Elements of Style (Illustrated)

The Elements of Style (Illustrated) by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, with illustrations by Maira Kalman (New York: Penguin, 2005), 142 pp.

During my senior year in high school, our honors English class had one textbook: The Elements of Style, which at the time was only 12 years old (though Strunk’s original book dated to 1918). Since then I have reread it a few times, always found it useful, and not hesitated to recommend it.

In recent years, though, the book has been criticized as stuffy, pedantic, and excessively prescriptive. As an editor, I give first aid to writing, and even though I’m not a doctor, I occasionally write prescriptions for writing that needs it. I’m not against a prescriptive approach to writing and editing. There are, as the authors phrase it, some “experts in the art of bad writing,” and for them prescriptions are in order.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of The Elements of Style (Illustrated), based on the 4th edition, which was published in 2000, and in December 2017 I decided to read the whole book through again with a critical eye.

The Elements of Style holds up well if you are willing to take advice from professionals such as Strunk and White. In chapter V, “An Approach to Style,” they present “gentle reminders,” not rules. The authors are against writing that is “stiff, needlessly formal.”

However, much of the book is devoted to rules, and some of them, such as when to use shall and will, indeed are stuffy, pedantic, and excessively prescriptive. Sometimes the authors appeal to Latin as a standard (I was taking Latin in my senior year of high school too), but Latin is not a good guide to English usage.

Also, some of the new material became outdated faster than the original text: “By the time this paragraph sees print, psyched, nerd, ripoff, dude, geek, and funky will be the words of yesteryear,” they wrote; that prediction was totally wrong, as 17 years later all of those words are still in use.

Finally, “Maira Kalman’s whimsical paintings,” as the Los Angeles Times called them (according to the book’s back cover), are an embellishment, nice to have, but add nothing to the substance of the book.

My conclusion, after more than 45 years of using The Elements of Style: Adhering to this book will not harm anybody’s writing and will in fact do a lot of good. If you’re an experienced writer or editor who can sensibly reject some of the advice, go ahead. But it’s still worthwhile to lend an ear now and then to a couple of professionals who were confident enough to provide a little book of rules and gentle reminders to assist us.


Editing with beginner’s mind

Recently I encountered the Zen concept of beginner’s mind. “The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities,” according to Richard Baker’s introduction to Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

“When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something,” wrote Suzuki in that book.

As I begin my new job, this sounds like a good attitude. Yes, I have experience and expertise, but editing pieces of writing that are new and different to me, for new and different people, means I will need to learn. The answers and solutions I have applied elsewhere may not be exactly what are needed.

As I approach the situation I can be open to discovering the client’s needs, the writers’ needs, the readers’ needs—and what I can do to help.

I can see that beginner’s mind can be helpful not just in a new position of employment but in taking on any new editing task. I’ve learned to listen to people who know more than I do, and there are plenty of those. If I have “no thought of achievement, no thought of self,” I can approach new editing assignments not merely as one who makes corrections but as one who is “open to all the possibilities.” That sounds to me like a good beginning.

Editorial heavy lifting

How physically strong does an editor need to be? Lately I’ve spotted a few ads for editors that say the editor must be able to lift 35 pounds.

Is this a genuine requirement? When I was young and worked at a couple of book publishers, I did indeed move a lot of cartons of books weighing more than 35 pounds. The companies had small staffs, and people pitched in with other tasks as they were able.

However, I wonder whether some of the current advertisements for editors really involve heavy lifting. I suspect that the requirement to lift 35 pounds may really be a way of weeding out older applicants.

What do you think? I welcome your comments.


Don’t ditch the system when things get tight

One thing I learned many years ago from a company called EEI (originally Editorial Experts Inc.), where I worked as a temp and later as an instructor, was “Don’t ditch the system when things get tight.” To maintain quality in publications, you have to have a system—that’s why it’s called “quality control.” Quality doesn’t just happen; it happens because we maintain control. We run a spellcheck and we use checklists as part of a system, for example.

However, you’ve probably found that publications production can fall behind schedule, with copy arriving late, changes to layout, or things totally out of your control such as severe weather or a power outage. That’s when it’s tempting to skip the quality control system. As Charlotte Brontë wrote in Jane Eyre, “Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation.” Or as the character General Lee said in the film Gettysburg: “Things will get out of control … That is why we have orders.”

