Living with Style

Living With Style (Rule Nine): Don't Be Breezy

"9. Do not affect a breezy manner."

("An Approach to Style," in The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White)

Pomposity and longwindedness is not limited to attorneys who employ an oxymoron like "brief" to describe a lengthy and sometimes verbose collection of words to make a few points.  That's what education can do for you.

And yet attorneys do often deserve that description.  Once, during a phone conversation with a fellow advocate, I fell asleep.  I awoke, some minutes later.  He was still rattling on and never missed me.

Writing, like speech, should never draw attention to self, should be as spare as necessary to convey the point.  E.B. White says it well: "The breezy style is often the work of the egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day."  Back then (1957), he was right in saying that "[t]he volume of writing is enormous, these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it. . . ."  So much written, so little said.  These days, with the advent of social networking, we might say the same about the largely empty bytes one reads.  What you just ate, watched, or clearly remarked is of doubtful interest.  Give me 140 characters I will remember.  How many can do that?

Scripture advises us to "let another praise us," another way of saying (as White does), that we write (and speak) well by "staying out of the act."  I'll add that when we are in the act, it must be when we become a particular for the universal, as when a friend tweeted "I am sitting in the dark by my window watching traffic pass," and it wasn't just her but me watching life go by while I sit in the darkness or quietness of a moment of sorrow, loss, or thought, wrapped in a cocoon while the world rushes by at its normal business .  My life stops, momentarily, and I see what has passed and imagine what will come.  Those are words worth spending, calm not breezy, full of humanity.

Avoid breezy people and prose.  Don't spend a precious word, spoken or written, unless it is is "to encourage one another and build one another up" (I Thess. 5:11).  After all, "[a] man finds joy in giving an apt reply --- and how good is a timely word!" (Prov. 15:23).

[The foregoing is a part of a little (as yet, unfinished) series based on E.B. White's "An Approach to Style," the fifth chapter of Strunk and White's classic work, The Elements of Style.  I found his guide to "style" relevant not only to writing but to life in general, as well as consistent, though not explicitly, with Scripture.  To read more in that series, go here.]



Living with Style (Rule 16): Be Clear

Babel I wouldn't nominate the Apostle Paul as the apostle of brevity, or even clarity. Romans is a longish book full of longish sentences, and the Apostle, while a masterful logistician, could have been clearer. He was, after all, human, and while his words were divinely superintended, he could not but be himself, a longwinded lawyer. Would that he had the brevity of old Chief Judge Murdock of the United States Tax Court. Confronted by a taxpayer who testified, "As God is my judge, I do not owe this tax," he simply said, "He's not. I am. You do." What he said is perfectly clear, if terse.

Once I took a week long writing class. Our first assignment was to write a two-page essay on "why I want to be a writer." I turned it in. The next assignment was to cut the two pages to one page while preserving its essence. I did. I turned it in. The next assignment was to cut the one page to one paragraph. I did that too, though at this point it was getting painful. Cherished phrases had to be abandoned, wonderful adjectives axed, pithy quips parlayed. I begin to wonder if the essence of what I had said was being preserved. Finally, the instructor asked us to distill the essence of why we want to be a writer to one sentence, like a twit before tweeter. It was not quite possible, of course, as it was like you telling me to describe why I am a Christian in one sentence. Something can be said, of course, but then there's the rest of the story. We got the point, though: Every word must have a reason to exist. We were to avoid unnecessary words. We were to be clear. Whatever the value of ambiguity (and there is a place for it), it does not help communication, being more suited to trying to capture the inexpressible, like poetry, like doctrine, like God.

Clarity is a better candidate for godliness than cleanliness. As Strunk and White point out in The Elements of Style, it's also a matter of life and death:

Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on a highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.

In a broader sense, Strunk and White's maxim to "be clear" means something like integrity, living in such a way that our words match our actions, that we are who we say we are and need say little about who we are because who we are is evident to all. A companion virtue is humility, as many words, whether my own or that of others, usually connote some attempt to justify, promote, or excuse myself. After all, "[w]hen words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise" (Prov. 10:19). (I often remind folks that a person who holds his tongue may in fact be a fool in most other respects, but at least he is a silent fool.) And finally, I think of focus, and I am reminded of the admonition to "fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" (Heb. 12:2). People of clarity know who they are and where they are going. That's style.

