So I recently came across another criticism of The Elements of Style, this time by writer A. L. Kennedy.
The primary problem that I take away from Kennedy’s criticism of The Elements of Style is that she is confusing principles for rules. While the first chapter of the book is titled “Elementary Rules of Usage” the chapter that most of her criticism is aimed at is the second chapter: “Elementary Principles of Composition”. Rules and principles are different things.
Among the “rules” that Kennedy takes issue with is “Use definite, specific, concrete language” (Principle 16). White: “The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.”
White describes the basic principle of writing that everyone is taught, beginning in grammar school:
Show, don’t tell.
In reading Kennedy’s rebuttal, I wonder if this is another case where some proofreading may have been beneficial1 because she changed what White said to infer that Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare were effective writers “primarily” (emphasis hers) because of concrete language. Largely and primarily are not the same thing, and anyone who has studied writing should 1) understand the difference, and 2) agree that Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare were damn good at show, don’t tell.
Kennedy seems to have particular vitriol for Principle 17 (Omit needless words):
What about David Foster Wallace, or Woolf, or Proust, or any other writer of elaborate prose whose work might, under a strict editor following these guidelines, have been unfairly diminished? Maybe you think Infinite Jest could have used a cut or two, but surely you can’t accuse it of being anything less than vigorous. “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating,” White writes. Unwholesome! How bizarrely moralistic and patently false. Whether it is nauseating to him, of course, is his business; this is merely a matter of taste—which gets at the crux of my argument here. None of these rules apply to everyone, so presenting them in this way is somewhat disingenuous. And in White’s case, more than somewhat crotchety.
A good writer omits needless words, and an editor who isn’t powered by Artificial Intelligence would broadly scrutinize a manuscript, rather than strictly apply such guidelines without considering the whole product. Wallace, Woolf, and Proust were masters of the craft, such that every word that made it to print was there because it had earned its place. And that, to me, is what White was getting at with this rule. If your prose calls for $25 words in some places, use them. But be generous with those $0.25 words, too: you get a lot more value from them.
An aside: I had to laugh when I read the comments section of this article and found another Elements hater whose comment was so full of flowery prose it was nearly unintelligible. I get it: you love language and you love to show off your vocabulary because it makes you sound, I don’t know, “literary”? But wouldn’t you want your audience to be able to understand you? When the average reader needs to consult a thesaurus just to get through a sentence (or, in my case, mimic a “gag me” gesture), you might consider whether you’re writing to be read by a diverse audience, or just performing intellectual masturbation.
As I read through Kennedy’s kvetchfest, I kept wondering if she understood the importance of knowing the rules to know how to break them. She kept me hanging until the end:
As a writing teacher, I know that most people need to master the rules before they can break them.
This is true of ANY craft. Understand the basic structure of writing (or painting, or architecture, or music) and then you use it to give your voice—or your vision—a solid foundation to build from.
My copy of The Elements of Style has yellowed pages, tons of highlights and is never too far out of my reach. It is, and always has been, a reference, though I do agree with some of the criticism of how it is used. It should be a required reference for beginning writers, but any writing teacher that flogs The Elements of Style as the canon law of writing is lazy and doing a disservice to their students.
There are volumes of great books on writing (I have many of them on my shelves), but there is good reason why The Elements of Style remains a popular reference, nearly 100 years after it was first published. It’s brief, easy to carry around, and the basic advice still holds up well.
1 An unfortunate error that got past the copy editors was “don’t use the active voice”. Readers of The Elements of Style know that Strunk and White advocate FOR using the active voice.