Brain Pickings

E. B. White on Why Brevity Is Not the Gold Standard for Style

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“Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound.”

The Elements of Style endures as one of the most important books on writing ever published, a quintessential guide to composition and form. Though Strunk’s stern and directive tone was somewhat softened by White’s penchant for prose, the tome remains a stringent upholder of standards of brevity and succinctness as the hallmarks of linguistic excellence. But even White, it turns out, was troubled by the absolutism of such rules. Buried in Stylized, Mark Garvey’s fantastic history of the Strunk and White classic, are a handful of never-before-published letters by E. B. White to readers of the iconic style guide, which reveal a more dimensional relationship with language.

In one, predictably, White remains true to the book’s overarching ethos, reminiscent of David Ogilvy’s famous 1982 memo on writing, and makes a case for clarity:

Dear Mrs. –

[…]

There are very few thoughts or concepts that can’t be put into plain English, provided anyone truly wants to do it. But for everyone who strives for clarity and simplicity, there are three who for one reason or another prefer to draw the clouds across the sky.

Sincerely,

E. B. White

But in different letter, White nods to the other side of the coin, in what might at first appear a contradictory and out-of-character defense of richer language by the crusader of conciseness but is, at its heart, a plea for balance and context over rigid rules:

Dear Mr. –

It comes down to the meaning of ‘needless.’ Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal.

If you were to put a narrow construction on the word ‘needless,’ you would have to remove tens of thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty. Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’*? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your letter.

Yrs,

E. B. White

Embedded in White’s point about language I find a reflection of one of my core beliefs about life in general: that rules are excellent organizational tools and efficient reducers of cognitive load, but they are no substitute for contextual sensitivity and personal judgement.

For more gold from E. B. White’s private correspondence, escape into the highly addictive Letters of E. B. White, with a cherry-on-top foreword by the great John Updike.

* Thus begins the second sentence of one of the most famous soliloquies in Macbeth.

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