If God is my judge, I will be clear from now on.

He is. I'm not. By His grace, I will.

Living With Style (Rule Eight): Don’t Be a Qualifier


"Avoid the use of qualifiers." (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style)

Let me put it like this: I'm rather tired of this little series, and I'm pretty sure you may be also. While that sentence is meant to illustrate the rule, there is truth to it as well. I'm weary of even William Strunk's simple rules, of his "little" book, and yet just when my zeal is flagging, his vivid metaphors as well as wit and humor come to the rescue.

Try this for metaphor: "Rather, very, little, pretty --- these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words." Yeech! It's an effective way to convey his abhorrence for qualifiers. And he even manages to insert a bit of alliteration as well, with his "pond of prose." I'd stop reading his rules if they weren't such a delight to read. That's a mark of good writing: you so enjoy the prose that it matters not what the content may be.

Or try this for humor: "The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then." Strunk is having fun with us.

But I digress. The point of this helpful rule is that we should simply say what we mean and mean what we say. As the Bible says, "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." So qualifying our words is serious business!

Qualifiers are people who either lack confidence in what they are saying, lack the courage to stand on a "yes" or "no," or are always leaving themselves a path of retreat from any commitment --- whether from a position on an issue or a commitment to a dinner date. Some other option may present itself. Something better may come along. They may change positions because they sense the wind of opinion is against them. They don't want to be tied down. They don't want to disappoint. They are rather tiresome, aren't they, particularly when they are us.

Jesus was not a qualifier. "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matt. 4:8). "I am willing. Be clean," he said to the leper (Mk. 1:41). "Go in peace." "Come, follow me." "Take courage, don't be afraid." "Go, sell everything you have." "Are you so dull?" (Yes, we can be.) We can be confident that Jesus said exactly what he meant, that nothing he said was unqualified because he had no doubt of either its truth or appropriateness or any concern as to how it would be perceived. Politicians take heed!

So the next time you hear me say a qualifying word, have a little word with me, OK? A simple "Yes" or 'No' should do.

Living With Style (Rules Six & Seven): Be Modest


"Do not overwrite. Do not overstate." (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style)

I don't know why, but some people are just given to excess. I have a good friend who used to have many opportunities to introduce me before I spoke to a group I was training. He'd say things like "Steve is the paramount authority in the nation on such and such," going on and on about my eminent qualifications. Of course, I wasn't anything of the sort. And yet he couldn't be stopped. He either believed it to be true or so much wanted it to be true that it became true for him. That's one kind of excess: exaggeration.

Make modest claims, and then you can be surprised. Don't think more highly of yourself than you ought, said Paul, "but in humility consider others better than yourself" (Phil. 2:3). Hyperbolic people are tiresome, because everything is "huge," "awesome," and "phenomenal." Such behavior undercuts credibility. Verbosity breeds contempt. As Stunk says, "Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating." As with prose, so with people.

A proverb says "a word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver," (Pr. 25:11), and yet we can be prone to overspeak, as fascinated as we can be with ourselves. Strunk says "a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for the reader, the object of the writer's enthusiasm," and, we would say, the speaker's credibility and welcome as well.

Be modest. Avoid an overwrought speech or walk. Then you (or better yet, God through you) might surprise someone.


Living with Style (Rule Five): Be Open to Change


"Revise and rewrite." (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

If you think your life is going well, that while you may not be perfect you may be "practically perfect," as Mary Poppins said, think again. We are not a finished manuscript. The story of our life is being constantly revised and even rewritten, thank God, an often painful process but one in good hands and for good purpose.

