Helpful writing habits from Strunk and White

Avoid loose sentences. Keep related words together. And don’t write your copy with beer.

Strunk and White's advice for building good writing habits

“These are tools, not rules,” writing coach Roy Peter Clark once said in a lecture to journalists about writing.

That’s a helpful approach to take when one is tempted to chafe against William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s “The Elements of Style.”

One can find any number of writers tearing their hair out over the pair’s influence. “Strunk and White Suck (But Zinsser Is Excellent),” cries one blogger.

Whether you love it or hate it, “The Elements” can spark helpful habits as long you regard it as a set of recommendations of the right tool to use, rather than a book of Leviticus handed down from on high, to be obeyed lest one risk the wrath of Jehovah.

A hundred years have passed since Strunk and White began a partnership that would influence communicators and journalists to this day. This year we are taking an occasional look at their little book. We are finding much to appreciate in their advice.

‘Avoid a succession of loose sentences.’

As a writer, one often feels that shortening sentences can aid pithy prose. In their section on rules of composition, however, Strunk and White show that this can also carry the risk of choppiness.

“A common violation of conciseness is the presentation of a single complex idea, step by step, in a series of sentences which might to advantage be combined into one,” the sages write.

They show how a collection of short, mostly chronological sentences can be reworked more felicitously, even at the cost of a sentence longer than those it replaces.

  • Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king. (55 words.)
  • Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland in his place. (26 words.)

This leads directly to the next rule (No. 14), in which one can almost hear Strunk bark, “Avoid a succession of loose sentences.”

By this they particularly mean sentences consisting of two co-ordinate clauses, the second introduced by a conjunction or relative. Such a series “soon becomes monotonous and tedious.” The authors provide this example:

The third concert of the subscription series was given last evening, and a large audience was in attendance. Mr. Edward Appleton was the soloist, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra furnished the instrumental music. The former showed himself to be an artist of the first rank, while the latter proved itself fully deserving of its high reputation.

They go on, but you get the idea. “Apart from its triteness and emptiness, the paragraph above is bad because of the structure of its sentences, with their mechanical symmetry and sing-song,” they stated.

‘Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.’

Echoing forms cause recognizable patterns in content and function, Strunk and White say, citing the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt…”) and the Beatitudes (“Blessed are … for theirs is”).

“Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage” wickedly catches White (along with Thackeray and Defoe) violating Rule No. 15 in a separate essay, but one could pick through any writer and find such inconsistencies.

“You could probably find such examples by the dozen, if you were to sharpen your eye so as to be able to depict them readily,” Webster’s says, adding, though, that these are “venial sins. … We think you should try to avoid them in your writing. But if you slip, no one may notice.”

‘Keep related words together.’

“The position of the words in a sentence is the principal means of showing their relationship,” Elements advises. “The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.”

Bad: Writing manuals, when flung at the teacher, can hurt.

Better: When flung at the teacher, writing manuals can hurt.

In a piece on “The Nuts & Bolts of Scientific Writing,” the Academic Pediatric Association, quotes the precept and notes that it helps avoid dangling modifiers, along with other confusion:

Incorrect: George came over while I was writing my paper with a six-pack of beer.

Correct: George came over with a six-pack of beer while I was writing my paper.

Unless the essayist was dipping his quill in a hearty stout, use the second example.

‘Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.’

Strunk and White remind us that words can carry a different impact depending on their position.

“The kangaroo boxer KO’d the clown with his clenched paw” ends the sentence with more punch than this: “With his clenched paw, the kangaroo boxer KO’d the clown.”

This tip comes with seemingly contradictory advice: “The other prominent position in the sentence is the beginning. Any element in the sentence, other than the subject, becomes emphatic when placed first.”

Example? “Deceit or treachery he could never forgive.”

Avoid getting too clever, however, or you’ll end up sounding like the Star Wars character Yoda: “Powerful you have become, the dark side I sense in you.”

Either way, this flip-flopping rule underscores Clark’s words: These are, after all, tools, not rules.

COMMENT

7 Responses to “Helpful writing habits from Strunk and White”

    Bob says:

    Oh how true. I am reminded of the importance of punctuation as well:
    CORRECT: “Let’s go eat, grandma.”
    INCORRECT: “Let’s go eat grandma.”

    With the 140-letter restrictions of some social media sites and the lack of good grammar taught in our schools, writing well (not writing good) has become a lost art. Like your appearance at an important business meeting, the first impressions of your writing ability will often determine a person’s opinion of your education, intelligence, and worth.

    Nancy Bowen Wiggins says:

    I have been advocating the use of Shrunk & White for years. Did so recently. I was introduced to this writing style primmer by my Professor Hal Barber in Grad School at Trinity University. He said that I need a more straightforward method of writing to gain clarity to my presentation of thoughts.
    It has worked for me.

    Randall Bassin says:

    “17. Omit needless words” has served me well over the years. It is the one lecture by Professor William Strunk Jr. that I wish I could have attended, if only to cheer and applaud his point. One caveat: Purists may wish to defer to the Third Edition, as the Fourth infused examples of politically-correct speech.

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