Make Every Word Tell

An old friend showed up in my office the other day. Or at least it felt like it when I walked in to discover a gently used, third edition copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White sitting on my desk one morning.

Good old Strunk and White! Turned out a colleague had been cleaning her office and thought I might like to have it. She was right. I had the same book nestled next to my Webster’s Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus for years. Until 2008 when the glue on the binding so completely disintegrated it became nothing but loose pages. I can’t believe I’ve lived for this long without a replacement.

I flipped right to my favorite part: page 23, rule 17.

Omit Needless Words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

E.B. White, who would go on to become one of America’s most influential essayists, was a student in William Strunk’s English class at Cornell in 1919. White has this to say about rule 17:

There you have a short, valuable essay on the nature and beauty of brevity—sixty-three words that could change the world.

I couldn’t agree more.

A magazine I edit came out this week. Picking up a copy, can I find needless words? You bet I can. Try as I might, there are still what now appear to me as glaringly useless adjectives when I could have shown instead of told what was what. A point is belabored in one piece. There’s a quote that should have been summarized. Strunk makes it all so clear.

I find solace in White. The man who immortalized himself with Charlotte’s Web and contributed to the New Yorker for six decades wrote:

I have been trying to omit needless words since 1919, and although there are still many words that cry for omission and the huge task will never be accomplished, it is exciting to me to reread the masterly Strunkian elaboration of this noble theme.

Whew. I can breathe again. And keep striving to make every word tell.

Stunk had informally published The Elements of Style for his students. White, after exalting the book and his former professor in his New Yorker column in 1957, first updated and edited the book in 1959 in partnership with publisher Macmillan and Company. It was so well received that he updated and edited two more editions in 1972 and 1979. White’s stepson, Roger Angell, provided a foreword for a fourth edition in 2000 and an illustrated version appeared in 2005.

To say that The Elements of Style is an important book would be a monstrous understatement. And you don’t have to take my word for it. Time Magazine called it one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.

Yet, it has its distractors. According to Wikipedia a Boston Globe review of the most recent edition called it an “aging zombie of a book…a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 70s taboos and 1990s computer advice.” Maybe the reviewer should have stuck with the third edition like me.

“The Elements” was required reading when I took Hope College’s advanced expository writing class in 1983. By then it had already sold millions of copies. According to a Today Show report on the book’s golden anniversary, more than 10 million copies had been sold since 1959.

Mark Garvey published Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in 2009. I didn’t know that until today. I’m thinking about starting my 2012 Christmas list with Garvey’s book at the top.

So when you run across Strunk and White, where do you land? Someone delighted to see an old friend? Happy to welcome in two seasoned English lovers, eager to reconnect with a favorite rule? Or do you view it as aging zombie hodgepodge?

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