Wick Communications

Finding your elusive style

In Books on 28 Jun 2013 at 7:34 am


If you are reading this, you know that The Elements of Style is the bible of American journalists. E.B. White (famed as a children’s author) and William Strunk (a long-dead English professor) penned a rational, readable and brief outline for anyone wishing to be a better writer.

If you haven’t read it lately, you should.

I’m particularly fond of the final chapter, called “An Approach to Style.” It begins with the authors’ acknowledgement that they are stepping off of firm grammatical ground and into the squishy turf of subjective sentence structure.

The advice is simple, obvious and ignored by writers everywhere. Place yourself in the background. Write in a way that comes naturally. Work from a suitable design. Use nouns and verbs. Revise and rewrite. Do not overwrite. Do not overstate. Avoid the use of qualifiers. Do not affect a breezy manner. Use orthodox spelling. Do not explain too much. Do not construct awkward adverbs. Make sure the reader knows who is talking. Don’t use fancy words. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good. Be clear. Do not inject opinion. Use figures of speech sparingly. Do not take shortcuts at the expense of clarity. Avoid foreign languages. Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

While we hold these truths to be self-evident, there is ample evidence that we don’t think much of the truth. We ignore clarity and overwrite. We seek to impress with adverbs, of all things. We try to write like our heroes though we know we can no more write like Henry James than dunk a basketball like LeBron James. …

I’m writing this because this week I was looking for some authority to back me up. I was making the argument to a skeptical writer that “said” is all the attribution you need. I told her that “she laughed” and “he explained” and “she muttered softly” were just not necessary. I told her you want the reader to skim right over the attribution and not call attention to it. And there it was, No. 11 on Strunk and White’s hit parade:

… Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition. Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is cluttery and annoying. Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs but load their attributives with explanatory verbs: “he consoled,” “she congratulated.” They do this, apparently, in the belief that the word said is always in need of support, or because they have been told to do it by experts in the art of bad writing.

Thanks guys. Take another look at the last chapter of The Elements of Style.



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