100 years on, Strunk’s advice rings true

E.B. White helped turn a professor’s rhetorical manual into an international hit. A look at the abiding lessons of Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Style.’

A century ago, a Cornell University student took an English class taught by a professor out of step with what even then was an age of volubility.

Professor William Strunk Jr. lived by the rule, “Omit needless words!” He had trouble filling his appointed hour, wrote then-student E.B. White, who later would revise Strunk’s brief classic “The Elements of Style.”

“In those days when I was sitting in his class,” White writes, “he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself—a man left with nothing more to say yet time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock.”

Strunk escaped this predicament by uttering every sentence three times, White writes. Strunk leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels, and in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, “Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

Few books have been as influential in American prose—and indeed, worldwide—as the one widely known as “Strunk and White.” In the 100th anniversary of E.B. White’s rhetorical epiphany on the road to discursive Damascus, we at Ragan Communications are reacquainting ourselves with Strunk and White’s pithy work. It since has been revised with a new foreword by White’s stepson, the New Yorker writer Roger Angell.

In an occasional (and brief!) series of stories, we will plumb the lessons of “The Elements of Style.” Though the main text is the book’s core, where better to start than White’s witty, charming recollections of a man whose wisdom survived world wars, the space age and that canker on the American tongue known as Twitter?

Here are a few lessons that leaped out in my latest reading of White’s introduction:

It’s all about your reader.

Smart organizations have learned that even when you are pushing a message, the focus must be on your audience. If you can’t tell a story that’s meaningful to the reader, you are wasting your time.

White recalls Strunk’s sympathy for the reader.

“Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time,” White writes, “a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.”

Cut the deadwood.

In my first reporting job, on a small-town Oregon newspaper, a curious phenomenon could be seen across the newsroom as deadline approached. Reporters leaned over their keyboards, poking their computer terminals and mouthing, “One, two, three, four, five…”

They were counting the words in their respective ledes. Our volatile managing editor, who was prone to temper tantrums, had banned ledes of more than 20 words. Keeping sentences short was excellent discipline for a newsroom full of cocky young Faulkner wannabes, but that’s not quite the message of “The Elements of Style.”

Strunk requires “not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Any writer has bugaboos—irksome words or phrases that add nothing. “Whether or not,” “the fact that,” “for all intents and purposes” (or worse, the nonsensical “all intensive purposes”)—these are the kind of deadwood the careful writer prunes.

Note that this advice is different from the tiresome cliché, “Kill your darlings.” If clutter such as “each and every” and “the fact that” are dear to your heart, you are in the wrong profession.

Be bold, be colorful.

Strunk “scorned the tame, the colorless, the irresolute,” White fondly recalled. “He felt it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong.”

White recalls a class in which Strunk leaned forward and croaked, “If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud! If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!”

White finds the advice comical, and yet, “Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?”

Details and anecdotes tell.

Among the gems in White’s introduction are his glimpses of Professor Strunk the individual, clutching his lapels and barking his principles in triplicate. Strunk’s likes and dislikes “were almost as whimsical as the choice of a necktie, yet he could make them seem utterly convincing.”

Strunk despised the expression “student body”—it seemed to carry a cadaverous whiff in his mind—and he took a trip downtown to the “Alumni News” office to suggest the substitution “studentry,” a coinage of his own.

The editor “was so charmed by the visit, if not by the word, that he ordered the student body buried, never to rise again.”

Had he carried terseness to the extreme, White would have cut these vignettes and left nothing but cold prescriptions. Yet the anecdotes enliven the work, and such “darlings” deserve a reprieve from the gallows.

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