“Omit needless words!”–William Strunk Jr.

elements of style

Patient blogging, book-loving followers, I have just finished editing a 385 page manuscript, and I am here to report that such a long editorial stint is corrosive to one’s own writing.

Many of you may be aware that I wear two bookish hats professionally: writer and editor.  Though related, they can be antithetical to each other if indulged in undiluted form for extended periods of time.

The best writing comes from a non-critical, spontaneous sense of play.  Revision and editing, on the other hand, require a slow, meticulous (grinding!) attention to detail in order to be effective and to improve a manuscript.

When the spirit is on an inspired writer, the writer can sometimes break the sound barrier, rent a tear in the universe, create a sonic boom, with the rapid fire flow of words.  Oh, what a feeling, eh?  We’ve all been there from time to time if we’ve been at the writing craft for a while. Writing under such muse-flogging conditions often produces some of one’s best work (although always subject to review and revision).

Any editor, however, that edited at the speed of light ought to be fired on the spot.  It can’t be done.

The title of this little lament of mine is taken from (you probably already guessed) The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, perhaps the most famous guide to writing of all time and the only “grammar” rule book (to my knowledge)  to have made the bestseller lists. If I had to distill the heart and soul of good editing, I would, like Strunk, utter the battle cry, “Omit needless words” (p.23).

Of the hundreds of reference works on editing and writing I own, this slim volume, barely one hundred pages, is by far the most valuable and the best single reference for my struggling clients.  It is also the least likely to squelch one’s imagination and the free flow of image and idea in the writing process.

At this point, I suppose I’ve given you my lame excuse for my absence here (work!) and given you a little lagniappe (a reminder of Strunk and White) to enhance your own writing and writing times.

I’ll give the master the last word in this and I won’t again stay away for so long. Happy reading and writing!

William Strunk’s words to the wise:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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22 Responses to “Omit needless words!”–William Strunk Jr.

  1. bowmanauthor says:

    Elements of Style will never go out of style for editors. You are so right about wearing more than one hat. Switching gears from constructive to objective is tedious to our perceptions. I throw design, layout, and publishing masters into the mix too. Maybe the Army educated me too well. lol Just finished a poetry eBook for a client. It was simple ad elegant with a hint of graphics (gray-scale and touches of color. I enjoyed doing the cover very much. Now I need to put my writer’s hat back on and buckle down to my historical fiction/past-life regression. Annie wants to surface and tell her story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bowmanauthor says:

    Obviously, not well. There’s an error in my post. lol Editors need to gift a copy of Elements of Style to their clients! Try wading through the GPO Style Manual. You’ll throw it at the wall!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. D.G.Kaye says:

    A thoroughly entertaining post. And equally entertaining was reading your banter with my dear friend Deborah. So lovely to see you and your wisdoms back Margaret. And what would we do without our beloved William Strunk? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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