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?
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.
- Use short sentences.
- Use short first paragraphs.
- Use vigorous English.
- Be positive, not negative.
Don’t just sit there … Write Something!