Deb: Le Mot Juste

“Vigorous writing is
~William Strunk Jr.
What’s the oldest book about writing that’s still on your
shelves? Mine is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, the third edition (it’s now in it’s fourth). The cover price (new) of $2.75 gives
you some idea of how long I’ve owned it.
“No book in shorter space, with fewer words, will help any
writer more than this persistent little volume,” says The Boston Globe. “The
work remains a nonpareil: direct, correct, and delightful,” says The New
The Elements of Style
is a model of precision. Will Strunk was E. B. White’s composition professor at
Cornell way back in 1919. White put his professor’s advice to good use,
becoming a successful author (to say the least) in his own right. In 1957,
Macmillan commissioned White to revise Strunk’s edicts on style.
And edicts they are. “Professor Strunk was a positive man,”
White says in his introduction to the third edition, putting a nice spin on it.
“His book contains rules of grammar phrased as direct orders. In the main I
have not tried to soften his commands, or modify his pronouncements, or remove
the special objects of his scorn.”
When I taught college composition, I used The Elements of Style as a textbook.
Among the advice I hoped it would impart to my students:
  • Use
    the active voice
  • Put
    statements in positive form
  • Use
    definite, specific, concrete language
  • Omit
    needless words
  • Avoid
    a succession of loose sentences
  • Express
    co-ordinate ideas in similar form
  • Keep
    related words together
  • Place
    the emphatic words of a sentence at the end
  • Place
    yourself in the background
  • Write
    in a way that comes naturally
  • Work
    from a suitable design
  • Write
    with nouns and verbs
  • Revise
    and rewrite
  • Do not
  • Do not
  • Avoid
    the use of qualifers
  • Do not
    explain too much
  • Make
    sure the reader knows who is speaking
  • Avoid
    fancy words
  • Be
Never mind that this list includes a few contradictions (as
in “Do not overstate” but also “Put statements in positive form”). I took
Strunk and White’s call to heart in my own writing, and though as a more mature
writer I now qualify some of the advice (“Do not affect a breezy manner,” “Do
not inject opinion,” “Use figures of speech sparingly,” “Prefer the standard to
the offbeat”) in favor of strong voice, I’m still glad I learned first and
foremost to write with precision.
Yes, rules are restrictive, but we must know language, the
tool of our trade, and precision tempered with feeling yields beauty. Of
course, it’s also possible to take precision a little too far. Known to
deliberate for weeks over a single word, nineteenth-century novelist Gustave Flaubert
championed le mot juste. I’ve read Flaubert’s
Madame Bovary in both English and
French, and while it’s a finely crafted novel, there are several that have made
a much bigger impression. An emphasis on micro-editing over larger concerns
like character motivation and emotional resonance can yield micro-results.
Check This Out: These
days you’ll dish out (apologies, Misters Strunk and White, for the breezy
manner) more than $2.75, but if you don’t own a copy of The Elements of Style,
you’re missing out on some of the most precise advice ever offered up to
Try This: For help
with precision, Smart Edit is a free program for Windows that points out clichés as well as overused words
and phrases. I haven’t tried it yet; if you do, leave a comment to let me know
what you think.
Deb cross-posts at
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