Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Elements of Style

I’ve just finished reading a lovely little book called “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and his pupil, my literary hero, E.B White. I am the proud owner of a special edition illustrated by Maira Kalman. Her wonderful art work has been the talk of the design blogosphere lately, so I was happy to discover one of her books already a member of my bookshelf.

Normally, one wouldn’t read a grammar book for pleasure, but this book in an exception. As I read it I began to feel strongly that it applies to so much more than just writing. It is a call to clarity, deliberation and order. These are things we could all use more of in life. In his introduction, E.B White says of his old professor;

"Will Strunk loved the clear, the brief, the bold, and his book is clear, brief and bold. Boldness is perhaps its chief distinguishing mark. On page 43, explaining one of his parallels, he says, "The lefthand version gives the impression that the writer is undecided or timid, apparently unable or afraid to choose on form of expression and hold to it."...That was Will all over. He scorned the vague, the tame, the colorless, the irresolute. He felt it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong."

Well then. I think we've gone well beyond grammar here, and into the deep, dark waters of life philosophies. Mr. Strunk advocated a strict policy simply stated as follows: “Omit unnecessary words.” Easier said than done Mr. Strunk.

He exhorts writers to:
“Avoid the use of qualifiers. Rather, very, little, pretty-these are leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”

(When I stopped to analyze my own words I was shocked at how often these leeches do indeed appear and just how wishy washy they make one sound). The reader wants to know they can trust the writer, that the writer knows the path he is leading them down. This strikes me as excellent advice. If you are unsure about what you are trying to say with your writing it makes sense to stop and think it over.

Kalman's illustrations are a delight. They are generously sprinkled throughout the book, and left me wondering why more grown up books don’t have pictures. It is such fun to see someone else's visualization of a concept, especially in something as potentially dull as a book on grammar. The Elements of Style has been inspiring writers and artists of all stripes for eighty nine years. For more evidence that this elegant book has applications for the full spectrum of art making, check out Maira and Alex Kalman's charming short film inspired by it.

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