Thursday, March 15, 2007

Elements of Style and Writing

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, I discovered recently, is rated at number sixty-two by the National Review on its list of The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Century ; it’s rated at number twenty-one on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books. This rating is surprising because of a glaring error early in the book when the authors say that when adding the word that in front of a quoted sentence, it is necessary to eliminate the quotation marks. That practice might have been acceptable when the book was first created; that practice now would lead to charges of plagiarism. I admit that the Elements of Style offers some good advice. It helped me in honing my prose many years ago. Perhaps the best advice I found in that book is the dictum regarding writing naturally. When I began writing essays in graduate school, I used the same writing voice that I had cultivated in my journal. I sought to be clear as possible and to avoid adopting a tone that I thought my professors wanted to hear.

A few years ago, one of the schools I teach at required that the students in the first-semester composition course purchase the Elements of Style, in addition to two other texts. I was fortunate enough to get a cloth edition as my instructor’s copy; my paper edition then made its way to the local library for the biannual sale of used and discarded books.

I no longer record events, impressions, thoughts, and feelings in a journal. That practice stopped in graduate school, mostly because of the absence of time. My journal once made it easier to articulate what I was thinking. Oddly, it even helped in foreseeing events that happened within the next few days, such as my getting fired from a proofreading job in Connecticut. I still have the twenty or so bluebooks that I filled up, plus the seven or eight black and white composition books, stored away somewhere. I think I also still have the copy of Delacroix's journal, which helped to establish the guidelines for my own journal entries. My writing gradually become more spontaneous, once I listened to what I had been telling my students and learned to write without an immediate concern for what appeared on the page. That lesson was the most difficult one to learn.