Here’s another great one from Larry Parsley

6b05f71f918cc37785724ffc01c78d55For years I have referred to this well-worn paperback not by its title (“The Elements of Style”) but by the authors’ last names — “Strunk and White.” E.B. White (of New Yorker and children’s lit fame) was a college student at Cornell under English professor William Strunk Jr. White studied his professor’s self published volume, referred to by Strunk as “the little book.” It was, in White’s words, “a forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.” In 1957, White (who had published “Charlotte’s Web” five years earlier), was commissioned to revise the little book. Four editions followed, introducing new generations of writers to Strunk’s starkly stated edicts.

One of his more striking rules is #17 – “Omit needless words.” After all,

“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 subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

I find it noteworthy how many times the Bible warns us to “omit needless words” — yet not for literary reasons. The world-weary author of Ecclesiastes believes that finite worshipers should let their “words be few.” The author of Proverbs bluntly declares: “Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut” (Proverbs 10:19 NLT). And Jesus inserts his own stylistic dictums into our prayer lives, warning us against “babbling like pagans” and assuming that excess words guarantee quick answers to our requests (Matthew 6:7). In moments of self-examination, we are left to confess all those unnecessary words we’ve babbled over a lifetime. We mourn those wasted words that inflated pride, fanned gossip, deflected blame, and annoyed Heaven. The words of Jesus, on the other hand, display a marvelous economy — with sentences like “woman, behold your son,” or “I thirst,” or “it is finished.” As we listen to Jesus from the cross, we indeed marvel at how “every word tells.”

In his introduction, White remembers his professor’s disdain for the expression, “the fact that.” Strunk wished that it could be excised from every sentence where it occurs. But even for such a gifted writer as White, omitting those three needless words proved no easy editorial feat.

“I suppose I have written the fact that a thousand times in the heat of composition, revised it out maybe five hundred times in the cool aftermath. To be batting only .500 this late in the season, to fail half the time to connect with this fat pitch, saddens me, for it seems a betrayal of the man who showed me how to swing at it and made the swinging seem worth while.”

I find White’s admission heartening. The writer, like the sinner, feels weight of the law weighing down upon those hyperactive fingers on the keyboard. And “the fact that” White was able to bat .500 shames the rest of us sad, literary benchwarmers. We plead for mercy (even as we plead verbosely).