“This seemed an utterly enchanted sea, this lake you could leave to
its own devices for a few hours and come back to, and find that it
had not stirred, this constant and trustworthy body of water.”
E.B. White, Once More to the Lake
Be clear: that is reminder #16 in An Approach to Style, E.B. White’s wonderfully compact and invaluable final chapter in the classic handbook on writing, The Elements of Style.
Be clear. What better model of clarity can we have than the ever-entertaining E.B. himself? Read any of his captivating and elegant essays and you’ll instantly understand why he’s called a “peerless stylist.” Once More to the Lake is a perfect example. It’s a lyrical memoir, a far-ranging rumination, and a story of love and loss all rolled into one. It stylishly blends form and content. Beautiful!
What does E.B., every writer’s friend and wise counselor, say about how to communicate clearly and forcefully? “Clarity, clarity, clarity. When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start out fresh; do not try to fight your way through against the terrible odds of syntax. Usually what is wrong is that the construction has become too involved at some point; the sentence needs to be broken apart and replaced by two or more shorter sentences.”
After this rather straight-from-the-cuff advice, our boy E.B. gets up a real head of stylish steam about the dangers of confused writing: “Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded roadsign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram.” Death, despair, disappointment: these are the wages of sin. Beware the slipshod!