I have many writing handbooks on my shelves, some better than others. But the one that I turn to time and time again for guidance and a gentle kick in the pants about my writing is that old standby, The Elements of Style. Not only is it pithy, it’s also witty. It entertains as it instructs and I always feel inspired to prune and perk up my prose after I dip into it. In the last chapter, “An Approach to Style,” the wonderful writer E.B. White offers timeless tips well worth revisiting and taking to heart. This time around, a few of his “Do nots” seem written with me in mind. In case you need reminding, too, I’m sharing them here:
Do not overwrite: “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating. If the sickly-sweet word, the overblown phrase are a writer’s natural form of expression, as is sometimes the case, he will have to compensate for it by a show of vigor, and by writing something as meritorious as The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.”
Do not overstate: “When you overstate, the reader will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows will be suspect in his mind because he has lost confidence in your judgment or your poise. Overstatement is one of the common faults. A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for the reader, the object of the writer’s enthusiasm.”
Do not explain too much: “It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after ‘he said,’ ‘she replied,’ and the like: ‘he said consolingly,’ ‘she replied grumblingly.’ Let the conversation itself disclose the speakers manner or condition. Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is cluttery and annoying. Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs but load their attributives with explanatory verbs: ‘he consoled,’ ‘she congratulated.'”
Do not construct awkward adverbs: “Adverbs are easy to build. Take an adjective or participle, add -ly, and behold! you have an adverb. But you’d probably be better off without it. Do not write tangledly. The word itself is a tangle. Do not even write tiredly. Nobody says tangledly and not many people say tiredly. Words that are not used orally are seldom ones to put to paper.”
It’s a rare writing coach who can put these points across with more vigor and wit that our boys William Strunk and E.B. White. So if you feel your prose is in need of polishing — or like mine, in need of pruning — then be sure to pull The Elements of Style off your shelf and crack it open — or find a copy. You’ll be glad you did, as you write on.