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‘The Elements of Style’

We’ve all had the occasional struggle with words. Be we writers by choice, ambition or otherwise, everyone does write (or type) and, while some may argue that today, pretty much anything goes in terms of the written word (I allude here of course to ‘txt spk’ and other such social jargon – yes, I’m calling it jargon, as to the uninitiated, it can be slightly confusing!), in certain situations there are standards to be upheld – namely in newspapers, books and any officially published piece of work.

Those who know me from my old weekly newspaper job will agree that I am a stickler for good spelling, punctuation and grammar (so, of course, any errors here are simply as a result of my over-enthusiastic typing…). With that in mind, I thought I’d reflect on ‘The Elements of Style’ – a handy little grey book I picked up a few years ago, which contains the bread-and-butter basics of good grammatical writing.

As a journalist and now also a full-time sub-editor, I have to write accurately and I have to admit – you start to second-guess even the most basic ‘elements of style’ when you’re subbing a story, zoomed up close to you, on a screen. Is it basically correct? Is it the ‘house style’ of this newspaper (or the paper I used to work for?!)…. Doubt creeps in and I will argue that simply because you haven’t written the piece yourself, it makes the job more difficult. Things you wouldn’t think twice about typing, you now ponder in terms of spelling and so on.

Anyway, this is a blog aimed at creative writing, not journalism, but the same rules apply. Writing is writing. I have therefore decided to draw on some inspiration from great writers and thinkers, as well as ‘the little grey book’ and hope they similarly inspire my fellow writers and thinkers on writing, style and all that makes up the world of the wordsmith…

Literary inspiration from a New York sidewalk...

Literary inspiration from a New York sidewalk…

‘Style is the moment of identity between the writer and his subject’Marcel Proust

Will Strunk, co-author of aforementioned book, on brevity: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer makes all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Approaches to style (ref: The Elements of Style)

  1. Place yourself in the background – ‘to achieve style, begin by affecting none.’
  2. Write in a way that comes naturally
  3. Work from a suitable design
  4. Write with nouns and verbs (not just adjectives and adverbs)
  5. Revise and rewrite
  6. Do not overwrite
  7. Do not overstate
  8. Avoid the use of qualifiers (e.g. ‘rather’, ‘very’, ‘little’, pretty’ – the, er, and I quote, ‘leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words….’)
  9. Do not affect a breezy manner – ‘The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day’. (I’m sure they didn’t include blogs in that!)
  10. Use orthodox spelling
  11. Do not explain too much
  12. Do not construct awkward adverbs (e.g. ‘tangledly’)
  13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking
  14. Avoid fancy words (e.g. ‘discombobulate’!)
  15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good
  16. Be clear
  17. Do not inject opinion (in prose)
  18. Use figures of speech sparingly
  19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity
  20. Avoid foreign languages (‘no regard for the reader’s comfort’)
  21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat

‘Full of belief, sustained and elevated by the power of purpose, armed with the rules of grammar, you are ready for exposure.’

You may or may not agree with these tips, but there you go – some thoughts on the elements of style in writing. The key element of course, must be to write – corrections can come later…

 “The difference… between the person who says he ‘wishes to be a writer’ and the person who says he ‘wishes to write’. The former desires to be pointed out at cocktail parties, the latter is prepared for the long, solitary hours at a desk; the former desires a status; the latter a process; the former desires to be, the latter to do”Sir John Mortimer


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