Writers know all about this pain, and Strunk and White are right on mark in saying that "it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery." In a time before word processors, they used more vivid imagery to convey the seriousness of what had to be done: "Do not be afraid to seize what has been written and cut it to ribbons. . . . [S]cissors should be brought into play." Ouch! Sometimes, the writer is even taken back to one good page, one good paragraph, or one good sentence, cutting away everything that he worked so hard for, had invested so much in. And yet it's not wasted work. Sometimes a writer has to set out on a path, committing himself to a particular story or theme, before he can discover the better path.

Jeremiah reports the Lord as saying "See, I will refine and test them, for what else can I do because of the sin of my people?" (Jer. 9:7). Just as a writer must bring judgment on his writing, cutting away what is dross, so God brings a refining judgment on His people. Sometimes the change is incremental, some specific sin, for example, that besets us. But sometimes, as with the Apostle Paul, we realize that we have spent our whole life serving a God of our on construct and, thus, God reveals how deeply flawed we are and gives us a new place to start from.

A friend of mine recently shared with me how as a teenager he had an image as a Christian youth leader, one he knew was false but one he also tired to carefully maintain. When God revealed his hypocrisy, it was difficult for him to confess it publically, because it meant starting over, confessing that what he had seemed to be was not what he actually was. But he did. He's never regretted that, and his holding on to that image seems ridiculous now, like insisting on writing pulp fiction when you could write a story like "To Kill a Mockingbird." Like him, I have to let go everyday of what I think I am and be open to God's reordering and rewriting of my life.

For Christians, revising and rewriting is really just being open to God's conviction and then responding, being willing to set aside our image of ourselves, our own constructs, and be open to change, even serious change. "Scissors should be brought into play," say Strunk and White. The scissors may cut, but the comfort is that what's given back to us is so much better than what we so tenaciously held on to. He is, after all, the Author of Life. He writes the best stories.


Living with Style (Rule Four): Have Substance

style “Write with nouns and verbs.” (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

Admittedly, this is one rule I had to think about before making a broader application of it to life in general. Times like this make me wonder if I’m stretching the analogy. But I don’t think so. A good life is surely like good writing, and so why shouldn’t every rule of writing apply?

Good writing is rooted in the particulars of place and time. Nouns and verbs, and not airy adjectives, are what “give to good writing its toughness and color.” Similarly, we all know when we are speaking to someone who has many words, even some that sound quite impressive, but which mean absolutely nothing because they are not rooted in more substantial particulars. You can fill my head with what you plan to do, your ideals, and so on, but until you actually tell me exactly what you will do and when you will do it and how you will do it, it’s fluff, mere prefatory language that leaves me shaking my head and wondering “what was that all about?” Say what you will, but “[t]he adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.” Nor can grand promises and expressions of hope pull a noncommittal person out of a tight spot.

Having worked in the music business at one time, I know all about this. Label A&R reps are adept at stroking the client, flattering egos hungry for praise, loving every idea, hopeful about all things, sure that this record will launch a career, only to fail to deliver. When they tire of talking, they simply stop returning your call. Many a day I would have preferred being told “We don’t like the record, and we don’t want to sell it.” The Bible does say, after all, to “let your yes be yes and your no be no. . .” (Mt. 5:37a). The simple truth, nouns and verbs, is so much clearer, so much tougher, than all the wasted adjectives.

Sometime, listen to children speak. They use nouns and verbs. They speak plainly. They may offend by their frankness, but they offend plainly, not subtlety. Strunk once said “if you’re going to be obscure, be obscure clearly.”  Similarly, he might have said, “if you are going to offend, offend clearly.” Have substance, in other words. Say what you mean. Make it concrete.

In its often spare sentences, Scripture is a reminder that plain speak is commended.  “Come, follow me.” “Take, eat.”  “Feed my lambs.”  Even, “Come and have breakfast.”  Jesus himself spoke directly and simply, most often with strong nouns and verbs.  When you know who you are and what you are about, your conversation is not cluttered with needless adjectives, endless qualifications.  Would that politicians would learn such directness!

The bottom line:  Have substance.  Speak plainly and directly.  Qualify only when necessary.

