Writing Skills REQUIRED !!!

Some children learn to read from an early age and develop a love for written language. I did not.

“English” class was something I endured and participated in only under duress. Of course I learned grammatical structure … but in Latin class. I wanted to be a scientist or an engineer. I “knew” I wouldn’t have to do much writing there.

Jump forward a decade …

Unexpectedly, I became the editor of a corporate IT newsletter. (Whose sick joke was that?) Time to hunt for my copy of The Elements of Style (Strunk and White), from freshman English. I have to admit that my initial articles were struggles and poorly written, at best. With practice, I did gain in confidence and some readers commented that my articles were actually making sense. In the end, I ended up with LOTS of writing practice … none of my fellow network engineers were willing to submit articles. (I still had to produce a monthly newsletter.)

My third edition copy of Strunk still holds a place of honor on my office bookshelf, but the pages are yellowed and brittle, its paperback binding unbroken. I bought it after my second edition was “borrowed” by a coworker. I probably didn’t need a replacement, but it just felt better having my old friend watching over me. There would be no split infinitives (without emphasis) in my writings!

I recently read a criticism of The Elements of Style by Goeffrey Pullum, a professor of linguistics at Edinburgh University in Wikipedia. “The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar.” While tempted to disregard such heresy as an errant rant of a confused Scottish professor, I have to agree with many of his complaints. Apparently, even an editor at the Boston Globe agreed when she wrote a review of the 2005 edition. Still, having a “bible” is helpful to those of us who daydreamed their way through English 1A.

As readers of this blog can probably attest, my personal writing style still borders on a schizophrenic mix of Strunk and common usage. (“Common usage” is my excuse for I-don’t-know-why-but-it-sounds-better-but-it-does.) It’s readable, but often awkwardly written.

So where does an engineer-techie turn now that the Strunk and White has been discredited?

Book cover (Dust jacket) for the 15th edition ...

The Chicago Manual of Style has been often recommended as THE style guide … what I should have been using all these years. But at 1,026 pages (hardcover, 16th ed.), it is intimidating. My Elements of Style edition required only 90 pages to provide a similar religious experience.

To a new initiate, who wants to follow that straight and narrow path of good grammar and sold copy, I suggest that you

  • Assume a regime of daily writing. Your sentences may be fragmented and your infinitives split, but your writing will get better over time.
  • Read the blogs of copy editors. These are often very funny and a great way to reinforce good style.
  • Read good books. Go back and read the classics from high school / college, this time for YOUR enjoyment.
  • Volunteer to act as a proofreader or  copy editor for draft documentation at work. Catching the mistakes of others will make you more aware of your own issues.
  • Write a blog or a newsletter. Writing for yourself is a great way to start, but writing for others forces better editing and attention to detail.

When you are looking for the bottom line … look toward the 4 Rules from an Expert

  1. Use short sentences.
  2. Use short first paragraphs.
  3. Use vigorous English.
  4. Be positive, not negative.

Don’t just sit there … Write Something!

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3 responses to “Writing Skills REQUIRED !!!

  1. Pingback: Language is Getting Sloppy–Doggone it! « rAZmatAZ

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    • Thank you. I am pleased that you are finding my site content of interest.

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