Christopher Johnson’s new book, “Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little,” reviewed yesterday in the New York Times, is a “guide to verbal strategies that make very short messages effective, interesting, and memorable.” ‘Big Style,’ (a term the author uses that roughly equates to what my father calls ‘the grammar police’) confounds the set of necessary rules that allow readers to make sense of written language with an insecurity about prescriptive grammatical principles. Traditional style guides are mostly a set of guidelines about what not to do.
“Omit needless words,” the famous sentence in Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” immediately comes to mind. While this sentence is dear to my heart, it reads less like positive encouragement and more like a warning. “Omit needless words. This means you.”
The act of writing should be fun, not something we do in constant fear of screwing up. Our sentences should be celebrated, not left to the swift judgment of the grammar police (who, I find, seem to delight in pointing out other people’s split infinitives and wayward apostrophes when they inevitably commit the same grievous wrongs).
Facebook status updates, tweets, blogs, and emails are all examples of a kind of new writing that is short, to the point, and accessible. Their popularity is related to the simple fact that they are fun to do.
I am hopeful that our schools will use blogs, twitter, and facebook to engage the current generation of young people with reading and writing.