The Fables of Aesop is out now!

The Great Law of Writing

Strunk and White are famous for having said, “Omit needless words.”

This is a marvelous piece of melliflous advice and counsel. And if it were possible to understand it, I would even recommend it to others.

The only problem is that only the great masters of the craft of writing can possibly know which words are needful and which needless. Or is it, “are needless,”?

I think I know where Strunk learned this counsel:

from his mother.

He wanted a cookie after dinner. She said, “You don’t need one.”

He said, “I want a coke.” She said, “You don’t need one.”

He said, “I want to go skating with my friends.” She said, “You don’t need two.”

This confused him profoundly. “Two what?” He thought. But he didn’t ask her to clarify because he wasn’t even sure he had spelled it right, and besides, maybe he didn’t need to know. Or maybe he had three, so he didn’t get the point.

In any case, he didn’t ask. So for the rest of his life, this phrase rolled around in his mind, compelling endless thought on how little one could possibly get by without having.

Or saying.

So, as Peter Wood suggests in this, um, needful little article, Strunk bought into the anti-Victorian spartan aesthetic of the modernist. He wrote a book that has told Americans how to write for nearly 100 years now.

In this book Strunk taught Americans how to think without metaphors, to produce writing that is as clear, says Peter Wood, as the tracks of the camel in a desert.

If only Strunk had let his curiosity get the better of him, to arouse just a little cheekiness, to say to his mother, with utmost respect, “Need it for what, dear mother?”

Read the article, if you want to defend Strunk and White or if you want to gather weapons to slay them – or maybe just spider silk to catch them in their own web.

Get it?

Maybe I shouldn’t have asked that.



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