Do not affect a breezy manner.

I am a big nerd who reads Strunk and White’s Elements of Style for pleasure. Not just pleasure: edification. According to the blurbs on the back it is a “nonpareil” (The New Yorker) “the best book of its kind we have” (St. Paul Dispatch) and “as timeless as a book can be in our age of volubility” (The New York Times). For those unfamiliar with it (and if you went to school in America, that’s highly unlikely) The Elements of Style is the premier primer for English composition and the trustiest tool a writer has to make sure that his writing is not not good.

Today, then, I was reading through Chapter 5 “An Approach to Style.” Here, the master himself (and author of “Charolette’s Web”) E.B. White addresses style in its broader meaning: “style in the sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing.” He goes on to suggest that writer’s write naturally, that they use a suitable design, that they write with nouns and verbs not adjectives and adverbs. These are all very good points.

And then one gets to Point #9. Here Mr. White is incredibly prescient; in his uncanny wisdom, he seems to be anticipating Blogs. And not just any blog, MY blog. I copy his words for you now:

“9. Do not affect a breezy manner.

The volume of writing is enormous, these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it, almost as though the author were in a state of euphoria. “Spontaneous me,” sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribblers who would one day confuse spontaneity with genius.

The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day. Open any alumni magazine, turn to the class notes, and you are quite likely to encounter old Spontaneous Me at work–an aging collegian who writes something like this:

‘Well, guys, here I am again dishing the dirt about your disorderly classmates, after pa$$ing a weekend ing the Big Apple trying to catch the Columbia hoops tilt and then a cab-ride from hell through the West Side casbah. And speaking of news, howzabout tossing a few primo items this way?’

This is an extreme example, but the same wind blows, at lesser velocities, across vast expanses of journalistic prose. The author in this case has managed in two sentences to commit most of the unpardonable sins: he obviously has nothing to say, he is showing off and directing the attention of the reader to himself, he is using slang with neither provocation nor ingenuity, he adopts a patronizing air by throwing in the word primo, he is humorless (though full of fun), dull, and empty. He has not done his work. Compare his opening remarks with the following–a plunge directly into the news:

‘Clyde Crawford, who stroked the varsity shell in 1958, is swinging an oar again after a lapse of forty years. Clyde resigned last spring as executive sales manager of the Indiana Flotex Company and is now a gondolier in Venice.’

This, although conventional, is compact, informative, unpretentious. The writer has dug up an item of news and presented it in a straightforward manner. What the first writer tried to accomplish by cutting rhetorical capers and by breeziness, the second writer managed to achieve by good reporting, by keeping a tight rein on his material, and by staying out of the act.”

Phew.

That E.B. White could really slaughter ’em. Thank God Wilbur didn’t affect a breezy manner or he’d be bacon.

But I take E.B.’s point. The internet has created a textual space where time is no longer precious; where waste is welcome. I know: I worked in a law firm last summer and spent 90% of my time reading the internet. It’s fun. But it’s unhealthy.

In my effort to entertain you as well as inform you, I sit on the fence between Spontaneous Me and Good Writer Me. Some have noted that I, perhaps, post too much. This is Spontaneous Me at work. This is the fat around the edges, the extra salt on your french fries. This is unhealthy.

Unless of course you come from the Jack Kerouac school in which case it’s all healthy, man. I have little doubt that Jackie would’ve been a blogger. But to quote Truman Capote: “That’s not writing, it’s typing.”

So, in conclusion, I will do my best to trim the fat around the edges; to keep things tight. After which you can pat me on the head and say: “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.”

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2 comments

  1. And yet I think all of my favourite blogs are those where I can indulge in some vicarious “Spontaneous Me.”

    Mr. White’s second example would never make my top bookmarks. That’s news, not narrative. I can get news anywhere.

    And really, a god though he was, can you trust a man who once said that he only owned one book – Walden? That pond definitely could have used a breeze or two…

  2. I, too, read Strunk & White for edification. I think the scientist in me likes that it’s just a set of numbered rules. So simple. If only more people read it.