Good Writing

The Art of Good Writing is a discussion of Stanley Fish’s new book, but it is more than that. It is also an articulation of a stance on writing.

Though never explicitly political, The Elements of Style is unmistakably a product of its time. Its calls for “vigour” and “toughness” in language, its analogy of sentences to smoothly functioning machines, its distrust of vernacular and foreign language phrases all conform to that disciplined, buttoned-down and most self-assured stretch of the American century from the armistice through the height of the cold war. A time before race riots, feminism and the collapse of the gold standard. It is a book full of sound advice addressed to a class of all-male Ivy-Leaguers wearing neckties and with neatly parted hair. This, of course, is part of its continuing appeal. It is spoken in the voice of unquestioned authority in a world where that no longer exists.

I was taught using Strunk & White. I never matched it with the literature we were reading, so perhaps I always saw the discussion of writing in brevity as a business proposition. (There is significant evidence for this. Until last summer I have always perceived of emails as internet memos rather than as a faster version of snail mail. Business writing seems to be my primary mode of thought for writing of all sorts.)

What the author says about other modes of writing, though, is particularly striking.

One thought on “Good Writing”

  1. I believe that Strunk & White came from a time when most college students were enrolled in the liberal arts curriculum. There are so many unspoken assumptions about what the “reading audience” knows or has been exposed to that for many of today’s students Strunk & White is not a very good writing handbook. Many of today’s students don’t have the exposure to literary writing that helps them understand Strunk & White.

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