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Tuesday, 20 December 2016


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Presumably, the parallel of Strunk and White for photographers would be all those traditional rules of photography that have evolved with time. Such wisdom as The Rule of Thirds, Expose for the Shadows and all the others that currently escape my memory (sorry, I'm feeling my age, it's morning and I'm restricted to only one cup of coffee these days). While helpful to the inexperienced or inept, blindly following such strict rules often restrict creativity and result in mediocrity.

It is by expanding beyond standards that we progress.

This item is anything but "off-topic" to your blog's theme, Mike. Following the most expeditious path to the proverbial point can crop the very life from a photograph just as surely as from a piece of prose. Writers who have lost (or never found) their way seem to end up attending endless workshops and buying shelves of How-to-Write self-help tomes. (I think most readers can fill in the next sentence.)

I find that Dickens opening passage to be tedious and overly verbose but I was always more of a fan of Raymond Chandler.

The best book on writing style is "Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace" by Joseph M. Williams. Its guidance on style derives from how great writers actually write. The style books most people have are descended from the work of 19th century grammar rule scolds who came up with arbitrary conventions that are often at odds with great literature as Mike shows us above with Dickens.

Strunk and White isn't 'wrong' because Dickens was creative anymore than books explaining the fundamentals of exposure aren't 'wrong' because photographers use exposure creatively.

Lawyers know another excellent manual for clear and readable writing - https://www.sec.gov/pdf/handbook.pdf#page43. Now THAT would really demolish Dickens. But every time I'm forced to read legal gobbledygook or marketing materials or websites with all capital letters sans serif, I want to mass mail the SEC handbook. It isn't 'wrong', either, even though it is far from a creative tool.

Funny how that mirrors the bits about rhetorics I recently re-found in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : a book that's hard to agree completely with, which is its great strength in that it makes you think twice about anything it says.
But I'm making too long sentences, I' reading too much Proust and not enough Strunk and White.

......but isn't that the way we learn (or are taught) most everything ?
First we learn how not to screw up too badly, then we learn helpful but over generalized 'rules' . Then over time those rules continue to be helpful for the many, while the few who form the cream that rises, realize that the 'rules' were just starting ponts.
So in that sense the book seems to be dong exactly what it was intended to do.

I am reminded of this interview from NPR on the 50th anniversary of Strunk & White, provocatively titled "A Half Century of 'Stupid Grammar Advice." http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=103171738

Shakespeare, too, would fail the Strunk and White test. But that's not the point. S&W addresses common faults in poor writing. It does not and cannot tell you how to make your writing soar. If there were a formula for that, we'd all be great writers.

"The irony of the above run-on sentence does not elude me." - William.

I wouldn't consider that sentence a "run-on". It reads just fine the way it is. It conveys your thoughts without any confusion.


Would Strunk and White really ruin that parallel structure of Charles Dickens? :)

Mike, short version: When you hit on "Strunk and White" you're gettin' personal. Take heed.


I have long been irritated by this book's insistence that everything be cut down to its skeletal minimum. You don't love a person for his/her skeleton, and you don't love a book for it plot outline.

Most expressive disciplines have rules and conventions.
Most practitioners follow them.
But sometimes the rules are best broken to make something stick out.
Like a sore thumb or starting a sentence or two with conjunctions.

As for the work of Strunk and White the edition with Maira Kalman’s drawings is the one to get


Oh, I almost forgot the opera version .


As an author of a half dozen technical books and hundreds of articles, ap nores, web pages, etc. plus a photographer who has taken more than hundred thousand photos over the last 50+ years, I must say I have read little advice about these pursuits I care for. I think writing needs to be understandable to be successful; photos should either convey a story or appeal to one's aesthetics. That's good enuff (sic).
"Just sayin' "

The important thing about style guides is to know when to ignore them. Once you get that, they can be very helpful. A bit like Word for Mac's checking of spelling and grammar - which insists on substituting an active verb for every passive verb, and abolishing the semicolon. Well, sorry, Word, I disagree and very often your prescriptions destroy either the 'music' of the sentence, or the sense, or both.

For my purposes, the Economist style guide (available in book form) is the most useful; and generally I prefer UK style guides to US guides - the latter tend to be too bossy, in many instances without good reason. And American copy-editors often over-edit, in my experience.

Whose style?

Re: Dickens

I'm with Jim, even unto the half century duration, but I'm not at all sure about the number of photographs.

I have never read Strunk and White although in my experience on international forums, I have seen many Americans apparently mesmerized by it. They seem to to take it as some sort of holy writ. "But S&W says blah blah blah," they respond triumphantly, as though that caps discussion, when you suggest a more elegant or more colloquial or just different way of saying something they have put forward which is clompingly mundane.

Mike, and here I am perhaps foolishly defending S&W despite never have read it (in fact, never having even seen it so far as I can remember), I have seen your example before and to my mind, it is fake. Dickens was speaking in the superlative. Surely if you wished to render it down to a single short sentence, you should stay in the superlative, so you have something like: "It was both the best and worst of times." And you would add a little more to explain that, adding, perhaps, "…with society riven by extremes and extremists of every kind."

Or am I in error? Does S&W disallow superlatives?

Cheers, Geoff

Have done that rewrite, I do need to add that it is still crap compared with the original. I love that opening paragraph.

Cheers, Geoff

Writing is much like cooking (or photography): there are a great many books suggesting how you should approach it - but few master both the technical and artistic aspects. There are, however, a great many technicians. :)

I think viewing Strunk and White as excellent advice to Cornell students who would have to write short effective memos to their bosses on Wall Street in the near future is right on target. And does not discredit the book one bit.

Writing for a newspaper was my first exposure to having writing judged for clarity, simplicity, and brevity. Pyramid style, short grafs and all that force you to unravel incomplete and jumbled thoughts into one clear idea per sentence. With practice the ideas sometimes flow into something stronger, but that comes later.

S&W reject the singular "they", a sure sign of a manual where fussiness trumps common sense.

Not sure that Dickens is the best writer to use as an exemplar here. Didn't he speak a lot of his stuff as he wrote and performed a lot of it? I believe he also owed a lot to his years as a court reporter writing down the speech of Londoners.

Didn't E.B. White himself say that the work shouldn't be considered a reference per se, but a guide for developing one's style? IIRC he even admitted to there being contradictions in the text, because the book shouldn't be dogmatically followed.


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