When things get out of control, don’t give in to the temptation to skip quality control.


Real quotations from William Greider

New quotes on my website with pictures of the source:

“Americans are a people who greatly value the autonomy of individuals, but have not yet learned how to value one another.”

“Most citizens (and new, untested enterprises) have little or no collateral. They are, therefore, ineligible for capital-acquisition loans (though the U.S. credit system does allow them to borrow recklessly for consumption).”

—William Greider, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (New York: Touchstone, 1997).

Avoid style conflicts when combining Word documents

In Microsoft Word, when you need to combine two documents, you may have formatting conflicts. This is because Word uses character and paragraph styles. Every paragraph in every document has a style applied. It may be Normal, or it may be another style such as Header or Footer that Word applies by default. If you hope to manage the formatting of text in Word, you need to understand and use styles. One excellent place to learn is in the Microsoft Word tutorials by the late Shauna Kelly.

When you insert one Word document into another, whether by copying and pasting or by using the Insert menu, the styles in the text you paste will adopt the style definitions in the main document. If you paste text that has Normal style applied, and Normal is defined as 12-point Times New Roman in the source document but as 11-point Calibri in the receiving document, Normal text will become 11-point Calibri in the receiving document.

The best way to avoid conflicts in style definitions is to have both documents based on the same template. If you create both documents yourself on the same computer, they will by default use your Normal template. You also can choose a different template as the basis for a document.

However, you may not have this option. As an editor, I often receive documents from more than one source to be combined.

If the text I’m pasting should have the same formatting as the receiving document, all I have to do is make sure that the same styles are applied (for example, Heading 1, Heading 2, Body Text) and that the text does not have additional direct formatting applied that modifies its general appearance (direct formatting to italicize a book title, for example, is fine, but users who don’t know how to work with styles may select large blocks of text and change the font and size with the text tools on Word’s home tab rather than redefine the appropriate style—for example, Body Text).

If the text I’m pasting should retain its own formatting, I need to make sure it does not use any of the same styles as the receiving document. Even if they are different styles but still based on Normal style, the receiving document can alter the style definitions in the pasted text. So I made a template with unique style names, and the styles are based on “no style”—that’s one of the choices when you define a new style. I used lowercase for my style names to help them stand out in the Word styles menu. I saved the template on my website as .doc and .docx files. You are welcome to download and use them.

Here’s how to prepare a Word document for pasting into another without losing the style definitions:

  1. Copy the styles from the template into the Word document. You can use the Import/Export tool under Manage Styles at the bottom of the Styles menu on the Word Home tab, or you can just select all the text in the template and paste it into your Word document, then delete the pasted text—the styles will remain.
  2. Select a style with a definition that you want to preserve (for example, Heading 1). Select the paragraph. In the Styles menu, find head1 and right-click on it. Choose “Update head1 to match selection.” The style definition for head1 now matches the style definition for Heading 1. Use the Word Replace tool to change all instances of Heading 1 to head1.
  3. Repeat step 2 for every style you want to preserve. For example, redefine head2 to match Heading 2 and then change all instances of Heading 2 to head2. Redefine body copy to match Normal or Body Text or whatever style is used for body text in your Word document, then apply the “body copy” style all your body text.
  4. Look for any other paragraphs that have a style applied and, if you want to preserve its formatting, apply one of my user-defined styles or create your own (use the New Style button in the Styles menu). Two tips: First, call up the short Styles menu (control+shift+S). It will highlight the style that is already applied to whatever paragraph your cursor is in. Second, if you are repeatedly applying the same style (table text, for example) to paragraphs, you can click in one paragraph and apply the style, then click in another and press F4, the Windows repeat key, so you don’t have to keep selecting the style from the menu.

If you need more help with any aspect of Word, a great place to turn is Shauna Kelly’s “Making the Most of Word in Your Business.”

Real Quotations: Intellectual Ghettos

A new quote on my website with a picture of the source:

“The growth in partisan media over the past two decades has enabled Americans to retreat into tribes of like-minded people who get news filtered through particular world views.”

—David Bauder, Associated Press, “Divided America: Constructing Our Own Intellectual Ghettos,” Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star, June 18, 2016.