Tag Archives: strunk and white

Write Tight! Part II: Mechanical Tricks

So yesterday I started chatting about economical writing and how to achieve it. One strategy is by applying a few simple tricks, easily memorized and requiring no more than a basic understanding of English grammar. Though these little strategies are no substitute for thoughtful composition, they’re good habits to adapt.

Cut adverbs and adjectives.

Be brief. Writing habits that will help improve your writing. (Cut adverbs and adjectives, watch for wordy habits, and more.)The words very, quite, a little, a lot, a bit, somewhat, rather, and really can usually go. So can many—perhaps even most—words ending in -ly. Ask yourself if you need that adverb, or if you can find a verb that carries the meaning of two words.

For example, what does “talk very fast” mean? We can list a half-dozen single words that may mean this without even thinking about it: chatter, jabber, babble, blurt, prattle, chit-chat, gab. Each of these is a verb that encompasses within its meaning “talk” and “very fast.”

A little thought will certainly lead to more and maybe better terms. But notice that each of these verbs adds meaning and vividness to the idea of fast talk—they all have slightly different senses. The strong verb, when preferred to a weaker verb plus an adverb or two, gives strength and meaning to your language.

 Watch for wordy habits.

I nearly said, “Keep your eye out for. . . .” Verbose constructions are everywhere, and we can always find one or two words to take their place:

has the capability to (can)
is capable of (can)
is able to (can)
was able to (could)
can be compared to (resembles)
are forced to (must)
is a product of Japan (comes from Japan)

Never use two or three words when one or two will do the job.

Look for the hidden verb.

Some verbosities are long constructions that hide a verb that, when uncovered, can be made to pull the sentences entire weight.

has a great influence on (influences)
has a lack of (lacks)

Look for verbs hidden inside thickets of verbosity, and whenever you find one, set it free.

Beware the “there is/there are” construction.

This idiom is a blot upon our language, because it is so universally overused. Consider, for example, the following:

 There has been an increasing number of court cases about. . .

If you take the thing that “there has been” (in this case, number) and make it the subject of the sentence, and then come up with a verb that has some meaning, such as concern or address, you create a decent sentence that gets straight to the point:

 An increasing number of court cases concern….

 Delete relative pronouns, where possible.

Sometimes you can delete certain subordinators, such as that, who, and which, creating tighter phrasing:

the foods that people eat. . . .
the foods people eat. . . .

Sgt. Preston, who is a Vietnam veteran, said. . . .
Sgt. Preston, a Vietnam veteran, said. . . .

The canyon, which is a wildlife sanctuary, runs north and south.
The canyon, a wildlife sanctuary, runs north and south.

 Get rid of as many prepositional phrases as you can.

You can often replace prepositional phrases with possessives (my aunt’s pen, not the pen of my aunt) or with noun phrases (a coffee cup, not a cup for coffee):

The laughter of children
Children’s laughter

A spokeswoman for Honeywell
A Honeywell spokeswoman

 But be careful not to get tangled up in noun phrases: A phrase like “victims of violent crime” ceases to make sense when it’s put as “violent crime victims.”

This is all tight writing lite. Tomorrow we’ll talk about more sophisticated compositional strategies to achieve economical style.

Write Tight! Part I

Write Tight!

–E. B. White

Kinda doubt that E. B. White ever put it quite that way, but the message is the gist of William Strunk and E. B. White’s Elements of Style, the bible of journalistic and business writers. Write tight! is a marginal note I paste into student papers, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and o…

Well, to be fair, few of my students have ever heard of Strunk and White. And even they did, it wouldn’t do them much good. Creatures of an earlier era, when children learned basic English grammar in grade school (yeah: back in the day, grade school was actually called “grammar school”!) , Bill Strunk and E. B. White wrote their indispensable guide under the assumption that readers understood what was meant by terms like “subject” and “predicate,” and that they could tell the difference between an independent and a dependent clause. That, alas, is no longer true.

If you’ve found your way here because you want to be a Writer with a Capital W, or because you are already such a creature, you probably own a copy of Strunk and White. If you don’t, buy it: you can get a paperback copy for something between five and seven dollars. It’s short and it’s just not that hard to figure out. You need it.

The admonition to write tight means that a good writer tries to express ideas in as few words as possible without sounding like she or he is texting. Write economically. Always write as economically as possible.

Readers in general are happy to find prose of any kind written clearly, in concise, interesting, easy-to-follow language. This applies across the board, to all kinds of writing. It applies to technical writing, for example, where you may write a manual that explains how a computer program or a technical device works. It applies to business writing, from daily correspondence to the annual report. It applies to journalistic nonfiction. It applies to fiction (think Hemingway!).

To make every word count is to “write tight.” The principles of tight writing are described in brief in William Strunk and E.B. White’s short and famous book, The Elements of Style. You should read it and come to know it well. If you plan on a career that requires a lot of writing—or if you’d just like to write for the fun of it—you should memorize this book. In particular, check out “Rule 17,” which says:

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all details and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Over time, two strategies for developing a “tight,” economical writing style have coalesced in my schemes to communicate the whole idea to grammar-blind, style-innocent classmates. One consists of a few very simple mechanical tricks, things anyone can easily memorize and apply. The other: techniques of what I call “composition and style.” The second does require you to understand a little bit of how language works, and to engage your brain to make your language work the way you want it to work.

Tomorrow I’ll offer a few mechanical devices to help build economy into your writing style. And later this week, we can look at techniques of composition and style that, once internalized, you can apply to make your writing more effective and engaging.

Watch this space!