by Andy Rooney
The newspaper (never mind which newspaper) had a story about the men who wrote one of the most important books in my life called "The Elements of Style."
My hero was the writer E.B. White. In my opinion, White ("Andy" to friends) wrote the English language better than anyone who ever put it on paper.
"The Elements of Style" was first written and self-published by William Strunk Jr. in 1918 and then revised many years later with an introduction by Elwyn Brooks White, Strunk's student at Cornell. The little book was revised two more times by E.B. White.
I had a good friend from World War II, a New Yorker writer named Joe Leibling, who took me to lunch with Andy White one day and it stands out as the lunch of my life. I wouldn't have been prouder to have eaten with William Shakespeare.
"The Elements of Style" is called a book but it is not really a book because it's not all that long. The authors Strunk and White (I'd prefer to call them "writers") took their own advice and kept it short.
Here are some ideas from the book I agree with:
"A sentence should contain no unnecessary words." If every writer believed this and wrote that way, it would take all of us about a quarter of the time to see what we read now.
"Don't use the word 'state' when you mean 'say.'"
"Don't confuse 'disinterested' with 'uninterested.'"
"The word 'line' in the sense of 'course of procedure' is allowable but has been so overworked, as in 'along these lines,' that it should be discarded."
Of the word "meaningful" they say, "A bankrupt adjective. Choose another, or rephrase."
"'Most.' Not to be used for 'almost."
The book notes "personally" is usually unnecessary -- e.g., "Personally I thought it was a good book."
"Do not dress words up by adding 'ly' to them, as though putting a hat on a horse."
"The line between the fancy and the plain is alarmingly fine," Strunk and White warn. Lincoln could just as easily have written "87 years ago" instead of "four score and seven years ago." You don't hear anyone criticizing Lincoln very often, but I agree.
Writing is difficult and one of the problems is there are no dependable critics. Hardly anyone ever tells me that what I've written is terrible, even though what I write must be terrible sometimes.
One problem, of course, is that most people who criticize writing can't write.
I don't think you have to be a painter to appreciate good painting. However, I think you're more apt to appreciate good writing if you know how to write and sometimes writing and editing are at war. Most newspapers have editors who are good at keeping stories on line and honest, but I don't think all that many editors are concerned with good prose. I don't think editors often give a story back to a reporter and say, "OK, but try to write this better."
Most newspaper stories don't need much good writing, of course.
Reporters just try to avoid bad writing. We all have a limited interest in good writing if it gets in the way. Just tell us the story.
Don't write me if you find a problem with this column -- look it up in "The Elements of Style."
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