What Strunk got right: Omit needless words

 In a world with ever more media to consume, getting to the point is a matter of survival.

A danger of discussing one of the more famous sections of Strunk & White is failing to omit needless words. I will fail at this. Sorry.

It has long been an old-fashioned guide, perhaps even already when E.B. White got around to revising it. And the criticisms are frequent and on point. But as long as one doesn’t read it as law (a biblical literal reading of sorts), it’s helpful and interesting. Also, if you’ve ever studied E.B. White (I took a class dedicated to his writings, fyi), it’s one more insight into the man.

In my 2000 edition, at least, “Omit Needless Words” is section 17. Its power and importance, to me, rests in the division its title draws among writers. Certainly, some writers are wordy, long-winded and overly descriptive. They will scoff at the title and, especially, at attempts to enforce it. For the best writers, their effective defense will be that they turn their wordy, long-winded and overly descriptive prose into strengths. What looks like needlessness is not.

The writers who don’t live up to that standard? They are well-known to copy editors and readers. Many of us think we are in the former group. Almost all of us are not. That’s OK — the best practices of “Omitting Needless Words” are largely about knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses and acting accordingly.

“Omit Needless Words” is not about chopping text. It’s certainly not about the old print nightmare of cutting text solely to fit a page designer’s newshole. It’s simply, to quote the text, “that every word tell.” In a world with ever more media to consume, getting to the point is a matter of survival.

Are some of the examples and admonishments too specific, too limiting? Perhaps. But if you take but one thing from Strunk & White, it’s to look at what you’re writing or editing and say, “Does this say anything?” That question will lead you to other questions and edits, making the result tighter, accurate and, I hope, of interest.

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