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A dubious classic, or a 1918 techwriting style guide?

  • 3di 
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  • 5 min read

Apart from analysing the product, waiting for SMEs, interpreting the UI, fixing minor technical problems, going to meetings, planning the work, peer reviewing, proofreading and plumbing the depths of the engineer’s mind, a part of the techwriter’s job is actual writing.

Writing takes coffee and the right mindset. The former is easy to get, but achieving the latter takes some time and effort. Certain books may come in handy, and one such book is the around-90-page-long The Elements of Style.  There’s a great chance that some of you read it.

Disclaimer: this is not a review attempt, I wouldn’t dare. They say it’s a classic and the stats seem to prove it, as the Open Syllabus Project lists it as the most commonly assigned text in more than 1 million US academic syllabi. But I found a copy at our 3di office and asked myself: do we need it here?

The original text was a short set of language usage rules written down and self-published by William Strunk Jr., an American professor of English. Although Strunk Jr. was born in 1869 and died in 1946, his style guide is still read by basically everyone who makes attempts at writing in America, which is quite spectacular considering how English has changed since 1918. This success is largely due to the asynchronous co-author, E. B. White (Strunk Jr.’s student, by the way), who meddled with the book in 1959, accidentally turning it into a worldwide bestseller (10 million copies sold so far, that’s something).

Regarding the book’s content: calling its overall tone utopianly prescriptive is not enough. It doesn’t just mimic a 1918 classroom, it is a genuine 1918 classroom rendered on paper, and you can literally hear the teacher’s ruler hitting the blackboard as he or she makes you repeat: “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s”, “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas”, “Do not break sentences in two”, “Use active voice”, “Put statements in positive form”, “Use orthodox spelling”. These two are my favourites: “Avoid foreign languages” and “Prefer the standard to the offbeat”.

So here we are: a style Bible squeezed into 90 pages, and following it is enough to make you a tolerable writer. Or is it? Well, if all the writing in the world’s history had been done per Strunk Jr.’s rules, we would’ve never seen Conrad, Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, Kerouac, Salinger, Melville, Burgess, Mark Twain… the list goes on. Of course, guys like London, Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy would have survived, but the conclusion is cruelly clear: The Elements of Style and fiction writing do not go along very well, even though Stephen King almighty says he likes it. And the old lie “you need to know the rules to break them, kid” doesn’t help. This may be partly why the book has been called a “toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity”. Or “the book that ate America’s brain”.  Or an “aging zombie of a book”. And those are quite wise people who wrote that.

Alright, but how about Strunk Jr. and techwriting? Let’s have another glance at some of his advice, this time with technical documentation in mind:

“Choose a suitable design and hold to it”, “Make the paragraph the unit of composition”, “Use the active voice”, “Omit needless words”, “In summaries, keep to one tense”, “Place yourself in the background”, “Revise and rewrite”, “Do not explain too much”, “Be clear”, “Prefer the standard to the offbeat”, “Use definite, specific, concrete language”.

Sounds familiar? Isn’t it the essence of how techwriting should be done? Avoiding ambiguity, sticking to the standard, focusing on clarity, revision and improvement – it’s just as user-oriented as The Elements of Style is reader-oriented. It’s doubtful Strunk Jr. was thinking of documenting apps and radios in 1918, but to me it seems like he unknowingly hit the nail on the head.

It may be true that the primary reason why The Elements of Style is so frequently referred to is its tempting brevity. But what’s wrong about it? It may also be true that parts of it are outdated, but it will probably keep getting edited (although much slower than any other style guides). That century-old vade mecum may sound ridiculous in the context of arts, but there are good reasons why this is the first book I came across when touring our 3di office bookcase, and I think it belongs here.

That said, this article probably breaks 95% of Strunk Jr.’s rules, so I’m going to wrap it up. But I can’t resist quoting the book’s secondary author, E. B. White, who himself wrote: “I hate the guts of English grammar”…

P.S. Ignore my fooling around and read The Elements of Style here if you haven’t done it yet. It’s fun. And, if you want to know some more, have a look at:

A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” by Mark Garvey

Style and Alchemy by Jennifer Balderama

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3di has delivered award-winning technical writing, translation and localization services to global companies and technology businesses since 2002. Our in-house team of 35 is based in our offices in Woking, Krakow and Edinburgh: our own multi-lingual project managers, technical authors, localization engineers and tools experts.View Author posts

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