Friday, February 29, 2008

Strunk & White in real life

What does "put statements in positive form" mean: More good news, less bad news? I sing of puppies, kittens, birthday cake? No, it means that in most cases, talking about what did happen is clearer and more economical than talking about what didn't happen. And since clarity and economy are what heds are all about, here's an example:

Judge doesn't halt Wright's hearing

OK, so who did halt the hearing? Or: What did the judge halt, then? Or -- well, let's wade through the lede and see if there might be some news in the second graf:

A Wake County judge on Thursday put N.C. Rep. Thomas Wright, already under criminal indictment, on course to make more inglorious history next week. The House of Representatives is slated to bring him up on ethics charges -- a single lawmaker on trial by his colleagues.

The judge rejected Wright's request to halt the ethics hearings.

We could talk about what the judge did (active) or what happened to the hearings (passive). Either way, you get to the point quicker when you don't talk about what isn't.

It's fashionable in some circles to slag Strunk and White, and that's unfortunate. Taken as a set of observations about what works most of the time for most kinds of writing, or as a list of things that tend to work unless you have a better way to do it, the little book still has a lot of value. Many of its shortcomings are down to the people who wave it around, not the "principles of composition" themselves.

Sure, S&W suggest preferring the active voice to the passive -- but they also have a nice, simple explanation of the things that the passive voice does better than the active. (Very handy for people who haven't yet noticed that passive heds tend to be livelier than active heds.)

Yes, there's "omit needless words," and once first-timers realize that S&W aren't advocating a contest to "omit words," it's like -- well, imagine a world in which banjo players didn't think they were paid by the note. And cops reporters never again felt the urge to write "Police arrived at the scene."

What's wrong with an admonition to use specific and concrete language -- in S&W's example, "a period of unfavorable weather set in," with saying what sort of weather, for what period, and at what intervals? ("It rained every day for a week.") The problem with "specific" is that journalism stylebooks and textbooks use it to mean everything from "this is the way we've always done it" to "we're afraid to make a value judgment, so we'll pretend we're dealing with an equation."

What happens when "specific and concrete" goes overboard? Well, S&W aren't telling you to be irrelevant (that's a Grice issue). A sentence like "Some of his bloodied clothes were strewn in the parking lot of the restaurant" is detailed (sort of) but not relevant. It's only there to tell you somebody drove out to the site of the shooting. File under "needless words."

Bad editors do bad stuff in the name of "omit needless words." That's why they're bad editors. Good editors listen to where the writing is going and try to help it get there. They don't ask what brand of T-shirt was bloodily strewn in the parking lot. They ask what you mean by "unfavorable weather."


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Good post with excellent advice. I still don't like S&W but I'm willing to admit that's probably because their devotees are so awful.

10:54 AM, March 01, 2008  

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