xv111).

White also recognizes that rules of language change, just as language changes.

The language is perpetually in flux: it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time. (p. 83).

Though Strunk and White understand that writers sometimes break the rules, they both still advise erring on the side of caution and discipline. They also suggest that to be effective, breaking the rules first requires understanding the rules.

I think the following Treatise on Writing, which likens broken grammatical rules to discordant notes in music, would meet with both Strunk and White’s approval:

There are rules to writing.  Yes, many of these rules are broken on occasion.  But they are only broken by people who know the rules, and were breaking them for a very specific reason.  Too often, aspiring writers say “there are no rules– writing is an art form”.  It is an art form, but like all other art forms (such as music and painting) there are many rules.  Yes, the masters often break these rules, but they all learned of the rules first.  They did not break the rules out of ignorance; they broke them to make a point.

Understanding that Style is the Writer

What really stands out in Chapter 5 is White’s definition of style:

Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation—it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito (p. 67).

Given this very personal definition of style, we are inclined to wonder exactly what was it, about Will Strunk’s style, that made his student E.B. White admire him for a lifetime?

Will Strunk loved the clear, the brief, the bold, and his book is clear, brief, and bold. Boldness is perhaps his chief distinguishing mark…He scorned the vague, the tame, the colorless, the irresolute. (p. xviii).

In  E.B. White’s description of Will Strunk, we learn possibly more about E.B. White, and our own enduring admiration for The Elements of Style, than the didactic, reportedly friendly professor at Cornell University.

Through the Elements of Style, like E.B. White, we also remember our own formative writing experiences, and the many instructors, who gave us much more than the gift of self-expression, but who also gave us the gift of themselves.

And we realize that for White, language and life choices so relate, we cannot separate one from the other. For White, “…style is the writer, and therefore what you are, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style…” In this view, we may just as aptly refer to The Elements of Life.

Peg’s Note: This post is dedicated, with appreciation, to all my writing instructors—both those I met in school, and to my editors, in the workplace.

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Contacting the Author: Content for a Convergent World – Peg Mulligan’s Blog

Analyzing Audience Without Direct Access to Customers

Summary: Provides tips on how to analyze audience for user assistance, without direct access to customers. Asks how the advent of Web 2.0, related social media tools, and user-generated content, can help technical communicators have more direct contact, and beyond that, collaboration, with our primary and secondary audiences.

As a technical communicator, I do not often have direct access to my audience. Without a clear understanding of my audience, it’s more difficult to define the purpose of my deliverables, gauge the correct content level, and the best organizational strategy. If this is the case for you, here are some suggested ways to learn more about your audience:

  • Working closely with the Product Manager, who often includes a definition of the product’s intended users in the product requirements.
  • Asking the Product Manager about any anticipated documentation requirements, early on.
  • Speaking with Marketing about customer demographics, segmentation attributes, expertise level, etc.
  • Working closely with QA during the product’s development. As internal users, QA is the best initial customer surrogate and can help you anticipate your audience’s user assistance needs.
  • Working closely with Technical Support representatives, who have first-hand knowledge of the customer’s frequently asked questions and troubleshooting issues.
  • Include Sales Engineers and other Product Implementation Engineers in the review process, as they too, have first-hand knowledge of the customer, and are often champions for the technical documentation.
  • After the documentation is released, directly calling your customers, asking for feedback on the documentation, or using a questionnairre to gain user feedback.
  • Including an e-mail address in the documentation, so customers have a way to provide direct feedback to the documentation team.

What other ways do technical communicators traditionally learn more about the intended audiences for our documentation deliverables? What obstacles do we sometimes face gathering this type of information? Do you see the advent of Web 2.0, related social media tools, and user-generated content, as a way for technical communicators to finally have more direct contact, and beyond that, collaboration, with our primary and secondary audiences? Photo Credit, Intersection Consulting.

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Contacting the Author: Content for a Convergent World – Peg Mulligan’s Blog