Monday, March 04, 2013

Some Pig

In the past I've written about writing. In my previous blog post I recommended three books:
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. This book is an example of its own title. It's a delightfully well written book about writing that reads with the slippery ease of a Malcolm Gladwell. It's both enjoyable and informative. 
The AP Manual of Style. Although the AP book is about writing for newspapers it is full of useful advice about clarity. The fight for clarity is at the heart of non-fiction. Your goal is not to delight the reader with the breadth of your vocabulary, but to inform them about a subject in which you are claiming to be knowledgeable. News writing has to aim to be succinct, accessible and accurate; those are all good attributes for any non-fiction writing. 
The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. The surprising thing about Strunk and White is that I can pick it up after years and years of owning it and rediscover its lessons. If you only buy one book from my list buy this one.
The fourth book I'd recommend isn't actually about writing, but reading it is a lesson in writing. The book is Charlotte's Web. If you've read or heard of Charlotte's Web you are likely wondering why I'm recommending children's fiction when the subject is writing. There's a simple reason.

Charlotte's Web was written by E. B. White: the White in Strunk and White.

If you read Charlotte's Web and think about the writing you'll notice that many of the lessons from The Elements of Style are clearly illustrated. The book is a pleasure to read as an adult despite being aimed at children.

The words are small and appropriate. The sentences clear and the prose flows easily. I think Charlotte's Web epitomizes a style that many writers should emulate no matter for whom they are writing. The actual subject of the book is quite difficult for children to digest, but White's writing makes them swallow a difficult tale with ease.

The clearest example of Strunk and White style is illustrated by the spider Charlotte. Writing in her web she's restricted by space and her own ability to form words. Yet she saves the pig's life by writing SOME PIG. Just two simple words express what's essential: this isn't just any pig. This is Wilbur.

When the reader first meets Charlotte she greets Wilbur with "Salutations". Wilbur doesn't understand the word and Charlotte is forced to explain:
"Salutations are greetings," said the voice. "When I say 'salutations', it's just my fancy way of saying hello or good morning. Actually, it's a silly expression, and I am surprised that I used it at all. [...]"
Charlotte seems to be echoing Strunk and White's command to 'Avoid fancy words'.

So, if you are writing something you hope others will read, remember the simplest of all writing rules: SOME PIG.

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