Living with Style (Rule Three): Aim for Something


"Work from a suitable design." (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

There are people who plan and others who don't. In the most endearing of times, we call the latter "free spirits;" in their most frustrating times, "irresponsible." A suitable design for life is not so much whether to plan or not to plan, however, as whether there is a specific vision that animates our day. The abundant life requires that we aim for something worthy of aspiration, that we envision an end. Slavish adherence to a set of rules or principles is deadening and inflexible and makes us difficult to live with because we are moribund legalists. In contrast, living in the moment and doing as we please, however, is rank antinomianism and gets us nowhere fast --- a slave to our passions of the moment. A suitable design, or vision, keeps us pointed in the right direction and yet malleable in regard to means. We are free within bounds, more free, really, than the free-spirit.

Strunk informs writers that "[d]esign informs even the simplest structure, whether of brick and steel or of prose." By extension, we might say that no one really lives without design, without an underlying presuppositional structure for their life, though the design may be subconsciously adhered to, a body of assumptions about life's purpose that have taken root experientially and unnoticed. Both the carpenter and accountant live out of a design. Yet while the design may be subconscious, the point is not that it should be a detailed regimen. Strunk again: "This does not mean that you must sit with a blueprint always in front of you, merely that you had best anticipate what you are getting into. To compose a laundry list, a writer can work directly from the pile of soiled garments, ticking them off one by one. But to write a biography the writer will need at least a rough scheme; he cannot plunge in blindly and start ticking off fact after fact about his man, lest he miss the forest for the trees and there be no end to his labors." I feel that way sometimes. At the end of the day there have been no end to my labors, and yet all I have to look back on is a list of ticked off items with no sense of the larger design they fit into.

Suitable design acknowledges the moving of the Spirit. Take the Apostle Paul, for example. His overriding design or vision was to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles (Rom. 15:15-16, NIV), and yet while he planned certain things he was often led by circumstances to change his plan. He advises the saints in Rome "that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now). . . (Rom. 1:13, NIV). One imagines that the logical, methodical mind of Paul would be frustrated at plans gone awry, and yet his larger vision was intact: he preached the Gospel wherever he was to whomever would listen.

In the end, unlike the mere task of writing, Christians acknowledge a design and Designer behind their own temporal designs, a Story behind our stories. Our designs are imitative of a greater design. We have the assurance that even our detours, even the frustrating rabbit-trails we find ourselves on all lead back to the main road, the road Home, and that a good and perfect Author has us in hand.

C.S. Lewis said "Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither." What is it that you are aiming at? Do you have a suitable design? Strunk says that "even the kind of writing [or, life] that is essentially adventurous and impetuous will on examination be found to have a secret plan: Columbus didn't just sail, he sailed west, and the New World took shape from this simple and, we now think, sensible design." So what direction will you sail?


Living With Style (Rule Two): Act Naturally

Style_3"Write in a way that comes naturally." (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

To be yourself must be one of the most often said maxims and most difficult to enact principle of all. "All you gotta do is act naturally," sang Beatle Ringo Starr in 1965, and I'm sure it was taken to heart by the Beat generation, but what after all is it to act naturally? It's sometimes difficult to discern who you are when so much of your life is spent in imitation of others. And yet there is something appealing about being comfortable in your own skin, about being uniquely who you are.

Writers struggle with trying to find their own "voice," to sound like themselves and not someone else. Christians struggle with not imitating the world, with being who God intended them to be and no one else. As Paul tells Gaius, "do not imitate what is evil but what is good" (3 John 11). But neither the call to imitation nor the many others admonitions in Scripture to a holy lifestyle conflict with being who we are, with being unique individuals before God.

Strunk reminds writers that "[t]he use of language begins with imitation," reminding us that the imitative life, which begins in childhood, continues long after, because it is almost impossible not to imitate what one admires. And yet the right kind of imitation is a key to being yourself. Strunk again: "Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains to admire what is good. Then when you write in a way that comes naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating."

