Speaking of books about writing, as I was the other day....
Certain ideas are strong and clean and simple and have a powerful appeal because of it; while at the same time they have the slight disadvantage of being wrong. The most popular writer's guidebook book in America has long been The Elements of Style, more often called "Strunk and White" after William Strunk jr., the book's professor author, and E.B. White, Strunk's former and most famous student and the book's original reviser.
The problem with Strunk and White is that, despite being strong and clean and simple, it's often wrong. Here for example is what is arguably the most famous sentence in all of Dickens, the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Here's the same sentence as it would be rewritten according to Bill Strunk's schoolmarmly dicta:
The times were good in some ways, bad in others.
The book is excellent for improving inept writers and a priceless primer for students; but it's mainly useless for improving the art of writers who already know their way around words and have an ear for them, and have honed their chops enough that their innate personal style has already emerged. The writing of most of the greatest stylists, including White, would be hacked to bits by the thorough application of much of Strunk's advice.
As I keep promising to stop sayin', just sayin'.
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
David Dyer-Bennet: "You're right, of course. But that statement is true of every writing book—except for the ones that fail by not being good even for that. The books really only try to get you to understand some general principles, and they're good to follow—unless you're a master practitioner of writing, in which case you're expected to strike out on your own. And, of course: 'If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.' —Dorothy Parker."
William: "In my humble opinion John McPhee strikes the perfect balance between following Strunk and White and achieving a personal style. In academic and corporate environments, over the decades I experienced more writers who would benefit from applying S&W than those whose personal style suffered by well-intended (but blind) inflexible adherence to S&W. The irony of the above run-on sentence does not elude me."
John Camp: "I don't think I've ever commented on Strunk and White, though of course I've read the book a couple of times. Even the author of the best book on writing, Stephen King, recommends it. But you're absolutely right: it's often wrong. My take on it, as a professional writer, is that the book was written for Cornell students who were about to go off to Wall Street and needed to know how to write a crisp, short memo to the boss. On the other hand, it could ruin the prospects of any poet who read it."
[Our friend John Camp writes novels under the name John Sandford. —Ed.]
Bill Tyler (partial comment): "There's a recurring misconception in the comments that Strunk and White requires a skeletal approach to prose. If we look at the famous 'Omit needless words,' prescription from the 1918 edition (via bartleby.com—there was only Strunk in that edition) we find: '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.' So we have a topic sentence, then a sentence with four parallel thoughts. Finally, there's a caution that the principle is not brevity or lack of detail, but efficiency. Each word should contribute to the overall thought.
"What Strunk is advocating is avoidance of useless fluff. The Dickens passage follows this precept admirably. It even mirrors the structure of the Strunk paragraph, with pairs of parallels elaborating the theme. Each pair of contradictions expresses the paradox of the times from a different perspective, and each contributes to building the overall theme of the paragraph."