Everything you need to know from Strunk and White
April 11, 2009
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Geoffrey K. Pullum’s tirade about the 50th anniversary of William Strunk’sThe Elements of Style as edited by E.B. White is deliciously correct.
So, I want to tell you everything you need to know from Strunk and White, and save you the bother and expense of reading it yourself. Here it is; one simple sentence:
Omit needless words.
Yes, that’s all you need to know. Take these deep into your writing, and you will be a better writer. “Omit needless words” does not mean to text your message, eliminating words just to have a shorter message. It is not a recommendation for text compression.
Rather, “Omit needless words” means something rather different. You’ll probably always have more to say than you can possibly say. Don’t try to say it all; try to say just what you need to in order to get your point across.
“Omit needless words” means this too: you’ll want to edit what you write. It’s not (usually) enough to write what you want to say once; you’ll have to go back and rewrite — trimming here; editing there.
“Omit needless words” means writing is as much about editing as it is about the initial creative part of writing; editing requires time and attention. We who write computer software have the advantage over creative writers in that the need for debugging is immediately obvious as soon as a program is run. A writer has to imagine what will succeed and what will fail.
“Omit needless words” means that you care about your readers, and how they will perceive and understand your message, so you’ll get rid of stuff that gets in the way so that the good stuff is more evident.
You might learn one other thing from White’s essay: writing can be a delight, and language can be a passion. But you’ll probably be better off by reading White’s other work such Charlotte’s Web (in which aptly chosen words play such an important part).
Strunk and White’s grammatical prohibitions will be, and should be, ignored by good writers. But their love for language (as wrong-headed as they were in describing their own craft) is well worth emulating.