GWAS: Lessons in The Elements of Style #1

GWAS: Lessons in The Elements of Style #1

In print for 40 years, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is as timeless as Audrey Hepburn in a little black dress: an essential desk accompaniment for the sub-editor, writer and student or, indeed (indeed, she wrote!), anyone putting pen to paper; finger tip to computer key; middle finger to people who refuse 2 use proper English in txt msgs.

Let's face it; in the age of Twitter, email and rabid acronyms (ROFL), the art of producing pretty, pithy prose is being lost. But produce pretty, pithy prose we must because, as Roger Angell writes in the foreward, "we are all writers and readers as well as communicators, with the need at times to please and satisfy ourselves (as White put it) with the clear and almost perfect thought."

Smug and nerdy? Maybe. But this is a blog about media and magazines and pretty things, and if the copy ain't pretty, I simply don't like it.
So, the kindly folk at Penguin have allowed me to extract some very important lessons on matters of mastering the English language into as much for my own amusement as a collective refresher course. Yippee!

With a dose of writerly humility, and knowing full well that there are more than a few expert sub-editors amongst the GWAS readership (who would do well to avoid narky situations like this), herewith lesson numero uno.

Omit needless words
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 and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Many expressions in common use violate this principle...
The fact that is an especially debilitating expression. It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.

owing to the fact that
since (because)
in spite of the fact that
though (although)
call your attention to the fact that
remind you (notify you)
the fact that he had not succeeded
his failure

See also the words
case, character, nature... Who is, which was, and the like are often superfluous.

His cousin, who is a member of the same firm
His cousin, a member of the same firm
Trafalgar, which was Nelson's last battle
Trafalgar, Nelson's last battle

A common way to fall into wordiness is to present a single complex idea, step by step, in a series of sentences that might to advantage be combined into one.

Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The kind of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king.
(51 words)

Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realised the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland in his place.
(26 words)

Edited extract from The Elements of Style (Illustrated), Strunk, White, Kalman, $19.95, Penguin

Your truly,
Girl With a Satchel


amber said...

Erica, in a recent assignment, my marker pointed out that I had spelt "foreword" as "forward" and I just noticed it here, too! (I thought you might like to know.) I read a great sort-of style manual earlier this year called "Spunk and Bite" by Arthur Plotnik. It was such a fun read -- I highly recommend it, if only for the tongue-in-cheek reference to Strunk and White.

Anonymous said...

Hi Erica,
thank you for your post about editing tips. I'm a community news cadet with no senior sub editor or editor! I am the senior of the two cadets at work so I'm *supposed* to know about the correct grammar but there is so much to learn!
We do all the writing, pics, captions, headlines etc. I'm relying on my paltry university grammar classes and books to get me through. I will add this one to the pile. I also picked up Eats, Shoots, Leaves and Bill Bryson's dictionary on your recommendation. Are there any others you would recommend?

Sarah said...

As a university student who often has nothing to say, sometimes the extra words can help you reach the word count ;)

amber said...

The Professional Writing Guide: Writing Well and Knowing Why by R Petelin and M Durham is great! And The Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) is very helpful too:

sonya said...

just reading (and enjoying) your lessons in the elements of style posts.
this piece, written by a subeditor for the guardian is very funny.