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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