Can one learn how to write? Certainly, anyone can learn to write better – and plenty of people need to – but actually learn how to in the first place? I believe yes . . . and no.
The burning need to write – the urge that makes us ratty and distracted, scrabbling for pieces of paper and a stump of pencil because there are words hammering to be released from our brains – I think that is a trait one either has or not. I don’t think that can be learned. Which is not to say that you can’t be a writer if you are not a slightly anti-social obsessive, but I suspect it’s different. I can’t tell because ever since I was small, I have needed to write. Whenever there is a situation I can’t work out, or a feeling I want to preserve or exorcise, I write about it. That wasn’t something I was ever taught.
Learning to write well
The sort of writing that can be taught, however, is elegant, flowing, pleasant-on-the-ear writing. Like most writers, I am always seeking a better way to say things. I jiggle phrases around until I am happy with the combination of words and order. Also like most writers, I have a number of books telling me how to do this. I thought I’d share some of them with you.
The Elements of Style
The first book I am going to look at is the seminal “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White. This book is so famous it’s usually just referred to as Strunk & White or “The Little Book” – my edition has just 95 pages. It was originally published in 1918 and was credited by Time magazine as one of the most influential books since 1923.
William Strunk Jr, a professor at Cornell University in America, wrote this privately printed textbook for his English classes. Strunk died in 1946, but his book lived on and in 1957 one of his a former students, E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web), revised and updated the text into the Strunk & White we know today. The revised book sold two million copies in 1959 and more than ten million since.
The book has just five uncompromising sections:
- Elementary Rules of Usage
- Elementary Principles of Composition
- A Few Matters of Form
- Words and Expressions Commonly Misused
- An Approach to Style
Throughout, the authors urge us to cut, cut, cut unnecessary words – something that is one of the hardest lessons for a writer to learn, but which makes the main difference between good and poor writing.
Opinions of The Elements of Style
Although some critics dislike its proscriptive style: “Use definite, specific, concrete language” and “If a manuscript is to be submitted for publication, leave plenty of space at the top of page 1” and British English writers have to be aware of Americanisms, I like it because of its no-nonsense brevity. It calls a spade a spade, and if your writing has spade-like tendencies, it will tell you so:
“If you use a colloquialism or a slang word or phrase, simply use it; do not draw attention to it by enclosing it in quotation marks. To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better.”
On its 50th anniversary, Geoffrey Pullum wrote a scathing review of The Little Book. He wasn’t a fan, saying it was full of limp platitudes, contrived examples, and inconsistent nonsense. Although many of his points are valid, I am still fond of Strunk and White because it’s short, mostly correct, easy to understand and even if some of the advice is banal, looking at what passes for English on the internet, limp banality would be an improvement!
After all, it’s not a grammar book. It doesn’t even claim to be. The 1972 edition describes it as a guide to writing with cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity. It’s a style book. Getting grammar right is often part of style – but great writing isn’t always grammatically perfect. Writing that leaps off the page would often have a grammar teacher wielding his red pen, but it certainly has style.
Do you have a copy of Strunk & White? What do you think of it? What other grammar and writing style books do you consult regularly? I’d love to hear.
Joanna is a business copywriter who tends to mutter to herself when she is working and doesn’t get to drink Bolly as much as she thinks she should (discuss). This post is the first in an intermittent series of reviews of the contents of her working bookshelves.