After reading The Elements of Style and Style, Toward Clarity and Grace I think I have to say that the most important thing I learned is that I don’t know crap about writing.
It was a surprising discovery. I mean, I never seem to have too much trouble with writing. Nine times out of ten I get an A on my papers for school, and never less than a B. Although I anticipate the streak might be coming to an end in this class.
The discovery of my ignorance on the subject of writing didn’t really set in while I read Strunk and White. Most of the rules seemed to be things that most of us sort-of inherently know. It’s probably not too presumptuous to say that most people who make it to a 300 level English course have already figured out that they should “write with nouns and verbs” (71) and that “the number of the subject determines the number of the verb” (9), for example. These just aren’t things we have to think about. In other words, at no point during my reading of The Elements of Style did I think to myself that I was in trouble, or that I was somehow lacking in my knowledge of how to go about writing things. In fact, I felt pretty smart. Not that reading the book was completely useless. I did pick up a few habits-like using “a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.”(9) I used to use parenthesis, but now I’ve decided I like the dashes better. They look more appropriate to me. Unfortunately, I still haven’t figured out what an “appositive” is. But other than that, I liked that rule.
The panic set in while I was reading the Williams book. I hadn’t gotten very far into it and I was reading about things that I had never heard of- nominalizations, dangling modifiers, hedges and emphatics. I became very worried, but Williams did an excellent job of describing these mysterious concepts. In fact, he did an excellent job of describing every thought and “rule” he shared throughout the book. I could tell that Williams wasn’t interested in creating little rule zombies who would obediently follow any instruction and do things like “form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s”(Strunk and White 1) etc., like some other so-called style experts would have. Williams seems to be genuinely interested in helping us learn enough about writing that we can move above and beyond rules, in opposition to the stylistic paradigm of Strunk and White who seem to not really give a crap about the collective intellect of writing students, caring only that we not annoy them with our writing. Williams gives us tools we can use to become better writers than he is. Strunk and White only give us enough to keep us from failing a class. Of course, only if it’s a class taught by one of them- which we would be unlikely to find since they are dead.
So, recognizing the good that could come from reading and understanding what Williams had to say, I kept on plugging through the book, bravely taking on scary things that I had never heard of- as mentioned above. And I really thought I was making progress until I got to page 153 where Williams says “let’s assume that you can now write clear, coherent, and appropriately emphatic prose.” How about lets not. It’s true, if you would have asked me before I started reading this book; I would have thought it was a fair assumption- that I could, in fact, write clear, coherent, and emphatic prose. But that was a different era. And I realized that I was going to have to read the Williams book again, probably more than once, if I wanted it to change my writing.
Wow, I didn’t realize I was writing so much.
So I guess I’ll wrap it up with just a few of my favorite things from Style, Toward Clarity and Grace.
1. I really like the attention Williams pays to the issues we have with our readers. On page 115 he tells us “Don’t state what your reader can easily infer”, but he also reminds us to not assume the reader will know something just because we know it. I think he articulates the problem well when he talks about the struggle with “what we take for granted as part of a shared but rarely articulated body of knowledge and values.”(121)
2. My favorite line of the whole book is on page 112…
“If you don’t know your point, just start writing and hope.”
Can’t everyone tell that’s what happened in this blog entry?