Saturday, 16 January 2010

Writerly Advice from Strunk and White's The Elements of Style

I almost think "Strunk and White" ought to be italicized as well, as their names are so much a part of the title.

Anyway, to all your writers-aspiring who may read this, I want to encourage you to read the book itself. Here, perhaps contrary to that recommendation, is an excerpt which I think is good advice:

3. Work from a suitable design.

Before beginning to compose something, gauge the nature and extent of the enterprise and work from a suitable design. (See Chapter II, Rule 12.) Design informs even the simplest structure, whether of brick and steel or of prose. You raise a pup tent from one sort of vision, a cathedral from another. This does not mean that you must sit with a blueprint always in front of you, merely that you had best anticipate what you are getting into. To compose a laundry list, you can work directly from the pile of soiled garments, ticking them off one by one. But to write a biography, you will need at least a rough scheme; you cannot plunge in blindly and start ticking off fact after fact about your subject, lest you miss the forest for the trees and there be no end to your labours.

Sometimes, of course, impulse and emotion are more compelling than design. If you are deeply troubled and are composing a letter appealing for mercy or for love, you had best not attempt to organize your emotions; the prose will have a better chance if the emotions are left in disarray--which you'll probably have to do anyway, since feelings do not usually lend themselves to rearrangement. But even the kind of writing that is essentially adventurous and impetuous will on examination be found to have a simple plan: Columbus didn't just sail, he sailed west, and the New World took shape from this simple and, we know think, sensible design.

I am unsure about his geographical claims near the end; how does he mean that the New World took shape under European discovery and exploration? The author nonetheless gives good advice, I think, between King's radical spontaneity and other writers' meticulous planning. Copying out this passage would be a good excerise in writing, too, if you would like to get a feel for good writings' mechanics. White's prose is neat and elegant, worthy of study.

Everyone, read his book; writers, read it carefully.

1 comment:

Jon Wong said...

I will def put this on my "To Read" list along with The Lovely Bones and His Dark Materials trilogy. I have a lot of reading to do. And I haven't read Wicked yet (it's sitting at home, waiting for my return).

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