Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Concision


After some fifteen years writing weekly for the Boston Globe, and dozens of essays and reviews for other journals, the college Communication Department tapped me to teach a course called "Non-fiction Writing for the Print Media." I didn't feel all that confident "teaching" writing. After all, I had acquired whatever skills I had by years of trying and failing. What I could offer the students, I thought, was inspiration and honest critique.

I did suggest, however, that they spend a few bucks on Strunk and White.

I refer to that slim little classic The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White.

The Strunk part goes back to the beginning of the last century, a self-published pamphlet Professor Strunk prepared for his students on proper English usage and effective composition. In the 1950s, the publisher Macmillan asked White to revise and edit the pamphlet for publication. White was a well-known contributor to the New Yorker and author of the popular children's books Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. To Strunk's concise advice he added his own tips on effective writing.

In the first draft of the previous paragraph I wrote "a little self-published pamphlet" and "his own brief tips." But pamphlets are by definition little, and tips are brief. Strunk's Rule 13: "Omit needless words." Chop, chop was probably the best advice I gave my students. Good Strunk and White advice.

Omit needless words. Be concise. Advice that in my case might lead to extinction. The magazine articles I used to write ran to 3000 words. My Globe columns started out at about 1000 words, then slimmed down to 800. Then 700. Now I'm blogging at 300 words a day. The trend is clear.

Omit needless words. My last will be my epitaph:
Here lies Raymo,
Mute, serene,
True at last
To Rule 13.