Thursday, March 26, 2009

Should Writers Follow Rules?

"To the extent I know how to write clearly at all, I probably taught myself while I was teaching others -- seventh graders, in Flint, Michigan, in 1967. I taught them with a copy of Strunk & White lying in full view on my desk, sort of in the way the Gideons leave Bibles in cheap hotel rooms, as a way of saying to the hapless inhabitant: 'In case your reckless ways should strand you here, there's help.' S&W doesn't really teach you how to write, it just tantalizingly reminds you that there's an orderly way to go about it, that clarity's ever your ideal, but -- really -- it's all going to be up to you."
-- Pulitzer Prize Winner Richard Ford


It recently came to The Famous Author's attention (Some chat room bozo called him a "clown") not every writer holds in high regard THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE, Strunk and White's classic guide to "plain English." TFA was shocked. After he was given a desk and a typewriter, TFA's only other first-day gift as a reporter for The Los Angeles Times was a copy of Elements, and a warning to learn and follow its principles.

But do writers of fiction, especially "literary" authors, have to worry about Strunk and White's guidelines? You read what Richard Ford said. Pretty sure you could call him a writer of literature. Here's how William Strunk, Jr. (1869–1946) starts his Introductory:

"This book is intended for use in English courses in which the practice of composition is combined with the study of literature. It aims to give in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style."

S&W is about clarity -- telling the reader exactly what you mean, showing what you want him to see and hear. Maybe writers don't have to follow silly RULES. But they should know what those rules are, and why they exist, before breaking them. Strunk put it this way at the end of that Inroductory:

"It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature."

Thanks to Richard Ford, William Strunk, E.B. White, and Amazon

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