Thursday, April 16, 2009

The 'Elements' of the Business

As Public Radio pointed out in a brief feature this a.m. on the 50th anniversary of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (buy it here), the book is the closest thing journalism--or any kind of writing for that matter--has to a Koran*.

It has helped teach a couple of generations of us to write simply, directly and with at least some sense of style. Frankly, I had no idea Elements was as new as 50. My first mentor, Al Genemonte, gave me his worn copy in 1964 during my first week in the newspaper business (I couldn't even type at that point and had come in off the street looking for a door to the kingdom, something that simply isn't done these days).

I read and typed and typed and read. Often I typed Elements just for the exercise. After about three months on the job, I was given the keys to what I thought was paradise--the sports department--and told to put out the paper while the full-timers did other things (I never knew quite what, but I dared not ask lest they take back the responsibility). I was 18 years old and putting out a daily sports section for the Asheville Citizen by myself with only Mssrs. Stunk and White to guide me on most nights. "Putting out" the paper meant layout of local and AP copy, headline and caption writing, writing briefs and call-ins and overseeing the composing room making up the pages (you have no idea how ridiculous I felt telling veteran composing room guys, often three times my age, how to lay out a page).

In any case, The Elements of Style made an impression on and with me and I have presented many a copy to youngsters over the years. Maybe I should have bought stock.

* I use "Koran" here instead of the traditional "Bible" in order to piss off the right-wing xenophobes. Heh, heh, heh ...

(The following from Scott Martin of Franklin County: "Fresh out of college I hit the job market. I was fortunate to land a non-paying gig with the Boise Parks & Rec Department. I thought I was the man. I thought I knew how to write. I was wrong. I completely my first earth-shattering piece of public policy that I thought was going to help change the city and bring order to chaos (I think it was a review of softball tournaments or something like that). At the time, this was heady work. My report was to go straight to the Director and the Mayor. I toiled over it for weeks. When I was certain that it was perfect, I delivered it proudly to the Parks & Rec Director. The Director was/is a brilliant writer and he did not appreciate my writing style. He handed me a copy of Elements and directed me to a corner to commence reading. I haven’t put it down since.")

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