Sunday, August 9, 2015

Vigorously omitted words

As a long-time reader of, I took great interest in, and in fact commented upon, the most recent Johnson post at the Prospero blog. The subject was brevity. The same brevity found in Cornell University professor William Strunk, Jr.’s usage textbook, Elements of Style, which he had written himself. Strunk’s “little book,” as he referred to it, would later be revised by E.B. White, a former student.

As I know, the reason I took interest in Johnson’s post, Briefly, is this blog’s post, The Case for Brevity, written exactly one year (less one day) ago. Johnson explained that he had begun a new editing job and caged his post as a lesson suggestion in copy-editing to teachers of rookie writers.  

Which further reminded me that I had re-admitted to the College of Arts and Sciences at University of North Florida to finish my communications degree shortly before “Subject – Verb – Object” was my reply to Strunk’s 59-word essay that would change the nature of E.B. White’s world (see "The Case for Brevity" for full context).

At any rate, “Briefly” is a 639-word essay, which I’ll cut to 345 words (apologies to George Orwell) as an exercise in creating blog content:

EVERYONE knows tweeting is ruining kids’ writing.

Or is it? Structuring sentences into 140 characters might be teaching young writers one of the most cherished virtues among those who deal professionally with writing: brevity. Johnson has just changed jobs, from reporting to editing. Before, copy went from my hands to another's, and it was their job to query, reshape and trim it—difficult work that inevitably made it better. Now I am on the other end of the exchange, and much of my first week was spent merely making pieces shorter.

Editing for print means not only making sure a piece is interesting and accurate, but also meeting a space-limit tightly defined by the size of a page. Online, when an editor asks for 650 words and a writer sends 1,100, the result is a groan.  When this happens in print with a deadline looming, the result is panic. The piece simply must fit.

Why do people write more than they should, when most people find writing difficult? This may be because during their education, young writers are given a kind of assignment that may do lasting harm: they are told to write papers to minimum lengths.

Why do more teachers not, instead, give students an appreciation for brevity? William Strunk, one of the authors of the American usage guide “Elements of Style”, was said by his student (and later editor) E.B. White to grip the lectern in his writing class and say “Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

A rule should not, of course, become a compulsion. Strunk did not need to say “Omit needless words!” three times, but it is more memorable that way. Anyone snipping every needless word from our style guide would turn its attempts at gentle humour into relentless hectoring.

As for teachers, try the following trick: assign students a paper of ten pages, and then tell them the real assignment is to trim it back to five in class, with the clock ticking. Then send the student who completes the assignment fastest to our internships page. 

As for UNF, I’ll be extremely annoyed in two weeks if I can’t get into my last class because I’m wait-listed.

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