Elements of Inspiration

I recently had a long conversation with our copywriter Joshua about a book we have on the shelves at the Inspiration Factory. The work in question is The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, and I strongly suspect that many of our business partners and clients will have a copy somewhere on their shelves too.

Elements is, as the name suggests, a style guide. It’s probably the most famous style guide for writing there is, and as such is much quoted and debated by copywriters. It’s more than 50 years old now and is on at least its fourth edition.

Joshua was complaining (he does that a lot) about people’s rigid adherence to the advice of Elements. With most copywriting words are at a premium, and so it makes sense to have some guidelines. Copywriting is – to a certain extent – measurable in a way that other writing isn’t. You can judge if something is good copy by how successful it is at achieving its aims. It could be increased clickthrough or sales, or how many people sign up to content, but most copy is written with an expressed purpose: we want more of this, or we want less of that.

Creative writing is less rigid, and this was where Joshua’s complaints lay. Sometimes rules can be constricting, and simply mentioning them in every situation does not provide good criticism.

One of Strunk and White’s gems of wisdom is to use adverbs sparingly, and this was what had got Joshua’s goat. He does have a tendency to be wordy and I think he was just sick of hearing the same piece of advice over and over. “I want to know,” he said, “whether the adverbs are correct and useful or not. Why should I have to take them all out just to satisfy some old advice? What’s the point in having these words if we aren’t allowed to use them?”

I think some of his complaints were tongue in cheek: Joshua knows how important it is to be clear and quick in your writing. I’ve also seen him with his nose stuck in Elements, so I know he doesn’t dismiss it entirely. It was people’s unthinking attachment to the rules that had annoyed him, and their tendency to use it to show they were correct without really thinking about it. He sent me this article a little later:

http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

The author seems even more irritated than Joshua! He makes some good points (I’ll admit to being terrible with grammar so there were lots of things I’d never noticed or didn’t even understand), but I think in some cases he missed the point.

Firstly, Elements is a style guide, and although Strunk and White speak with authority they can hardly be blamed if people slavishly follow their every word. Secondly they were advising beginners, not people with a sublime grasp of grammar and language. If, like the writer of the article above, you were a master of the English language in all its mystery, why would you need a style guide in the first place?

This follow up article says it all very well:

http://blog.thisyoungeconomist.com/2009/06/elements-of-style-50-years-of-bad.html

I think the point – from both articles, as it turns out – is to think carefully about following ‘the rules.’ Why are they in place, when were they designed, and by whom? The latter article points out that knowing the rules well is essential if you want to bend them effectively. But knowing the rules – or at least researching them well – is also essential if you want to change them.

It’s easy to let things get entrenched in business culture. It’s all very well to read about innovation or being direct or constant evaluation but to actually do it is another thing. For the most part, people are just too busy. There’s work to be done, and no time to constantly question the method. Rules are often an attempt to streamline things. A ‘style guide’ is really a time-saving tool. You want to write well, but you don’t want to agonise over every choice. If you follow the examples of Elements you don’t have to (for better or worse – but at least it’s quicker). And once you’ve laid down some ground rules that make sense you can become a bit more sophisticated.

That’s really what Inspire – and by extension, all business training – is for. We have an opportunity to look objectively at the rules and conventions of a business and say: do these work? If not, why not, and can they be improved? Are there better ones we could suggest?

Because that’s our only objective, we can devote all our energy to it. That’s one of the main reasons why trainers are necessary and effective – we can do things that businesses simply don’t have the time and resources to do.

I quite like thinking of Inspire as a ‘style guide’ for other companies. Maybe that’s a bit immodest, and I’m certainly not saying that people ought to follow out suggestions to the letter! But something like the Effortless Inbox sessions that we ran recently could be compared to Elements – we thought about some major problems that needed addressing and came up with a style that we thought could be applied in most cases. Obviously it won’t be an exact fit for everybody and those who have their own sophisticated methods will be less likely to need it, but that’s a lot like a real-life style guide.

I think Strunk and White must have made some good points to have their book last so long, and be read and used by so many. Perhaps in time attitudes will change and their way of writing will be seen as outdated, but for now I think it still deserves most of its acclaim. Hopefully our training sessions have a similar effect!

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