Excellence in Writing

In preparing for another revision of the Theological Writing Handout, I am rereading William Strunk and E. B. White’s little classic, The Elements of Style. The fourth edition contains a forward by Roger Angell, White’s stepson, where Angell recalls the following pattern of behavior from his stepfather:

Each Tuesday morning, he would close his study door and sit down to write the “Notes and Comment” page for The New Yorker. The task was familiar to him—he was required to file a few hundred words of editorial or personal commentary on some topic in or out of the news that week—but the sounds of his typewriter from his room came in hesitant bursts, with long silences in between. Hours went by. . . . When the copy went off at last, in the afternoon RFD [Rural Free Delivery] pouch—we were in Main, a day’s mail away from New York—he rarely seemed satisfied. “It isn’t good enough,” he said sometimes. “I wish it were better” (ix).

Striking is the fact that someone like White should wrestle so much and so frequently with composing these weekly essays, which were, admittedly, of a rather different cast than an academic paper or monograph on the New Testament. Still, there is a pattern of attention here to the craftsmanship involved in composing such an essay that we New Testament students would also do well to observe. Arguments about this or that interpretive point must surely be sound, but sound arguments presented winsomely should quite easily repay the additional efforts required to compose them. To borrow some biblical phrases, good, academic writing (much like good, academic presentations) combines “words of truth” with “words of delight” (Eccl 12:10).

In this post:

William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White
William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White

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4 responses to “Excellence in Writing”

  1. Mike Aubrey Avatar

    Strunk and White is a perfect example of how excellent native speakers of a language cannot necessarily articulate the grammar of their language accurately. E. B. White was a fantastic writer, but he’s a terrible grammarian.

    1. David Stark Avatar

      True, Strunk and White certainly do not have the corner on the market of English grammar, and some of their maxims (e.g., their aversion to clause-initial, contrastive “however”) have, at best, dubious grammatical support, as Geoffrey Pullum’s article illustrates. Some of the work’s internal eccentricities (e.g., White’s occasional transgressions of Strunk’s maxims) also merit a grin from the reader from time to time. Still, I wonder whether evaluating Elements primarily in terms of its grammatical acumen strikes a blow more at the work’s reception history (cf. Osgood’s afterward to the fourth edition) than at its communicative intent. If Elements is read as an English grammar, numerous problems and much imprecision surface. On the other hand, what happens if the work is treated as a short book on rhetoric?

      Pullum clearly assigns Elements to the “grammar” category (as I have also done previously); perhaps what most struck me on this read, however, was the rhetorical context in which the introduction sets the rest of the book. Strunk’s 1918 preface avers that the book “aims to give in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style [and] . . . to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention . . . on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated” (italics added). Yet, the preface’s final paragraph begins with the sentence, “It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric” (italics added), as though Strunk’s elements of style were elements of rhetoric. White’s redactions in the fourth edition retain this perspective (xiii, xvii–xviii, 67–68, 74, 78, 81–83).

      Of course, the overlap and interplay between style and grammar generally and within Elements itself suggests that Strunk and White themselves would have done well to have been more explicit about the work’s rhetorical orientation (assuming, of course, that it has one). In this case, Pullum’s critique would have been more forceful if he had identified the points at which the rhetoric that Strunk and White advocate now fails to function or would have failed to function during the author’s lifetimes. Even short of demonstrating a full, functional failure of a given point in Strunk and White’s rhetorical pattern, showing that the issue addressed by a given maxim was or is rhetorically adiaphoristic [e.g., is “finalize” really “pompous and ambiguous” (50; cf. 77–78)?] would have constituted a more telling critique, especially if that maxim rests on uncertain (but perhaps still legitimate) grammatical grounds. Particularly respecting these rhetorical adiaphora, Pullum probably could have made a good case concerning several of Strunk and White’s elements whose rhetorical significance has changed or whose significance Strunk and White may have incorrectly perceived. In any case, such a reading of Elements as, where it does handle grammatical issues, a handbook about the specific kind of English that its authors think aids rhetoric (rather than as a handbook about general English grammar) is probably at least be worth considering unless we have grounds to suspect something in the work to be fundamentally ungrammatical.

      1. Mike Aubrey Avatar

        Very true.

        Personally, I think I would prefer Strunk’s original edition to the one edited by White.

  2. David Stark Avatar

    In noting a few of the differences between Strunk’s original and the 4th edition, I’ve wondered at some of the changes also. Glad to hear it’s not just me, though :-).

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