Brother Lawrence, the poor monk in charge of sandals, the self-described "great awkward fellow who broke everything," practiced God's presence by continually conversing with Him.  I have no doubt that the man was comfortable in his skin, that he acted naturally.  The monk practiced the presence of God by, as he put it, "keeping the soul's gaze fixed on God in faith --- calmly, humbly and lovingly, without allowing an entrance to anxious cares and disquietude."  He would not quit the conversation.  He habitually looked to God.  He didn't say it was easy but, rather, was a habit formed by trying and failing, trying and failing.  He wasn't at all into imitation, but was focused on God.

Maybe Luther had it right when he summarized our duty as to "love God and do as you please." Or we might rephrase it as "love God and act naturally." If we focus on God, if we practice His presence, we will be on the way to being ourselves, the selves that God created us to be. There's nothing wrong with learning from the lives of other Christians, of seeing the habits of holiness in their life and being inspired to holiness in your own life, just as young writers learn the styles of great writers before they develop their own voice. That unique voice or life is, in the end, a product of many imitations, until unconsciously it becomes the unique person we are. The ironic conclusion is that you don't become yourself or become natural by trying. Rather, aim at God and find yourself. Then your life will "echo the halloos that bear repeating."

Living With Style (Rule One): Lose Yourself

Style_2“Place yourself in the background.” (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

One of the books on my bookshelf at work and at home is the revised edition of Cornell professor William Strunk’s “little book” of grammar and style, as later revised by his student, E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web and a regular essayist in the Saturday Post before his death. I’ve written about Strunk and White before, but suffice it to say I’m a devotee and read The Elements of Style devotionally. That is, I often pick it up and read a page to encourage a greater devotion to the English language, to grammar, syntax, and style, to, above all, economy of words. Only today, however, I realized that Strunk and White’s maxims on style in written expression are also excellent provocations for living “peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:2), for, if you will, living with style.

How can we not see these maxims as guides for Christian living? I have no idea what, if any, religious persuasion Strunk or White had, but I have to smile at the most assuredly unintended second meanings that their “reminders” of style have, of how they connote a far greater mystery than they imagined. Their “mystery story, thinly disguised,” is more mysterious and fulsome than they could have imagined.

“Place yourself in the background,” they say right off. And here I could quote chapter and verse of all of what they briefly say, but won’t. Suffice it to say that “the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none --- that is, place yourself in the background.” What they mean is that good writers should focus on “sense and substance,” not their own “mood and temper.” When you focus your energy on the task at hand, proficiency in the use of language, the “mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed.” Get out of the way. Stop worrying how you will appear, or how you will sound, or what impact you will have. Stop trying to find yourself and simply pay attention to the task at hand, to writing well, and who you are will emerge. Lose yourself.  Paradoxically, you don’t find yourself by focusing on yourself.

Good writers of fiction learn the craft. They serve the characters that beg to be written. They write not to sell books or impress people but because it is what they want to write, feel called to write, or must write. Good writers love the word.

The Apostle with the argumentative style of a lawyer said that we were to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but [must] in humility consider others better than [ourselves]” (Phil. 4:3). He said we were to “conduct [ourselves] in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27), not worthy of the opinions of others. We are commended to live in Christ, to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13). It’s a life lived coram deo, not coram mano, a life lived out before God and not before others. In fact, the only work I have to do is that of continually resting on the finished work Christ has done for me. If I do that, everything else follows. But if I try to do everything else for everyone else, I will not get there. The “mood and temperament” that is revealed will not be my own as shaped by Christ but that of others shaped in me. Thus, one of the mysteries of style is not focusing on style at all but on that which brings style. For writers, that’s word and craft --- the work of writing well. For Christians, that’s Word and craft --- the work of resting on Christ, of living out of an identity shaped by the Word who always accomplishes His work in us.

It’s not easy. Strunk said that “[w]riting is, for the most part, laborious and slow.” And so is the Christian life. It requires that we “cultivate patience,” that we wait for God who wills and works in us. Place yourself in the background. Lose yourself. Live with style.

[By the way, I highly recommend the beautifully illustrated hardback edition of Strunk and White’s classic.  Check out the book and the video preview by its illustrator here.]