ON WRITING: BURN YOUR STRUNK AND WHITE
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
—W. H. Auden
It’s a late afternoon in February. I’m out at Eagle Beach with my dogs Murphy and Molly, walking along Eagle River where it opens into Lynn Canal.
It’s Super Bowl Sunday, so it’s quiet out here this afternoon. Molly is a bit of a barker though, so it’s not as quiet as it could be. Her bark echoes from the roadside cliffs on our right and from the woods across the river on our left. And just now, her barking elicits an echo from offshore: the loud croak of a sea lion.
Murphy is curious about those sea lions. The ones that come up into the river stay far enough offshore to dissuade Murph from going in after them. But once when the tide was in, two killer whales—excuse me, I mean Gods of Death—two Gods of Death came up into the river, and when Murph saw them he jumped in and started swimming after them. I was horrified that the whales would mistake him for a sea lion, but my next thought freaked me out even more: they might not mistake him for a sea lion at all, but just see him for exactly what he was—a big piece of fresh meat swimming in their direction. Fortunately, Murph changed his mind and, with uncharacteristic wisdom, returned to the bank.
There’s no such drama this afternoon. Evening comes on quietly except for Molly’s occasional barking and the patter of light rain on my jacket. The colors are quiet too—muted, as we say—all browns and grays, a few isolated streaks of white from an easy winter, and the dark, colorless green of the woods. It’s a good place to walk and think, to gather up words into sentences that try to make sense of things: words looking for a way to see more clearly and say something that sounds true.
It’s always a crap shoot.
Nineteen months ago I started doing this column because I had begun to think differently about writing and I wanted to air some of what I was thinking in public, give these ideas a hearing. And writing the column has helped me get clear about some crucial issues. Here’s the big one: I think writing is all about the character of our relationship with readers.
In these essays—almost forty now, I think—I have tried to look at all the elements of writing from a consistently ethical perspective. The words we use, the way we arrange them into sentences, the way we organize sentences into coherent narratives: I have tried to explore these formal issues in the context of reflections on the ethics of style.
We tend to do our writing in solitude, alone at our computers, and that makes it easy to forget that writing is a social skill, something we do for the benefit of others. Too often our discussions of good writing leave out this social dimension, but it has to be one of writing’s defining characteristics. When I look at all the incommunicative chubs of academic and bureaucratic bologna we batter each other with, it sometimes seems like we forget that the function of language is, after all, communication.
Communication. Our style manuals and guides to good writing all lead us to obsess over the formal elements of style: grammar, sentence structure, syntax, punctuation. I don’t mean to suggest that these elements are unimportant, but we tend to fabricate ideas about their “correctness” in isolation from the social dimension of writing. We are told frequently to “omit needless words,” but less often about all the different ways that we relate to different kinds of words and all the different reasons that readers might find a word necessary—or unnecessary—beyond its strict dictionary denotation.
When we discuss the elements of style, we tend to privilege their grammatical character, their internal function as constituents of a system of language, over their role as steps in the dance we do with readers. We take the language we speak every day of our lives and describe it in reductive terms that are abstracted and isolated from the way we actually talk, and then we take that description and use it to tell us how to use the language we’ve been using all our lives.
That’s like trying to drive a nail with a description of a hammer. I’m surprised that Strunk and White haven’t messed up our writing altogether.
And maybe they have. Compare the general state of writing now to what it was half a century ago: things have gotten demonstrably worse since Macmillan and Company first published Strunk and White’s Elements of Style in 1959—and since George Orwell lambasted bureaucratese and other babbles in his famous 1947 essay “Politics and the English Language.” In the timeless words of cartoonist Milt Gross, appropriated for my generation by R. Crumb in that headshop favorite, Zap Comix: “You call dis a system?”
I can feel myself getting shrill here. But I don’t like shrill, so I’m going to stop and have a martini—always the best antidote for shrill. When I told Michelle that I’m advising readers to burn their copies of Strunk and White, she recoiled in horror—I mean, she actually physically jolted.
But she sees it too. She calls them “Strunk-&-White-isms”: all the punctilious little hyper-correct uber-grammatical ultra-syntactical imperatives that go by the book and are Oh! So correct! and do nothing to get writer and reader together on the same path to whatever it is we’re writing about.
Don’t burn your Strunk and White. Book-burning is kind of a non-starter anyway.
But let’s not surrender our autonomy either. We should write everything—everything—like free human beings talking to others of our kind.
We have to take the not-so-improbable chance that we already know how to use language to communicate with each other and that, in the moment that we write, we will do it better, clearer, sharper than we ever imagined. And we will write with more insight and facility than Strunk and White anyway, who have no idea what we’re trying to say, who we’re talking to, or why.
We won’t get it right until we relish the risk of getting it wrong.