Let us now praise little books.
Well, one particular little book.
I don’t know when I got my first copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. The fluid fiction of memory tells me it was in my distant tweeny past, around the time I decided to be a writer. That original volume, spine-cracked and finger-stained, has been swallowed by the years, replaced and swallowed again. And, no matter how many pages I’ve written myself or edited for others, time after time, I still take EofS’s current, dog-eared incarnation from the shelf and go back to basics.
For, like all art, writing begins as a craft and any craft takes time and work to learn well. Before we graduate to the swish-and-swirl aspects of literary style, to voice and hue, meter and pitch, we need to know our ABCs. Professor William Strunk Jr. was a master at teaching them, first to his charges at Cornell, and then – thanks to a savvy editor at Macmillan and former student E.B.White – to the rest of us.
With economic prose and extensive examples, Strunk lays out simple rules of usage, composition, and, yes, style. These are the elements we should all know inside and out; the foundation upon which we can build our literary/editorial bona fides. Granted, no rules or grammar books – even the best – are a substitute for original storytelling and compelling voice (we’ll get to that in future weeks), and inspiration, I’m afraid, is in the hands of the gods. Elements of Style will not make you a great writer. But it can make you a competent writer, a clean writer, someone who knows how to structure a sentence, to have subjects and objects harmonize, tenses agree, and pronouns cooperate with their antecedents. Someone who can recognize the difference between passive and active voice and knows that using ten-dollar words when fifty-cent ones will do just makes you sound pretentious as hell and pisses people off.
In short, studying EofS is homework for our craft. Do it well, and become a precise writer who can juggle words, sentences, whole paragraphs certain that, when they land on the page, they say exactly what you mean. Show the world that you take pride in your work, and, when you split your next infinitive, do it as conscious choice, not simply because you don’t know better.
So, go to your bookshelf – or favorite bookstore – take down that copy of The Elements of Style and dig in. (It is now available in e-book; you can even get a free version from Amazon’s Kindle Classics, sans E.B.’s lovely addendum.) There are far worse classrooms, I assure you.
Next week, going beyond the elements for a closer look at style.
Good writing and Happy Pesach!