BatesLine bookshelf: The Elements of Style


This entry introduces a new category. From time to time, I'll tell you a bit about a book that has had a significant influence on my life. I won't be writing about them in any particular order -- just as they come to mind.

Why? In part to give you a sense of where I'm coming from, a glimpse at my intellectual DNA. Some of these books will be famous and familiar, some obscure.

I'm starting with one that should be on every reference shelf. I picked up a copy in college. The first job I had after college was as a software engineer, but the job required writing technical white papers and sections of proposals for government contracts. Strunk and White's The Elements of Style sat on my desk as a reminder that writing is supposed to be clear and full of meaning, which is exactly what my technical writing at work was NOT supposed to be. I was once told to change a white paper I wrote because it was too comprehensible -- the readers would feel insulted -- so I was instructed to use the passive voice and to prefer multisyllabic Latinate words to Anglo-Saxon monosyllables.

Here's a memorable passage from E. B. White's introduction to the book and to his college English professor, Will Strunk, who wrote the little book that White revised and republished:

"Omit needless words!" cries the author on page 23, and into that iperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul. In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself -- a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, "Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!"

White goes on to quote Strunk's elaboration of the point:

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.

Strunk's imperative provides some inner pressure to keep me from running on and on. A blog has no space constraints and the immediacy of the form makes brevity difficult. There is little incentive to go back and edit something down, as one would edit an op-ed piece for a newspaper. This reminds me of a quote by Pascal:

The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.

Here's another useful bit of advice, part of White's addition to the book:

8. Avoid the use of qualifiers.

Rather, very, little, pretty -- these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.

Buy it, read it, absorb it.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 22, 2004 11:23 PM.

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