Mr. Strunk, Mr. White

Posted: May 8, 2012 in Writing

Today I don’t have a writing tip so much as I have a revelation to share with you. I hope that you see some value in my sharing what I have experienced.
I recently was checking through my copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and came upon the following:
Elementary Principles of Composition:
1. Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
2. As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning.
3. Use active voice.
4. Put statements in positive form.
5. Omit needless words.
6. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
7. Express coordinate ideas in similar form.
8. Keep related words together.
9. In summaries, keep to one tense.
10. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.
I have decided that this post will look at each of the principles and I will score myself on a scale of 1-10, with ten meaning strict adherence and one meaning that I utterly suck at it, for each principle.
1. Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
Okay, this one is an easy one. It basically boils down to making sure that my ideas don’t bleed together into one paragraph. The purpose is straight forward as well. It prevents the reader becoming confused by what is going on in the written work and keeps the piece moving along.

Score: 7/10 I have this one under control. There are times that I slip a bit, but it happens infrequently.

2. As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning.
Without a topic sentence, how can I truly have a sentence? It is what anchors the entirety of the paragraph. Without a topic, there is no purpose to the writing at all. As to the ending bit; if the topic sentence is the anchor then the ending is the reinforcing tie-down. It further grounds the work and gives it greater substance.

Score: 9/10 through years of science writing I have little difficulty with this at all.

3. Use active voice.
Ah, the active voice. I will always remember my first writing instructor’s discussion of the active voice.
See what I did there? I could have written that last part thusly:

My first writing instructor’s discussion of the active voice will always be remembered by me.

The problem is that the latter is less direct and less “hey, look at me”. Active voice gives energy to my writing. I don’t avoid passive voice altogether, there are times where it is still appropriate, but I try to liven up my writing as much as I can.

Score: 7/10 I still need to work on this. In truly recent work I am closer to an eight, but I still need a lot a focus to do this regularly. There is always room to grow.

4. Put statements in positive form.
In writing I want to make definite assertions. There is no time to be wishy-washy. Besides, wishy-washiness uses more words. Here is an example:

Mr. Jones was not a pleasant person to be around.

Or

Mr. Jones was an unpleasant person to be around.

The second one is definite. The first one could technically go either way. Mr. Jones could be an amazing person to be around. He could be frightening. It all depends on what the reader brings in. The word ‘not’ should be reserved for situations of denial.

Score: 5/10 I am horrible on this one. I just use the negative form too often to give myself a higher grade. Again, recently I have learned to control this, but I have a bit to go here.

5. Omit needless words.
This one is a good rule in talking as well. Get to the damn point. Extra words rob your writing of its power and elegance. Instead of saying “John was smiling as he was walking towards the door.” I should aim for the simpler and smarter “John smiled as he walked towards the door”. I also combined this example with not using –ing endings. Prose is much cleaner without it.

Score: 6/10 I avoid this in most cases, but when I am tired I lapse into it again, and I do a lot of writing when I am tired.

6. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
Now, I am not talking about sentences with questionable moral character. I am referring to sentences that use conjunctions such as and, while, but and their relatives. One of these sentences does not stand out. They also easy flow throughout a manuscript. Stringing a bunch of them together will make the writing come across as mechanical, almost sing-song like.

Score: 9/10 I looked back at what I’ve written. I very rarely have two sentences like this in a row, let alone a whole series.

7. Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.
When you have a list of things that belong together it is important to use a similar form so as to not sound undecided. Again, this is about the strength of the written piece.
Example:

“Back then, science was taught through lecture and drilling, while now it is taught through inquiry”

Vs.

“Back then, science was taught through lecture and drilling; now it is taught through inquiry.”

The second one has a similar construction on both pieces. It is a stronger use of words.

Score: To be honest, I don’t know. Probably a 6/10. I will need to take a closer look.

8. Keep related words together.
This allows the reader to better understand the writing and the relatedness of items in the writing. Here is an example of what not to do:
“Plants, when exposed to sunlight, carry out photosynthesis.”
The related idea of “Plants” and “carry out photosynthesis” are unnecessarily separated. Here is the fixed version:
“Plants carry out photosynthesis when exposed to sunlight.”

The second one is more concise, one of our main goals, as well as clearer. The related ideas are not orphaned on either side of the sentence.

Score: 7/10 I find that I sometimes do this when I feel like I haven’t written enough. I want the whole work to seem bigger, but bigger isn’t always better and confusion is never good.

9. In summaries keep to one tense.
I lied; I am not going to do them all. I don’t do the type of summaries that they are referring to here in my fiction writing. However it is still important to pay attention to this. Not carrying out this “rule” can make a summary seem incomplete and uncertain.
10. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.
This serves the purpose of moving the prose along. It also makes excellent use of whatever punctuation point you use at the end giving the words more power. Consider the following:

The human sense ethics has remained relatively unchanged while our understanding of science has moved forward in leaps and bounds.

Vs.

While our understanding of science has moved forward in leaps and bounds while our sense of ethics has remained relatively unchanged.

The main point of both sentences is about our sense of ethics. The second sentence finishes with that thought, thus it is the take away from the sentence for most reader.

Score: 7/10 I work hard to do it and my prose moves forward fairly well. There are still times where my sentences seem deflated and on further inspection it is due to having the wrong words at the end.

So, there you have it. My average for the 9 areas that I scored myself in was a 7/10. I’m not too discouraged there, but there is definitely a lot for me to work on. I feel like this is just a starting point, so I am hopeful about the future.

Why don’t you give it a go?

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