Writing advice

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All this discussion of Strunk and White (among other places, here and here) reminds me that in the Spring 2009 issue of The American Scholar, William Zinsser reflected on his book On Writing Well (first published in 1976, now in its 6th edition, with sales approaching 1.5 million copies, a figure dwarfed by S&W but still astonishing to Zinsser).

There’s a direct connection to S&W and, for me, an indirect connection.

The direct connection: at first, Zinsser took S&W as the model for his book, but then he realized that

The Elements of Style was essentially a book of pointers and admonitions: Do this, don’t do that. [AMZ: I note here that most of the “pointers” are in fact concealed admonitions.] As principles, they were invaluable, but they were only principles, existing without context or reality. [AMZ: Despite Zinsser’s reference to how invaluable S&W was, the “without context or reality” is a damning criticism.] What [White’s] book didn’t teach was how to apply these principles to the various forms that nonfiction writing can take …

Yes, yes, yes. Genre and audience are missing in S&W, as are positive models of good writing and detailed examples of revision for grace and clarity. Instead, we get schoolmasterish knuckle-rapping , what Geoff Pullum calls “bossiness”.

The indirect, and more personal, connection is that Zinsser’s book is a recommended resource at Stanford’s Writing Center, though the top recommendation seems to be Joseph Williams’s Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (also recommended by Geoff Pullum, most recently here). The on-line resources recommended by the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (Stanford’s current freshman-comp-like program) include Strunk’s 1918 original version of Elements, specifically for its sections on paragraph organization (which were carried over into S&W).

Instructors in PWR have some freedom to choose materials for their sections, and some of them choose material from S&W, and some of them pass out lists of Don’ts, recirculating many of the grammatical shibboleths they were indoctrinated into in their high school days (no split infinitives, no sentences beginning with coordinating conjunctions, no singular they, etc.).

[It’s hard to know how to deal with this situation. It’s proper that instructors should have some latitude in what they do in their sections, but some of them are committed, often passionately, to their views about grammar and usage, which they believe to be essentially Right. If I were in charge of things — which I never have been and never will be — I would issue brief advice, in writing, saying that various usage items should not be treated as mistakes, should not be punished, and so on, and would offer material defending these positions.]

The surprising thing about Zinsser’s book, for many readers, will be that his real inspiration was not S&W, but Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950. What Zinsser says he learned from this book was that

I would treat the English language spaciously, as a gift waiting for anyone to unwrap, not as a narrow universe of grammar and syntax.

It’s a pleasant essay. (I’d already caught it, but thanks to Marilyn Martin and Jan Freeman for pointers to it.)



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