Best-Selling Strunk and White Book Needs a Modern Update
The Strunk and White “little” book is well known. Most writers probably own it or have referenced it at one time or another. A reference for the times, published 1918 by William Strunk Jr. for his Cornell students, and only 52 pages in length.
One of his students, E.B. White became a bit obsessed with following his professor’s guidebook. If you’re unfamiliar with E.B. White, then you’re likely also unfamiliar with his classic books Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. He’s written books aimed at adult audiences too.
White put the elements he learned from his professor, William Strunk, to use, and they served him well as he became a columnist for The New Yorker, publishing his first piece there in 1925.
The ultimate compliment a student can pay one’s teacher is to continue his work. White and Strunk are two names that have come to be linked together by the updated style guide: The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition 4th Edition, which remains a #1 Best Seller.
The re-make and expanded edition are the elements White learned from his professor and they served him well. The teachings serve writers well too, evidenced by selling more than 10 million copies.
Still, there’s value in the guide today. Seems the number of copies sold agrees with this thinking. Referencing my personal copy, there are great tips for every writer. Gotham Writers likes these most of all:
- Choose a suitable design and stick to it.
- Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
- Use the active voice.
- Put statements in positive form.
- Use definite, specific, concrete language.
- Omit needless words.
- Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
- Express coordinate ideas in similar form.
- Keep related words together.
- In summaries, keep to one tense.
- Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.
Good thing the book is short because if you bore easily, yawn, the subject matter may put you to sleep, but if you can manage to keep your eyelids peeled open, you’ll find some gems worth clinging to.
There are some harsh critics of the famed guide. One source says:
“Strunk & White, the book, is that it favors a style of writing — lean and undecorated — that is no longer in fashion. To the extent that Strunk focuses more on conventional usage, he is a target of descriptive linguists who can bring to the table countless examples of canonical writers who are assertively unStrunky in their usage. (These linguists amuse other language experts, such as Bryan Garner, who note with some glee that the descriptivists are more likely than the common writer to write prescriptively, sometimes in refereed journals, and even on websites such as Language Log, where descriptivism is the state-sponsored religion.)”
If you’re clutching onto every word Strunk and White wrote, you’re clutching onto pearls that it’s time to let go of.
Choose an appealing design
Hello? What device are you reading this on? Your phone, perhaps? Strunk and White never met the internet, and because they didn’t, they have no idea about white space, how detrimental paragraph chunks can be, or gasp, mobile readers. Much less how quickly readers bounce — 3 seconds or less by numerous estimates.
Do not break sentences
This point is found under point 6, page 7 of my The Elements of Style guide.
Really now? Modern speech is conversational, and there’s a place for formal writing when it reaches an academic audience, but most people feel like they’re feeling talked down to unless you’re using casual language that’s relatable.
Find yourself unrelatable and you’re likely to find yourself unread.
Get with the times
For real! No one cares which way a chart is orientated, if you use ellipses, or, oh my goodness, parentheses. If you’ve ever leaned into a conversation as an invitation to the other person to fill in the blank or add their thoughts, this is one reason you’d add ellipses in your writing.
These guys never met the Urban Dictionary either. I bet they’d shudder at my made-up words.
If you’re one of the few left holding onto the most intricate detail of dotting i’s and crossing t’s in this way, you’re overdue to modernize your craft.
Words and writing evolve. If you’re a writer, you and your craft should be in constant evolution. If you’re not willing to let go of a few old-school ideas to grow your audience, you’re sacrificing readership, and as writers, readership is something we all take seriously.
Your words are your baby. Nurture them well. If they’re not growing, you’re not enjoying the reach you could have.
No question, omitting unnecessary words makes writing more enjoyable for the reader. Even Grammarly will catch a succession of loose or similar sentences. Can't argue a bit with positive voice, paragraph structure, or keeping related words and ideas together.
Most writers I know have no idea what positive voice is, but they’ve heard of active voice. Coordinating ideas has not crossed their minds. Putting two sentences of equal value together is the equivalent of solving a math equation.
And, if empathetic words are to go at the end of the sentence, I’m wrong every time I place them at the beginning for effect. Or use one-word standalone emotions for impact. Or end a sentence in a preposition. Or use a sentence fragment. Each of these aspects is fairly common in speech. Since I’m wrong about a lot of things, this may be the case. Full concession.
Undoubtedly Strunk and White were onto a few things. There’s little doubt about their personal success or the way they touch successive generations of writers and the craftsmanship of their writing. But, they need another facelift.
As White grew he deviated from the teachings of the master he revered in Strunk. And you should too. It’s okay to bend and break the rules on occasion, although it is helpful to know the rules and play by them for a time to know when to test the boundaries.
Don’t you think?
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