Unsolicited Endorsement: Strunk and White

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Brian likes Strunk and White. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

I’ve spent a lot of time these last few months working with new writers. It’s one of my favorite things about the job, and I find that even seasoned hands around the Triad City Beat offices — myself included — can always use a refresher course in the basics.

And there is no better compendium on the basics than The Elements of Style, known sometimes in writing circles as Strunk and White, the authors of the book.

It was William Strunk who did the heavy lifting as an English professor at Cornell University, compiling and self-publishing the book and requiring it of his students, one of whom was EB White, he of the New Yorker and Charlotte’s Web fame.

I first got my hands on one in 1989, my first real college writing course, and it absolutely blew my mind: an articulation of every little thing that goes into a compelling sentence, basic rules of structure, concise and clear writing. More important, there are numerous examples of what not to do: “Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.” “Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.” “Do not break sentences in two.” And the classic axiom: “Omit needless words.”

I ordered a bunch of them off Amazon a few months ago, and I’ve been handing them out like Halloween candy to all the new writers on staff, and recommending it to everyone I know who aspires to put words together for money.

We don’t follow all of his guidelines — Strunk’s views on comma usage are absolutely archaic, and a lot of the old rules of manuscripts no longer apply. But his mastery of the written language is undeniable.

EB White did pretty well for himself, too.

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