A (very) few words to the wise in 2016


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Newspaper people, at least those with a penchant for brevity, have long sworn by a classic book, “The Elements of Style,” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. In 85 precise pages are listed the fundamental rules for becoming a good writer.

The rules, of course, are not easily mastered, especially in a digital driven world where verbal shortcuts have become the norm at the expense of carefully crafted sentences and wisely worded statements.

White, who died in 1985 at age 86, was perhaps best known as a children’s author, penning such classics as “Stuart Little” and “Charlotte’s Web.” He began polishing his writing craft as a newspaper reporter in the early 1920s, later becoming a popular contributor to The New Yorker magazine.

It was while a student at Cornell University that White crossed paths with Strunk, a mathematician turned writing professor. A Cincinnati native, Strunk taught English at Cornell for nearly a half-century, first publishing “The Elements of Style” in 1918 as a writing primer for his students. The book took on a new life in 1959, some 13 years after Strunk’s death, when his former student edited and updated the work, leading to four more editions over the next 46 years.

White, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1978, wrote that his astute professor was a stickler for brevity.

“In the days when I was sitting in his class he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself – a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock.

“Will Strunk got out of his predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times,” White wrote in the book. “When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspirational voice, said ‘Rule 17. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!’

“He was a memorable man, friendly and funny,” White said of his mentor. “Under the remembered sting of his kindly lash, 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 his noble theme.”

Said Strunk: “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, a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer makes all his sentences short, or that he avoid all details and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Do tell, indeed.


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