On Writing, Part Two
III: The Rules
To propose a list of rules for writers is probably a very presumptuous thing to do. The only authority it can possibly have is one’s own example, and so offering it to the world is something of a gamble. One has to assume that one’s own writing is impressive enough to most readers to provide one with the necessary credentials for the task. If one is wrong on this score, issuing those rules will invite only ridicule. I mean, for goodness’ sake, Steven Pinker (of all people) published a book on style. How can anyone take that seriously?
Not that being a good writer is a guarantee that one has any great gift for instructing others in the art. E.B. White was an absolutely splendid stylist; he produced a prose so limpid that he was able to fool even himself that it was a triumph of simple diction rather than of (as was actually the case) very subtle intricacy. But he was also the chief perpetrator of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, by far the most influential and most pernicious book of its kind in English: a total congeries of fatuous advice and grammatical ignorance. Similarly, George Orwell was a perfectly competent (if rather uninteresting) stylist; and yet his celebrated essay “Politics and the English Language,” which was intended as a rebuke of obscurantist jargon, endures now mostly as a manifesto of literary provincialism. Had either White or Orwell followed his own turgid counsels with any fidelity, neither would be nearly as fondly remembered as he is.
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