October 2, 2020 | | , ,

The elements of style in the age of noise

The elements of style in the age of noise

“Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time,” offers Roger Angell in his introduction to the everyday writer’s handbook, The Elements of Style

Angell himself is no stranger to writing, having watched his stepfather, E.B. White (perhaps best known for famed children’s novel Charlotte’s Web), toil over his “Notes and Comment” page for The New Yorker month after month. While E.B White’s prose is still considered a prime exemplar of how to write with “ease and clarity”—he was rarely fully satisfied with his work. 

Notes Angell: “When the new issue of The New Yorker turned up in Maine [where we lived], I sometimes saw him reading his ‘Comment’ piece over to himself, with only a slightly different expression than the one he’d worn on the day it went off…he seemed to by saying ‘At least I got the elements right.’”

This level of care-taking and self-critique seems like a thing of the past, given the loads (and loads and loads) of communication flying around these days. From physical manifestations of writing to digital ones, it seems ease and clarity have been replaced with nuance and obfuscation. The idea of writing to bridge the gaps (or perhaps, gaping holes) between people, in order to provide a clear path forward, is an unpopular one. At least, this is the perception if we aren’t careful consumers of what we intake.

As writers—whether authors, marketers, business executives, students, or humans living on planet earth attempting to develop a cohesive thought—we are best served to take a page out of E.B. White’s book, if we want lasting impact. If coupled with Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, we can help our fellows make sense of the world around them, rather than further pushing ourselves and others into the noisy abyss.

Here are a few highlights from The Elements of Style (authors: White, Strunk, and Kalman) as a jumping off point, followed by Leondard’s 10 rules. May I also humbly suggest you purchase both these books and keep them at your desk. In the event you feel the impulse to rattle off an emotional email or superfluous tweet, their mere presence may stop you dead in your tracks.

From White, Strunk, and Kalman:

“Write in a way that comes naturally.”

“Omit needless words.”

“Revise and rewrite.”

“Do not explain too much.”

“Be clear.”

“Avoid a succession of loose sentences.”

“Use the active voice.”

And from Leonard, for all the authors and regularly employed writers out there:

Rule #1: Never open a book with weather.

Rule #2: Avoid prologues.

Rule #3: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Rule #4: Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…

Rule #5: Keep your exclamation points under control.

Rule #6: Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

Rule #7: Use regional dialect (patois) sparingly.

Rule #8: Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Rule #9: Don’t get into great detail describing places and things.

Rule #10: Try to leave out the part the readers tend to skip.

The End.

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