Sunday, October 4, 2009

Journey of life: rules of the road – Part 2

My dear family, students, friends and colleagues,

Learning how to edit, while working in great local newspapers like the ‘old’ Maharashtra Herald in Pune and while teaching students of print journalism for 23 years, has been a pleasure. And it is thrilling to discover books about writing and editing and re-writing, written by authors who are your soul-mates.

By now, most of my best students know how I admire and try to practise Strunk & White. The rules of ‘the little book’ have, for me, become the rules of the road on the journey called Life.

William Strunk (1869-1946) was the teacher of the famous writer E.B. White (1899-1985), associated with The New Yorker.

This is how E. B. White describes his encounter with ‘the little book’ ninety years ago: “At the close of the first World War, when I was a student at Cornell, I took a course called English 8. My professor was William Strunk, Jr. A textbook required for the course was a slim volume called The Elements of Style, whose author was the professor himself. The year was 1919. The book was known on the campus in those days as ‘the little book,’ with the stress on the word ‘little.’ It had been privately printed by the author.”

For the last 23 years since I began to teach editing in Pune, ‘the little book’ has been like a lighthouse, its declarative beacon guiding my waif of a ship among the ‘page 3’ wrecks and warning me of the celebrity icebergs, concealed in the treacherous waters of the free market.

Here I propose to take up Rule 17: “Omit needless words!”. These three words constitute my second rules of the road: travel simple on the journey of Life.

In the third edition, revised by E.B. White in 1979, Rule 17 goes across pages 23 to 25 in the section “Elementary Principles of Composition”. Allow me to quote from White again:

“ ‘Omit needless words!’ cries the author on page 23, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul. In the days when I was sitting in his class (1919), he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having short-changed himself – a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had out-distanced the clock.

“Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, “Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!’

“He was a memorable man, friendly and funny. Under the remembered sting of his kindly lash, I have been trying to omit needless words since 1919, and although there are still many words that cry for omission and the huge task will never be accomplished, it is exciting to me to reread the masterly Strunkian elaboration of this noble theme. It goes:

‘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 his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.’

“There you have a short valuable essay on the nature and beauty of brevity – sixty-three words that could change the world …”

I may add, these 63 words on brevity could also slash the number of pages in our Indian newspapers by:
- trimming the number of paragraphs in our stories;
- reducing the number of sentences in the paragraphs;
- pruning the number of words from a sentence
- using words with fewer characters.

“Small is beautiful,” wrote E.F. Schumacher.


I started to take lectures on editing at the Department of Journalism, University of Pune at the request of Kiran Thakur, then Bureau Chief at the United News of India (UNI) wire agency in Pune. Prof. P.N. Paranjpe, then Head of the Department (fondly called ‘Ranade Institute’) invited me teach the batch of 1987.

When the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication (SIJC) was set up in 1990, its Director Dr. Vishwas Mehendale asked me to take the classes in Editing. Anahita Rane, my student from Ranade was the deputy director then.

I had been searching for a suitable book to guide me. That is when I found ‘the little book’. Just as Strunk was White’s guru, ‘the little book’ became one of my gurus. You will find a photocopy of my personal copy of ‘the little book’ on the shelves of what became the Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communication (SIMC) in 1999.

I also came across “Basic Journalism” by Rangaswami Parthasarathy (Macmillan). Later, I added “Editing: a handbook for journalists” by T.J.S. George (Indian Institute of Mass Communication, 1989) to my ‘must’ list of three books for my students.

Hundreds of good teachers all over the world have recommended Strunk & White to their students. But only last week I discovered that another great teacher, William Zinsser, the author of On Writing Well, was in turn an admirer of White.

Looking up Zinsser on the Net, I found an article in the Spring 2009 issue of The American Scholar, entitled, “Visions and Revisions” in which he tells the story of how he updated his book On Writing Well over 35 years.

But it was this small paragraph towards the end that I wish to reproduce for it echoes Strunk and White and my second the rule of the road: travel simple. Zinsser recounts why his readers are grateful for the advice in his book and how it has changed their lives:

“(The hard part of writing isn’t the writing; it’s the thinking.) Now, they tell me, I’m at their side whenever they write, exhorting them to cut every word or phrase or sentence or paragraph that isn’t doing necessary work. That, finally, is the life-changing message of On Writing Well: simplify your language and thereby find your humanity.”

I hope each of you find this rule useful on the journey of life: “simplify your language and thereby find your humanity.” So you can see how Strunk’s Rule 17 (“Omit needless words!”) has been framed in special ways by different people.

Listen to how George Washington Carver (1864-1943) of the Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, USA, the great black scientist put it:

“It is not the style of clothes one wears,
Neither the kind of automobile one drives,
Nor the amount of money one has in the bank,
That counts. These mean nothing.
It is simply service that measures success.”

After "compassion for the poor", which I introduced in “Journey of life: rules of the road - Part 1”, here is my second rule for the road: “Omit needless words!” Keep it safe and take care.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, India, Sunday, 4th October 2009.


The Cloudcutter said...

Omitting needless words is truly an art that, sadly, eludes most people.

One of my favourite quotes, by Alexander Pope, perfectly illustrates this point -

"Words are like leaves; and where they most abound, Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found."

अब्द abd said...

Dear Sir,
"Omit needless words!": The most important rule you taught us and which is least obeyed in today's journalism.
Greed for money demands needless (and meaningless) words.

Anonymous said...

Loved this post. Once a commenter wrote that he read the entire post because he found it very interesting. Till then I used to believe everything I write is read by someone who is commenting on the post! :(

Since then I make it a point to keep my post concise, and at least make an effort to 'omit all needless words'... not very successfully, but I try.

Joe Pinto said...

Cloudcutter, IHM:

I would suggest, however, that both of you do not apply this rule strictly and uniformly to your posts.

Sometimes the beauty of your posts lies in the very detailed description. Being concise when you describe may render your post ineffective, because the power of description lies in detail.

You have to read Walter Scott and Charles Dickens to realise what I mean. At home, R.K. Narayan is best at detailed description.

The strength of both your posts lies in the detail of your descriptions, whether you are exploring the ground on terra firma or your own feelings and thoughts.

So please be careful. May your slow, full, steady flow keep educating your admirers -- like me.

Peace and love,
- Joe.

Veersen said...

Dear Sir,

it seems the "the little book" is to you, what your blog is to us.
I came across an interesting quote by CS Lewis. "Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite."
Precisely what you taught us.

Joe Pinto said...

Abd - You'll be surprised the most seductive advertisments and PR messages and branding use few words to trap their prey too.

So it's not correct that greed demands needless ( and meaningless) words. Advt copy-writers probably use brevity better than editors. To be effective and clear, you have to be brief. But the motives may differ.

Compassion for the poor is one of my motives. Greed for profit is what drives the advertising and PR agencies as well as the corporate world that pays them.

Take care about making sweeping statements. The devil and the greedy rich never sleep.

Peace and love,
- Joe.

Nilakant said...

Joe, I agree. Strunk & White and Zinsser should be required reading for would-be bloggers and journalists. I also recommend Stephen King's 'On Writing'.