How Not to Write Badly

How to write wellAs I write this, I cautiously check each phrase to ensure that it cannot be shortened. I double-check my P’s (periods) and Q’s (question marks) to be sure they are properly placed.

I look over my shoulder to see if the ghosts of William Strunk and E.B. White are watching as I type, eager to interrupt and correct my grammar.

I think back to my college years when their book The Elements of Style was required reading in my beginning journalism class.

Blame the Internet

Today, those of us who blog, post to social networks and text message can learn from their admonitions: use the active voice; omit needless words; put statements in positive form; use definite, specific, concrete language; and so forth. Ah, if only.

The web has encouraged us to write badly. I believe Messrs. Strunk and White would be horrified at the degradation of language. What would they think of these tweets that streamed by me just today:

  • Here’s a pic of the part of the bridge that fell. No delay will be caused.
  • …is kinda making me want to vote labor just to spite him.
  • Pet staircase uniquely blended

This gem of a book has guided writers for more than 50 years. In 2011, Time Magazine listed it among The Best 100 Non-Fiction Books ever written. I urge everyone who values simple writing to read it

How It’s Organized

The book is organized by subject. I’ve picked a few of my favorite bits of wisdom:

  • Elementary Rules of Usage. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s, even if the word ends in “s” – such as Charles’s.
  • Elementary Principles of Composition. Use the active voice. “I shall always remember my first trip to Boston,” not “My first trip to Boston will always be remembered by me.”
  • A Few Matters of Form. Do not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation. “It was a wonderful show,” not “It was a wonderful show!” It’s obvious the first edition of this book was written in 1918 – way before email and the Internet! I mean, Internet.
  • An Approach to Style. Avoid the use of qualifiers. I love the book’s example, “Rather, very, little, pretty – these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”

You can buy a copy of the book on Amazon or from antiquarian booksellers for under $10. It may be the best money you ever spent.

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Comments

  1. True Jeannette.

    However, the biggest problem when it comes to people writing blogs is that the majority of them simply cannot write. When you attempt to read what they have written you catch yourself thinking of other things over and over again.

    But it is impossible to tell anyone that they cannot write. Consequently, the majority of blogs will continue to be written by people who cannot write. Some of them even have high readership, mainly because they teach people something like making money online.

    • Catarina — I think the “get rick quick” posts are nothing more than ads for their services. They aren’t blogs in the true sense of the word. And we know that most ads don’t get awards for their copy.

  2. Wish it was only the “get rich quick” bloggers that are not writers:-)

    Are you aware that 3 million blogs are stated monthly on a world-wide scale? No wonder there are an abundance of bloggers that cannot write.

  3. I find it disturbing that an individual who calls themselves a writer doesn’t take the time to write as well as possible. Being dyslexic makes writing for a serious challenge but I still work to produce the very best product I can.

    I have this book in my library somewhere. It’s such a good resource I had forgotten about. It truly is a great guide regarding how to use words to communicate and the importance of the proper use of words and punctuation to communicate the message we desire.

    I think I just may get a new/additional book. It wouldn’t hurt to have an extra copy on hand, would it. 🙂

    • Susan — You write so well no one would ever know that writing is such a challenge for you. I appreciate the fine copy — and images — on your site.

  4. It’s not just that people can’t write, can’t spell, don’t check – as you say their Ps and Qs – it’s that a good amount of writing today, on the internet, is all about selling. And that becomes a double problem because in my way of thinking, if you aren’t paying attention before the sale, how confident am I that I can trust you to pay attention after the sale.

    I don’t think I had this book you recommend so I will go add it to Amazon wish list.

    Thanks Jeannette.

    PS – not sure I got the keywords added correctly so please correct if necessary?

    • Pat — agree, especially when a note comes to you and the salutation has your name misspelled. You will love The Elements of Style. It’s a thin book chock full of good advice that has stood the test of time.

  5. Effective writing is more than slim sentences, proper grammar and appropriate punctuation. Real writers paint with words. They erect an image before our eyes so we feel an intimacy with the writer. They motivate us to act. Take this post as an example. I feel like I’m perched on your shoulder rooting for you to find the perfect word. Why? You sucked me into your world with a vivid image and stirring emotion. I am compelled to comment as a result. You can pick up a book to learn sentence structure. You can slap your own hand when you’re tempted to exclaim when you should remain calm. You can hack at your paragraphs to your heart’s content. But, I wonder if you can truly teach someone the artistry of writing. What do you think?

    • Amy — I agree that imagery makes words come to life. I’m glad that I sucked you in! I think some people are born better writers than others. It’s just a fact. Another Shakespeare comes along only once in several lifetimes. I think you can become a better writer, though, with training. I remember my first journalism class in college. The professor wasn’t very happy with my first effort. I learned a lot from him and to this day I remember a comment he made on a breaking news story that I later wrote. He said, “This is a vast all-around improvement.” My heart sang. I was beginning to get it.

  6. As a former English teacher who got tired of banging my head against the wall when it came to teaching writing, I can give an informed perspective regarding the need to teach analytical writing. Many students go through school writing oodles of descriptive essays and personal narratives. Scant time is spent on “real” writing and how to construct effective messages.

    The ability to write clearly connects with the ability to think and schools are churning out too many non-thinkers! I love Strunk and White. It’s important to note that in addition to penning Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White also wrote many essays. Other favorite writing books of mine are William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and the Hoffman’s Adios Strunk and White.

    • Jeri — I remember when I was in grade school, we learned how to construct a sentence and spent a lot of time learning the difference between verbs and adverbs. You still need to know basic sentence structure. I once interviewed a new college graduate who had majored in communications in college. She casually told me she had never taken a writing course. I was stunned, as you might expect.

  7. Ah! The Elements of Style has a place on my bookshelf as well as on my desktop. Though I’m not certain that it includes the whole book, here is the link. http://www.bartleby.com/141

    In reading your excellent post and comments, I hear that to be a good writer one has to be both, cognizant of grammar rules, and creative if not artistic as Amy implies. While the former can be learned, the latter can only be encouraged if one isn’t born with it. I believe we can help ourselves by being good readers and by painstankingly pouring ourselves into each and every sentence crafted.

    In blogging, I work hard not just on the above, but also to choose words with caution so as to be politically correct. The blogsphere has no tone of voice, no facial expressions, and no body language. That adds pressure to blogging for me!

    • Keyuri — you make a good point about the blogosphere. Your readers can’t see you, hear your tone of voice or watch your body language. We need to do it all with words. That’s why I find the Elements of Style such a valuable book.