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

This is a re-read; I read The Elements of Style when I was Managing Editor for LEARN NC. I picked it up again because I’ve created a writing/editing/research comm syllabus for myself (more on that in another post).

Most of the rules here are things I do in my writing intuitively and have for years, but there are always a few gems to pull out, especially from the final chapter about style.

Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur. (p. 15)

This is such a strong argument for freewriting and Ann Lamott’s shitty first draft. You get the thoughts out of you and only then do you figure out what order they should be in. (Huh. I didn’t realize Peter Elbow developed freewriting as a practice. I’m currently reading his book, Writing with Power.)

Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains instead to admire what is good. (p. 70)

This reminds me of Austin Kleon’s exhortation to steal like an artist, as well as his thoughts about the relationship between input and output.

With respect to the place of feelings in writing, Strunk and White argue that a design, or structure for writing, tends to be incompatible with feelings, because

one’s feelings do not usually lend themselves to rearrangement. (p. 71)

This can certainly be the case, but I don’t think emotion-driven writing and highly-structured writing are incompatible. Poetry is a good place for structure and emotion together. (Joss Whedon once said in an interview that his writing process is about structure and emotion.)

Look at sonnets, for example. Whether Petrarchan, Shakespearean, or otherwise, they are highly structured and often draw on emotion. See for a specific example, my favorite of Shakespeare’s sonnets, or a more modern sonnet my friend wrote, or Sir Patrick Stewart reading a sonnet a day.

Revising is part of writing. (p. 72)

I know. I know. I really struggle with this. For all that I’m a proponent of freewriting and an initial round of revision, I really struggle with later rounds.

No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence or whose attitude is patronizing. (p. 84)

Yes! Trust your audience to be smart.

The whole duty of a writer is to please and satisfy himself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. (p. 85)

This reminds me of another bit of Austin Kleon advice, to write the book you want to read. I recently finished reading Wallace J. Nichols’s book, Blue Mind (more on that in another post), and joined a Zoom call he had to discuss his upcoming plans for 100 Days of Blue Mind. He said that Blue Mind was a book he’d wanted someone else to write so that he could read it, but he couldn’t find it, so he wrote it. (He also said, “Be careful what you wish for, because you might start out studying marine biology and end up studying neuroscience.")

I’m glad to have re-read The Elements of Style. I feel like people joke about it a lot, but I think it’s a useful little book.