Stand By Your Men: Why Strunk & White should always be by your side

It’s my privilege to introduce my first guest blogger, Stephanie Verni. I asked Steph to guest blog about some aspect of the craft of writing that would-be writers might find useful. Steph and I slogged through the creative writing masters program together at National University. During that time we shared our writing, thoughts, and gripes, and have since become good friends. Steph’s first novel, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, delves into one woman’s struggle with love and relationships in an accessible, well-written style. Beneath the Mimosa Tree will be available soon…so stay tuned! I’ve had the pleasure to read some it, and can’t wait to get my grubby little fingers on the finished product!

For more information about Steph, and to get a chance to see more of her work, you can visit her at Steph’s Scribe.

So without further ado, I give you Stephanie Verni:

Stand By Your Men: Why Strunk & White should always be by your side

On the first day of classes when I hand out the syllabus, I go through the required textbooks. Then, I review the suggested books I list as a helpful writing resource.

At the top of my list is the one I most strongly endorse: Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.

It’s been on my desk ever since I was knee-deep in my first master’s, writing non-stop as I marched toward earning that degree in professional writing. Perhaps it’s also because it was during that time that I fell in love with E.B. White’s writing, and as lovely as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little are, White’s strength lies in his range and versatility as a writer as was demonstrated in his essays. A writer for The New Yorker for years, as well as a contributor to Harper’s where he wrote a monthly column called “One Man’s Meat,” White’s ability to find amusement and fodder in the everyday, common occurrences manifested itself in eloquent pieces of writing such as “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street,” “Death of a Pig,” and “Once More to the Lake.”

White had kept a copy of a small handbook he received from his former professor at Cornell, William Strunk, Jr. So moved and thankful was White that when Macmillan commissioned him to revise the book to a marketable text for college students, White did just that; Strunk had passed away, and White took his forty-three page original “handbook” and turned it into The Elements of Style, adding his own chapter entitled “An Approach to Style.”

The first half of the text discusses grammar, composition, and usage rules for writers. Yet it is Chapter V, the one White crafted, that offers pointers on developing style. As someone who teaches writing to mostly junior and seniors at the college level, these rules apply not just to them, but serve as gentle reminders to all of us, to consider our style—and what we intend to do with it with our own writing.

White lists twenty-one rules, and while it would be fun to discuss all of them, I’ve picked five of my favorites to share on Jim’s blog. These serve as constant reminders for me as I begin any new writing endeavor:

#2: WRITE IN A WAY THAT COMES NATURALLY

By the time most of these students are eligible to take an upper-level writing course, the fundamentals of writing should be understood. (They may not be practiced as they should be, but one hopes for the best!) Style should begin to evolve. We talk about this in class. We imitate people all the time, from language usage to mannerisms to behaviors. The same is true with writing. Usually, what you read can influence your own writing, but your own natural voice and style should begin to emerge. Take your time with writing—if you are short on time or crunching at the last minute with any project, the natural writer in you could be suffocated.

#3: WORK FROM A SUITABLE DESIGN

Students often have trouble getting started on a writing assignment, whether it’s a feature, hard news story, magazine article, or research paper they must write. Likewise, creative writers have the same dilemma: how to begin, and then, how to evolve what we’ve begun. White strongly suggests having a game plan. I concur. You usually have a game plan for a night out with friends, why not have one for your own writing?

He states, “Sometimes, of course, impulse and emotion are more compelling than design.” This can be true, however, a sensible design of your writing must come into play at some point, otherwise, even the most brilliant writer could have a mess on his hands.

#5: REVISE AND REWRITE

I’ll start this section with this wonderful quote: “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” –James Michener

As White states, “Revising is a part of writing.” In fact, revising is a skill. You may notice structural problems, character problems, a lack of supporting material, quotation errors, and more. Rarely does a student listen to me when I tell them to write their pieces, put them away, and then come back a day or two later to begin revising. Most students are procrastinators and leave assignments to the last minute. But there is a reason we tell them to step away for a bit; you allow yourself that break to see it anew with a clear head, and hopefully, an editing pen in hand. Those of us who have the luxury of time can rework things until we believe they are complete—or at least complete enough to let it go out into the world.

To echo what White says, I say be a happy reviser!

#8: AVOID THE USE OF QUALIFIERS

White states, “Rather, very, little, pretty—these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.” Beautifully put. What he means is, when you are writing, it is very important to be very careful not to use pretty little words very much.

As Mark Twain once said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

#16: BE CLEAR

Writing with clarity can be taught, but the writer must take responsibility for his own stylistic choices and hold the need to be clear in the highest regard. It is important to be clear in our own writing; there is a time and place for ambiguity. When one is writing poetry, ambiguity works. However, when instructing or informing or telling a story whereby clarity is imperative to the overall meaning, we must adhere to this rule. As singer/songwriter John Mayer states, “Say what you need to say,” and say it clearly.

If you don’t have your very own copy of The Elements of Style, I recommend getting yourself one. These rules are relevant and the first half of the book is helpful, too; for example, did you mean to write “irritate” or “aggravate?” Do you use your pronouns properly? Are you putting a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause? These answers, and the answers to many other questions, can be found in this 105-page book that still costs around $8.00.

Therefore, to all writers out there, stand by your men and do yourself a favor. Strunk & White and all their helpful advice are available to you anytime you need them.

Finally, a special thanks to Jim for asking me to be a guest blogger. This has been great fun, and I wish you much success with your blog and with all of your published work that’s out there for the public to learn from, read, and enjoy!

—Stephanie

3 comments for “Stand By Your Men: Why Strunk & White should always be by your side

  1. Sue Ellen Grove
    July 14, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    I loved this blog! As a person who has casually flirted with the idea of blogging, I consider it fortuitous that Steph chose this topic and I fell over it. It was “damn” enjoyable and informative.

    Thanks, Jim, for having Steph as a guest!

    • Jim
      July 14, 2011 at 11:42 pm

      I was my pleasure!!

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