Clear written communication is invaluable. Business writing all too often suffers from a lack of clarity. I have found The Elements of Style by Strunk and White to be a wonderful reference book.
It was originally published in 1918/9 by William Strunk for a class he taught at Cornell University. E. B. White, the children’s author, had been a student of Strunk and in 1959 a revised edition was issued with contributions from White. In 2000 the fourth edition was issued. As I discussed in my previous blogs about The Mythical Man-Month, a book of this age, even with revisions, is, in some areas, a little dated. That said, many gems remain in this short (105 page) book.
Rule 17 – Omit Needless Words, is one of my favorites. To anyone who views this as either too common sense or too prescriptive, I would suggest a careful reading of almost any email or PowerPoint presentation. Many needless words will almost certainly be found.
A very early version of this is attributed to Blaise Pascal:
"Je N'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte. --I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter."
Lettres provinciales, 16, Dec.14, 1656. (from Cassell's Book of Quotations, London, 1912. P.718).
Subsequent writers including Jefferson and Lincoln have made similar apologies.
In the “Approach to Style” chapter there are many guidelines such as:
- Do not overwrite
- Do not explain too much (or, I’d add, too little!)
- Make sure the reader knows who is speaking
- Avoid fancy words (and, I’d add, obscure acronyms!)
- Be clear (so easy to say, all to often – hard to achieve)
While these and many other rules and guidelines should have been learned in High School; if they were, they seem to have been forgotten by most!
Another useful chapter contains a list of commonly confused words and expressions. I still cringe every time I hear or read “irregardless”.
In my opinion (not IMHO), the proliferation of technology-enabled communication such as Twitter, IM, Chat, and even email does not eliminate the need for following common sense rules for style. While I know that I don’t always succeed in following their advice, I hope you enjoy Strunk and White.