–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!