A Post-Christmas Thought: On Writing

Dec 26, 2003 • 8:13 am | comments (0) by twitter | Filed Under SEO Copywriting
 

This Christmas, I received a stocking full of coal, with The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White buried among the coal. It is one of the best presents I've ever received, and has inspired me to make a special plea to all of you to go out and buy it. This book, initially composed sometime in the first or second decade of the last century (in use by 1919 at least), is more utterly necessary now than it ever has been. Due to the explosion of the Web, and especially because of the search engines' love for content, people of many backgrounds are taking up writing to convey their messages to the world. Most of these people, sad to say, are not writers by nature, and it shows. Worse still are those who think they are writers, by nature or often by profession, and who still do not possess a firm grasp of the proper usage of the English language-- to say nothing of other languages, which I will not address here.I mean no insult by this. To choose to compose your own copy despite a lack of education or confidence is certainly a brave and laudable thing, and I applaud all timid writers who overcome shyness to make their message plain to the world, at whatever expense. There is certainly nothing wrong with just saying it, whatever it may be: with simply expressing your beliefs without the impediment of more than the computer's grammar checker. Immediacy makes up for many sins, and I am not implying that everyone who fails to properly capitalize a heartfelt forum posting should be shot. But those who write copy for professional websites would do well to avoid laziness, and if they are not going to hire a professional copywriter (ahem, ahem) then they would most certainly do well to apply themselves to the task of bringing their writing up to snuff. Rather than spending all their money on tracts about the secret methods of using writing to charm money out of fools, most of these writers would have far more to learn from Strunk and White's slim volume (in its fourth edition, still only 105 pages including index). Lest you think that this doesn't apply to you, I would like to here mention that I have my B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing, and have over ten years of intensive writing experience under my belt. I at this point compose most of my thoughts in essay form before uttering them. I'm sure there isn't a form of writing I haven't attempted, and I will modestly state that at one point in college I actually wore the letters off of my keyboard from typing so much. Hundreds of thousands of words a week flow from my keyboard up that little cable into my computer, and have done since I first learned to touch-type over 30 wpm in 1994. Why am I doing all this bragging? I make mistakes in grammar. I hover uncertainly over the keyboard, chewing my lip anxiously as I wonder whether to use a colon or a semicolon. (Can you spot the one in this essay? If you can't, it means I went back and rephrased the sentence to avoid it before I published this.) I make mistakes, I use weak prose, I violate the rules of style and punctuation, I structure my sentences poorly, and I forget the principles by which Strunk urges us to live our lives as writers. Everyone does. E. B. White revised, extended, and published Strunk's writing manual partially for his own use, the introduction assures us. Even after gaining fame and fortune as a wonderful writer, he still spent anxious hours puzzling over his typewriter, worrying about just how to write the clear prose for which he was so famous. It is difficult, it is a constant battle that never entirely loses its struggle, and it is the best and most noble fight anyone calling him- or herself a writer can possibly fight. This little book does not contain all the secrets you need to write great prose. It cannot help you with plot, or tell you how to best sell your widget. But it contains a foundation, without which you cannot build effective copy. Simply reading through it will give you incredibly effective weapons against poor copy, and will provide you with more inspiration than one would think possible from such a slender little chunk of paper. There is much to be gained from a quick review of the fundamental rules of English usage, especially in a time when so much of our lives is taking place in written form. I implore you, all of you, to go forth and borrow, purchase, or find this volume, and when you have read it, to lend it to your friends if you can bear to be parted from it. The Web would be well served by a greater attention to writing-- and so would the aims of those who write for it. Better writing means your message is conveyed more efficiently and more clearly. And isn't that what you want, after all?

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