"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Why Strunk & White’s Book is Not Good for a Composition Class

June 30th, 2016 by

I have long appreciated and even enjoyed Elements of Style. According to E.B. White’s introduction, this was the book he used in his college English course long ago. His teacher, Mr. Strunk, placed a high value on a concise writing style, and when White became an important author, he helped to introduce this stylistic virtue to a reading public that now spans several generations. Copies of it can be found everywhere, and the book is still cited frequently, even more often than White’s own much loved Charlotte’s Web.

I hope that I have demonstrated how much I appreciate this little gem. It is straightforward and includes lists. It seems, most of the time, to follow its own advice, the most famous of which is this: “Omit needless words.”

So what I have to say is really not an objection to the book itself. And I can’t complain about anything that either Strunk or White say. What I must object to is the way that it is used in writing classes. The following dialogue is one I hear frequently from colleagues looking for a book to include in their class where they will require a lot of writing.

“I was thinking I would use Elements of Style,” they say. “How would that work as a composition text?”
“It wouldn’t,” I say.


Is it possible that anyone might object to this time-honored book?

“It’s not a composition book,” I say. “Look at the title. It’s a book on style.”

“What’s the difference?”

I have long thought of style as one of the canons of rhetoric, of course, but also, as one important writer has noted, the final elaboration of meaning. Style seems to be one of the last concerns–important–but it comes after invention, after ideas, audience, arrangement, and drafting have been put together and composed. It is not something to begin with.

But to read Strunk & White, it is the only concern. How should I write? I can “omit needless words.” But what about before that? Don’t writers usually go through multiple drafts to get to this point? Aren’t we concerned with this? How do I omit needless words when I don’t yet have any? Can I have a style when I am still putting together–that is, composing–what I have to say?

This is my main objection to this wonderful little book–the way it is used. I sometimes suspect people really like it because it is so little and makes something quite complex seem easy. I understand this. I see it on some desks next to those books about being a “minute manager” or Physics for Dummies, both books I should probably own.

I know there are other objections to Elements of Style. Some experts find that it is too one dimensional in its approach to its subject, which, again, is style.

But again, my concern is with composition. And that is not so easily simplified either.

Posted in Uncategorized| 6 Comments


Comment by Carla McGill on June 30, 2016 at 5:10 pm

I have used the book often as a resource, but I never tried using it as a main composition text. I was always fond of The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing, which covers so many different genres for student writing, and which has all the process-oriented writing suggestions. Sometimes it’s fun to browse books about style, and years ago when working in the Writing Lab at UCR, some of us discovered that so many of them offer contradictory information. Wishes for a great week, Thomas.

Comment by Tom on June 30, 2016 at 9:33 pm

Carla, you have some interesting experiences with this also. I’ve also noticed contradictions in different books on style when I was working in writing centers as a grad student. Of course, we are not talking about holy text here but approaches to teaching one aspect of writing. So I am okay with contradiction. I do think there’s an interesting interplay between our ideas and our style. I think the interplay begins with our ideas. Have a great week yourself.

Comment by Tim Riter on June 30, 2016 at 7:30 pm

Tom, I agree, to a certain extent, with some limitations. First, I see it, much like On Writing Well by Zinsser, as providing basic foundational truths about writing. Second, and this matches your take for composition classes, many teachers of writing encourage a free flow of ideas–get it all down and then start the paring process. I did that in the beginning, but after several books I discovered I could self-edit as I went along, and that style impacted how I developed the content. I understand this doesn’t work for all, but I don’t believe there is JUST one writing process.

Comment by Tom on June 30, 2016 at 9:37 pm

Thanks, Tim. I think we have some common ground here. I didn’t mean to set up an either/or here between style/process, but maybe that’s what I did. I was thinking that linguists might really take me to task on some of this. I do think that process is not just freewriting or being free-wheeling. And sometimes, an idea comes to me in a wonderfully concise phrase that I do little to improve on later. There isn’t just one process, but there are processes, depending on how clear we are about purpose, idea development, audience, and so forth.

Comment by John Sullivan on June 30, 2016 at 9:15 pm

I agree with you; style is important, but it is something that has to be dealt with later in the process. I also think it comes with awareness of the writer’s own voicevoice, and that takes both experience and sophistication as well as self confidence. I know UCR focuses on Rise’s Bedford Guide, but I also was one of her students and have adopted her and others view of a rhetorical approach that emphasizes interesting topics and arguments with modes used stylistically within paragraph development. That challenge of finding the writer’s self and her/his distinct voice requires not just self-narratives, but knowledge that moves from self to outside sources; the narratives and interpretive study that creates our research as writers. All this to say that style, as noted, comes later in the process and with real-world experience instead of some of the artificial situations some classes set up. Only then can students find their voice and develop a style that is both unique and appealing.

Comment by Tom on June 30, 2016 at 9:40 pm

John, I wish I’d had the same opportunity you had to study with Rise and learn about how she approaches that text. I used it at one time also, and I like it. Of course, the modes approach does just sort of solve the arrangement part of the puzzle for us and our students. Little inquiry need happen on that score. But that is something for students to push a bit more later. I think we would both not want to force students into editing too early in this process, though. Thanks, John. Hope you are well.

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