“Be obscure clearly.” – E.B.White
In my previous entry I spoke about how essential it is for a writer to practice ‘good writing’. But what is good writing? How does one work out the principles of writing well? What are some common mistakes that beginning writers would do well to avoid? If you’re looking for a book to answer these questions, you should no look further than The Elements of Style.
What began life as an English professor’s lecture material has now become the style bible of countless authors. No matter what you wish to write – a short story, a thesis paper, a love letter, a business proposal – this book will make it easier. Carry it everywhere you go, and read it from cover to cover as many times as it takes to commit the contents to memory.
Good writing, it appears, is a combination of three things:
These are rules pertaining to the usage of the English language. These could perhaps be termed the ‘non-negotiables’, guidelines that have been in place for so long now that it would be ‘wrong’ not to follow them. For instance, “use the proper case of the pronoun”, and “the number of the subject determines the number of the verb”.
A good grounding in grammar will ensure that a writer’s usage of the language is correct. Though Elements cites quite a few common mistakes of usage, if you want to be more thorough, use a grammar book. (You already have one of those, don’t you?)
Composition is the art of designing a piece of writing. Things like form, voice, tightness etc. fall in this group. Rules governing composition are more subjective than those of usage, and the writer is welcome to discard guidelines that he thinks are of no use, but he would be well advised to think long and hard before doing so. Three of my favourite commandments from this part of the book are ‘Make the paragraph the unit of composition’, ‘Use definite, specific, concrete language’ and ‘Omit needless words’.
In addition to usage and composition, the writer must also cultivate his own ‘style’ of writing, of saying things. A writer may find that his natural style is to overwrite and overstate, whereas another writer may be a master at brevity. One may love to use metaphors and similes while another may prefer talking straight. Here the lines blur even further than they do with rules of composition; here the writer must make his own way, and ‘steer by stars that are disturbingly in motion’. (But even here there is invaluable advice, like ‘Write with nouns and verbs’, ‘Do not construct awkward adverbs’ and ‘Avoid fancy words’.)
By far the most important mandate of writing, however, can be summed up in two words: Be clear. All writing is communication, and if you feel the need to be vague for some stylistic reason, you must be vague in a way that is clear. No matter how many rules you follow or abandon, remember at all times that the primary purpose of all writing is to be read, and the primary purpose of all reading is to understand. The most important question you must answer at all times is whether or not you’re saying what you mean in the clearest manner possible. Everything else is mere commentary.
By clearing your mind, and your language, of clutter, ‘your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts – which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward. Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.’