A friend from work wants to improve his writing, and he asked if I had any recommendations for online courses. I do not, but I did recommend the brief and vigorous Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. After recommending it, I decided to read it again for moral support for my friend.
I devoured the entire book at the aquatic center this morning while I waited for our daughter’s first race to begin. It is an entertaining little read for a book of rules and grammar, and I giggled to myself on the hard metal bleachers while swimmers dove and flip-turned beneath me.
There is no defense for such punctuation as
Marjorie’s husband, Colonel Nelson paid us a visit yesterday.
In The Elements of Style, every word — and every punctuation mark — tells. It is a guide trimmed down to the barest essentials for clear writing, and can be summed up by Rule 17 in the Principles of Composition section:
Omit needless words.
Vigorous writing is concise.
When I made the recommendation, I remembered the book being wry. I turned pages and sneezed in the chlorine air of the aquatic center, reading to find the funny lines, and I found myself underlining sections I hadn’t highlighted on previous reads of the book.
In the past, I’d read The Elements of Style as a pleasure writer: a diarist, a blogger, a writer who writes because I can’t not write. These new passages resonated with me as a writer who produces and consumes words for a living, whose entire work-life is text-based. In this type of career, where we work online, we don’t pass each other in the hallway, we don’t see each other’s faces and body language, and where we share ourselves through the words we write, written words aren’t just for reports and summaries. It is through our writing, and our writing alone, that we share ourselves with our colleagues.
All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases.
Through this new lens, several passages came into focus, not just for better writing, but for presenting yourself to your colleagues and to the world.
If your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority. Save the auxiliaries would, should, could, may, might, and can for situations involving real uncertainty.
I’ll add to that list I think. We all want to be polite, or protect ourselves from being wrong, and so we add these doubts to show, “Hey, I don’t know everything, I’m not a know-it-all, and look, I’m being nice.” What that does, though, is strip us of our own authority and expertise and cause our colleagues to wonder, “Do I need to confirm this? Do you think or do you know?” I’ve made this mistake, saying “I think” about something I actually know. It results in extra work for everyone in the form of clarifying questions or verification with other parties. If you know, you know, and I think isn’t necessary.
Do not overstate. When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard.
In our age of hyperbole, of everything being awesome, amazing, and the BEST THING EVER, this is an especially refreshing piece of advice. To be clear, I am 110% guilty of overstating. However, when it comes to important issues at work, especially when stating facts from which decisions will be made, avoiding overstatement is vital. I wrote a summary for a project at work a couple of years ago in which we were measuring the number of tickets worked by Happiness Engineers from a particular ticket queue. The percentage came out to be 28%, and in my summary, I rounded up and said “nearly one-third of tickets.” The person I asked to review the post for me wisely noted that rounding up was falsely stating a case, would look like I was lobbying for a certain outcome, and would cast doubt on the rest of the report. In the final version, I rounded down to one-quarter.
The reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; the reader wishes to be told what is.
The examples the authors use are for putting statements in positive form — “He was not very often on time” when “He usually came late” would be better — but this piece of advice reverberated in my brain because it is not just a writing issue. It is a life issue. When we ask the kids what they want for supper and they name all the things they don’t want, we want to throttle them. “What do you want? We can’t buy groceries for what you don’t want.” On the job, when coworkers share all the ways in which an idea won’t work, or poke holes and criticize a proposal without providing alternative solutions and plans, it is equally frustrating.
I wrote about 12 other passages in my notebook, exciting-to-me rules about when to use semicolons, dashes, colons, and parentheses. I won’t bore you with them here, and I want to reassure my friend Sandy that the book is not all punctuation and grammar and seriousness. I was particularly tickled by the section on misused words and phrases. I jotted them down and giggled at the authors’ scorn.
Enthuse. An annoying verb growing out of the noun _enthusiasm_. Not recommended.
Finalize. A pompous, ambiguous verb.
Insightful. The word is a suspicious overstatement for “perceptive.”
Personalize. A pretentious word, often carrying bad advice. Do not personalize your prose, simply make it good and keep it clean.
Prestigious. Often an adjective of last resort. It’s in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.
And finally, one to savor:
Avoid the use of qualifiers.
Rather, very, little, pretty — these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.
Perhaps if I imagine very as a gorged, blood-drunk leech I’ll be less inclined to use it.