Is There Anyone Anymore Who Will Tell Us How to Write Well?

William Strunk? E.B. White? The Elements Of Style? Does anyone remember those names? Does anyone anymore recognize this little book as one of the shaping forces of good writing for the last 50 years? I dug into the library in my study to find my copy of this great little book; I discovered I actually had three of them, all marked up at different times in my life. From the markings in the first one, I was clearly a student: The comments in the margins were quite sophomoric, at times perhaps a little too exuberant.

But from those markings it is also clear that I was thrilled to discover someone who might guide me on this journey of how to write. Here was someone not willing to leave it up to me to figure it out on my own. There are some rules. There are some standards. There are some things better than others. Here was an authority willing to tell it like it is. About writing well.

Here was someone eager to tell me that the active voice is better than a passive one: “I will always remember my first visit to Boston” is simply better than “My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.” One way of writing is more effective than the other.

Or here is another one: “Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.” It is better to say “It rained yesterday, very hard, even fiercely,” rather than “A period of unfavorable weather set in over Seattle.” One is better writing than the other. Right?

Strunk and White remind us over and over that the great writers — those like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare — use language and words that call up pictures. They remind us that “vigorous writing is concise,” a lesson I have always had to remind myself, especially in these days of hurry and scurry. Less is more: That’s a lesson we recently learned from Abraham Lincoln.

For years and years I used sentences with semicolons because Strunk and White told me these were good sentences. And by the way, a semicolon separates two independent clauses, a comma does not.

And while we are at it, if you write “red, white, and blue,” there is a comma before and. Our newspapers these days have forgotten this very good rule. But don’t forget it! The papers are wrong. Strunk and White said so, and that is good enough for me.

This year marks the 50-year anniversary of the publication of Elements Of Style. Millions of good writers over that time have read and studied and remembered the stern, yet witty common sense of good writing taught by Strunk and White. Last week in The Wall Street Journal, Mark Garvey asked what Strunk and White would likely make of our current “flurry of texting, tweeting, IMing, and Facebook chatting, much of it speed thumbed while steering with the forearms.” And he concludes that Strunk and White might actually celebrate: at least people continue to write when they want to communicate.

But make no mistake, there will be times, for our students, and for the important matters in our world, when good and careful writing is necessary. When that time comes, there remains no better guide than this little book called Elements Of Style. And when that times comes, when we must write well and correctly, we’d better be ready.