Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Friday, November 27, 2009

Reading about Writing


The Elements of Style
by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White





Elements of Elements of Style

Over the past fifty years, many people have praised The Elements of Style as an essential resource, sort of a Bible for writers. Like the standard Bible, it mentions Jesus,1 and some revere it so highly they follow its teachings to the letter. Unlike the standard Bible, however, strict adherence to it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Also, it’s only 85 pages long.

There’s a reason this text is so revered by writers: Strunk and White set forth their rules and principles in a simple, straightforward manner, with examples of unclear, incorrect, or wasteful language placed side by side with their proper (or recommended) revisions. They provide guidelines around usage, composition, form, and style, and also include a section highlighting commonly misused words and phrases. On occasion, they interject little morsels of humor into their advice, but if you’re looking for grammar-related entertainment, I suggest you look somewhere else; The Elements of Style is first and foremost a guidebook. A damn good guidebook, but a guidebook nonetheless.

As I read through the section on usage, my confidence soared, with proper use of the colon my only potential issue.2 My confidence dipped, however, when I hit the section on composition. This was due to the fact that a few of the principles, particularly #14-17, were not always adhered to when I wrote.3 As a minor grammar snob, I was also surprised to find that I had been misusing a few of the most commonly misused words and phrases.4

Of course, both Strunk and White aren’t completely unbiased: Strunk lets his prejudices shine through most prominently in the section on misused words — he reserves an inordinate amount of ire for the phrase “student body,” for instance — whereas White airs his in his section on style. Also, some of their recommendations feel outdated, although this is not that shocking. If Strunk supplied the suggestion, it was originally made over ninety years ago. Even if White only inserted it in the most recent edition of the book,5 the word or phrase has now been misused for over thirty years. Either way, it might very well have been absorbed into the modern lexicon by now, and certainly, the “incorrect” usage of some words can now be found among the accepted definitions in many dictionaries.

Anyway, count me among the converted; I plan to follow the wisdom of this particular Bible. I already picked up my own copy of the ’79 edition for 50 cents at a book sale this past weekend, and I know I’ll be referring to it extensively once I begin the editing phase on my novel. For now, I’ll just leave you with one last bit of praise for Strunk and White, courtesy of Dorothy Parker:
If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

Rating:

1 Specifically, Jesus’ possessive.
2 This makes perfect sense; I have Crohn’s disease. (Grammatically, though, the problem is my tendency to wuss out and use a semi-colon when I should be using a full-fledged colon. For example, see first sentence in this footnote.)
3 And that sentence illustrates me erring on three of them: 14. Use active voice, 15. Put statements in positive form, and 17. Omit needless words.
4 Such as “due to” in the previous sentence.
5 E.B. White, a former student of William Strunk Jr, took his mentor’s self-published book from the 1910s and added his own insights, publishing updated editions in 1959, 1972, and 1979.



On On Writing

Stephen King wanted to impart his wisdom of writing to the great, unwashed masses (a.k.a. aspiring writers). He also, seemingly, wanted to write a memoir about his early life and his more recent brush with death. But why go to the trouble of writing two separate books? He’d grouped novellas into one volume before, so why not non-fiction, too? In On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft, he sandwiches his writing advice in between the life and times of Stephen King. It doesn’t quite work.

Through the first 100 pages of On Writing, King details, among other things, his first attempts at writing, how he met his wife, and the origins of Carrie. Some of it is quite interesting, but it’s still about him, rather than the process of writing, which is the supposed focus of the book. Though, it helps to explain why I found the book in the biography section of the library.

When King finally gets to the writing part of On Writing, he proffers some useful tips. Likening the writer’s skills to tools in a toolbox, and stories to fossils the writer must unearth, he delivers solid advice on such things as pacing, dialogue, and description. And I expect his suggestions for the editing process and about writing for your “Ideal Reader” to prove quite valuable. Yet, many of his recommendations seem overly personal. While I agree that perhaps the two most important things a writer can do are to write a lot and read a lot, not everyone has the time to do that “four to six hours a day, every day.” Also, writers thrive in all manner of locations; just because he holes himself up in a room with the door closed and shades drawn doesn’t preclude someone else from finding a busy cafĂ© to be ideal. Likewise, going virtually plotless may work for King, but not everyone is gifted in that way. Some people (myself included) prefer to develop the basics of their plot before they sit down to write, to ensure that everything will tie together in the end. Basically, too much of King’s advice smacks of, “It worked for me, so it’ll probably work for you.”6

Perhaps because his expertise is in writing fiction, or perhaps because he doesn’t like to plot out his books, King lays out his writing advice without any formal structure, making it difficult to reference specific sections quickly. He praises Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, yet may be worse than I am at complying with Rule #17 (Omit needless words). And he tends to relate the majority of his advice back to his experience with one of his own works, though I’m not sure if it’s a marketing ploy to sell more books or if he is simply talking about what he knows.

All in all, I can’t argue with most of the advice King offers. I will argue, however, with the decision to sandwich the advice in between autobiographical texts that provide little guidance in the practice of writing. Even if the word “Memoir” is in the subtitle.

In On Writing, King says that it is impossible to turn a bad writer into a competent one, and impossible to turn a good writer into a great one, but with hard work and dedication, a competent writer can become a good writer. I feel as though I’m on the cusp of goodness; all I need is a little more practice.

Four to six hours a day should do it.


Rating:

6 This wouldn’t be a direct quote, though, since throughout the book Stephen King makes it abundantly clear that he really really really really abhors adverbs.

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