Posts Tagged ‘The Elements of Style’

Writing Reveals the Self

October 23, 2009

On and off the last months, I’ve been reading Strunk & White’s classical The Elements of Style. Most of the book is concerned with rules for good and elusive writing and usage of English. In the final chapter, they discuss style:

In this final chapter, we approach style in its broader meaning: style in the sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing. Here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? […] There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course. Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion [p. 66, fourth edition, paperback].

Strunk & White seems to imply that clear thinking is required for clear writing. McCloskey states that explicitly in her Economical Writing, if I remember correctly. It’s hard to argue for anything else, I guess. What concerns me is that I seldom think clearly. I take forever to straighten out an argument or an idea. Perhaps writing is not something I should pursue?

Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable, as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito [pp. 66-67].

Writing reveals the Self!

Finally, some advice:

Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is nondetachable, unfilterable. The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style all mannerism, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.

Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by. A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up. Like other gunners, the writer must cultivate patience, working many covers to bring down one partridge [p. 69].

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