On Writing: In defense of Strunk & White

I made the mistake of emailing Jim Hale an opinion. I sent him a mewling defense of the classic writing guide “The Elements of Style” by Strunk & White the day after his column questioned its utility. In true professorial style, he asked me to be a guest columnist defending his target, a little tome Hale critiques as full of “punctilious little hyper-correct uber-grammatical ultra-syntactical imperatives.”

 

First thing I did was look up “punctilious”.

Punctilious means “showing great attention to detail or correct behavior.” That’s something I’ve never been guilty of. I certainly should work on attention to detail; we all should. That’s why I rise in defense of Strunk & White. I do not think their little book is the last word in writing; it is a first rate guide to the details of writing. By thinking through the small things, your writing will be more striking; your message more memorable.

No worthy endeavor in life can be well accomplished thoughtlessly, except perhaps getting pregnant. Even properly watering a garden takes thought. Consider our unexpected bundle of joy; teaching a tot to water the vegetables is like guiding a new writer. We can’t just spray out a bunch of words and hope for growth. We’ve got to think about how to arrange and organize the words.

That’s what Strunk & White do. They make us think about the placement of words. They encourage us to omit needless words, use the active voice, and use parallel construction on parallel concepts. For most of us, omitting needless words is the quickest path to better writing. For some of you, omitting needless words means nothing but blank space after this period.

 

 

 

 

 

Alas, for my fans I should probably trudge on. (Hi Mom!)

Obviously the need to omit needless words leads me to write about this year’s weird election. There are those who should omit (many) of their words, but there are those whose mastery of lean language should probably be ignored. Bear with me.

First, let’s talk about smart people. I worry our experts’ inability to omit needless words is, in part, why no one listens to smart people anymore.

Smart people are partly to blame for the rise of those craving simplicity in a complex world. We see the inability to omit needless words in science and government all the time. Technical college degrees reward the passive voice and the multisyllabic. From a reader’s point of view, technical documents are a wall of words possibly meant to obfuscate rather than explain. Little thought is given to whether the information is clear. Some experts dismiss good communication as “dumbing down” rather than “clarifying.” Others may dismiss those who don’t understand an issue as stupid over understandably confused.

So, instead of an enlightened country that listens to those with education and experience in a given field, we are now at the mercy of a large voting bloc who don’t believe a word any “expert” might say. We risk a rudderless world without expertise. Real crises are coming at us all the time. But hey, global warming is a hoax. Vaccines cause autism. Some people doubt the moon landing. Someday soon people will go to orthopedic surgeons to fix our brakes and mechanics to perform knee replacements. Heaven help us if another 1918-like pandemic flu slams us.

Science is our best tool to untangle complexity. Sadly, science is only properly communicated in terms of probabilities. (There is a 95 percent chance you’ve stopped reading this article). People don’t tolerate uncertainty well. (The 5 percent who’ve made it this far – Hi Mom! - figure every one else has read this far). Add to this necessary ambiguity the professional jargon scientists are guilty of using, and no wonder nobody believes the experts. How different would the world be if scientists omitted needless words?

Of course, it’s not just the smart people who are at fault. The reader shares responsibility for death of communication and learning. We don’t want to be understood, nor do we want to learn anything. Writing clearly is “dumbing down.” Learning something and changing your mind is a flip-flop. (There is nothing better in this world than changing your mind. Heck, the fact you’ve changed your mind is how you know you learned something.)

You have to be humble to learn something, to accept you might be wrong, to change your mind.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. Here’s a not so humble guy. He’s also a guy who proves Strunk & White’s point about omitting needless words. Lean statements can have power even if the ideas are weak. Trump’s whole presidential campaign has been questionable use of lean language. Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco; these are rhetorical jabs that keep opponents on their heels, unable to respond except to hit below the belt too. I’m not saying Trump’s right. I’m saying, even if inartful or inaccurate, he’s clearly effective.

On the opposite side of the communication (not political) spectrum is Sarah Palin. She who tosses the word salad. Perhaps her disappointing turn from popular governor to unpopular, weird, and unintelligible news-show talking head could have been avoided with less word salad. (You know, I actually liked Palin, a little, as governor. She was proof democracy was still alive. I didn’t vote for her, mind you, I voted for Halcro, with 9 percent of Alaskans. Do I know how to pick them or what?! It’s why I don’t bet on horses). So does Palin speak unintelligibly when trying to sound like an expert because experts sound unintelligible to Palin? Is she mimicking the sound experts make in her mind?

Do you think she – or any Fox or MSNBC talking head - ever just stops, takes time to think through their words, admit ignorance when they’re ignorant and say “I don’t know,” and, you know, omit needless words…

The trick is to be lean and thoughtful. The polarization of our politics seems to stem, in part, from a lack of patience to participate in thoughtful communication. No one running for office seems to have the ability to stake an informative middle ground between angry terseness of a Trump and the word salad of a Palin. A lot of us are trying to make up our minds listening to an incoherent conversation dominated by extremes.

 

Despite my lament, this is a column on writing and communication, not politics – though they’re intertwined. I defend Strunk & White by believing we must omit needless words. Here at the end, I’ve added some additional paltry writing advice developed from years of reading essays by non-English majors at UAS.

1. Timing is all about omitting needless words. Whether it’s writing a novel, delivering a joke, or editing a movie, the latest you can enter — and the earliest you can exit — a passage while making your point has the most impact. Omit needless words, scenes, brush strokes, or hammer strikes. Do just enough.

2. If you’re at the point words swirl like fallen leaves in the Times New Roman fountain, read your piece aloud. I think we hear awkward phrasing better than we read it.

3. At the risk of repeating myself, let me be clear — clarity is difficult. Writing clearly for a lay audience, so often dismissed as dumbing down, requires a lot of thought. Chuck the jargon. Write outside of your comfort zone. People who have spent decades learning a professional shorthand have a hard time not using it. But writing technical missives that show off your terminology but communicate nothing is just that; showing off. Be understood.

4. Read Jim Hale’s On Writing column. Hale has earned the right to be conflicted about Strunk & White. He can break the rules because he knows the rules. He is a great writer. He teaches writing. He’s won awards, for crying out loud. The rest of mere mortals need guidance. Strunk & White’s guidance is good. So is Hale’s.

 

Good writing is determining whether or not your words communicate your point. Good writing takes time, patience, and the humility to cut your own words. (Can you imagine running for office on a platform of Time, Patience, and Humility? Now that is a doomed campaign).

• Clint J. Farr can be reached at cjfarr@hotmail.com.

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