My friend, the college lit professor frequently bemoans what passes for writing education in American public schools. Having taught adults myself in the corporate world and read lots of independent books, I would add that it isn’t just a matter of schools today. Maybe it’s the internet, maybe TV , maybe people are just getting lazier in the ways they communicate as the world around us moves faster, but it seems to me that the standard of writing (and reading) is going downhill. Writing as a skill just isn’t valued much anymore. Now that self-publishing is as easy as it is, any “classically trained samurai” with spell check thinks he or she can produce the great American novel without the benefit of editing or proofreading. Just sit down at the keyboard and bang it out. If you’re talented it’ll just come to you. Everyone’s got one novel in them, right?
The trouble is getting that novel out, and that takes skill not just simply banging it out and expecting it all to work. Like any skill, it takes practice to build. No one becomes a virtuoso pianist without knowing what the keys and pedals do and how it works. No one just sits down and bangs out a concerto without knowing about notes and tempo. Writing is the same way. It takes learning and practice. Sure MOST of us can put words together into complete sentences, but that doesn’t mean that MOST of us can hold a reader’s attention for more than a page or two. Just because you can play a scale on a piano doesn’t make you the next Chopin. It’s also a skill that like music or dance or any other skill needs constant practice no matter how long you’ve been doing it.
I’m not saying by any means that I’m a virtuoso, but I at least know that this is a skill I’m building and not one that I’m just going to sit at a keyboard and have or not have. I work hard outlining, writing, editing, rewriting and proofreading (not just spell check). To that end, I also keep handy a very important little book. It’s been marked up with pens and highlighters. The spine is white at the edges and the pages are nearly falling out. This is my Bible. Even when I was writing training manuals and product demos for a living this little book was my best friend, and one that is sadly forgotten in a lot of schools today. Some Christians read 1 Corinthians for comfort. I read this little gem. That’s no joke. It never fails to make me feel better (cause I’m a total nerd). I’m speaking of course of William Strunk and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style.
Those of you who are also writers are likely doing one of two things now. You’re either nodding your head and thinking of some of your favorite quotes from this book or you’re rolling your eyes and cursing me for adhering to something as silly as rules when it comes to writing. You’re saying, “The electronic medium is a new frontier and we’re pioneers making our own rules!” or “Rules Shmules! I’m an artist and I’ll tell my story the way that I want.” You can go right ahead thinking that way. I’m sure I won’t change your mind. But to go back to my pianist analogy. You can’t just call a B flat into and F sharp because you’re a maverick and that’s the way you do things. Sure you can sit down at a piano with no training and bang away, but that doesn’t mean that other people are going to call it music.
The truth is, if you want to make music that appeals to listeners, you have to follow certain rules of rhythm and chord progressions. The same goes for writing. If you want to write something that appeals to readers you have to make it clear and engaging. It will be far more accessible and reach far more readers if it follows certain rules of grammar and style. It takes a very rare talent to turn those rules on their head and most of us even some the best of us are not that kind of writer.
With this said, I’d like to announce a blog series taking a closer look at what Strunk and White have to say about style. Even if you skip the rest of the book (Though you really shouldn’t. It’s less than 100 pages.) Chapter 5 An Approach to Style contains 21 “Reminders” about writing style that should be an invaluable guide to writers pf both fiction and non-fiction. This series will look at each of these reminders and why they are important. I’ll even talk about stretching or even forgetting some of them and why and when I choose to do that. I’m hoping to get some other writers to contribute on their favorite reminders too. So if you have a favorite tip from Chapter 5 and would like to contribute, just let me know. If you don’t have a copy of the book, I highly recommend that you get one.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book.
Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by.