Writer’s Desk: Ignore ‘The Elements of Style’

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Any writer who has made at least a passing effort to improve their work is familiar with the lessons gleaned from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. The slim little handbook has been featured on curricula since it first came out in 1959. Following its own advice, the book is pithy, to the point, and highly usable. More than likely the sentences you just read break at least three of its rules.

If you listen to this podcast from linguist John McWhorter—who has been writing some great pieces on language in the popular and political spheres for The Atlantic, by the way, particularly here and here—there is no reason to take Strunk and White’s many rules (avoiding the passive voice, qualifiers and the word “hopefully,” all of which are sound) as gospel.

“It’s just a couple of guys,” McWhorter says. Not that there is no need for standards in writing. But as a proponent of communication, not a pedantic enforcer of codes (looking at you, Lynne Truss), McWhorter sees no reason for writers to wrap themselves up in worry over breaking a few rules.

Be clear, vivid, original, and to the point. Keep it short. If it feels wrong, cut it. If you’re not sure about a line, toss it or redo. Otherwise, write on, and that should do the trick.

Hopefully.

Weekend Reading: January 27, 2017

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