Strunk & White & Style

Recently I was trying to determine whether any of the words should be capitalized in the phrase “First World War”. (In case you are interested, yes. Also capitalize the “W”s in WWI and World War I.) I went to the first place I always go when trying to determine the answer to a question like this – Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. 

Let me start by saying, if you don’t have a copy of this book at your desk (and a couple of other handy references related to grammar and style), then don’t even start to talk to me about the struggles you have with writing. If you don’t even care enough to get the basics right, why would you expect the overall report to be any good? Okay. That’s enough on that subject.
It didn’t have the answer I was looking for. (This wonderful book doesn’t always have everything, but it is always a great place to start.) However, while glancing through the Table of Contents, for the first time (and, believe me, I refer to this book a lot) I really noticed the fifth section: “An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders).” The list of reminders, even without the underlying text, speaks volumes about the keys to good writing.
 
1.       Place yourself in the background
2.       Write in a way that comes naturally
3.       Work from a suitable design
4.       Write with nouns and verbs
5.       Revise and rewrite
6.       Do not overwrite
7.       Do not overstate
8.       Avoid the use of qualifiers
9.       Do not affect a breezy manner
10.   Use orthodox spelling
11.   Do not explain too much
12.   Do not construct awkward adverbs
13.   Make sure the reader knows who is speaking
14.   Avoid fancy words
15.   Do not use dialect unless your ear is good
16.   Be clear
17.   Do not inject opinion
18.   Use figures of speech sparingly
19.   Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity
20.   Avoid foreign languages
21.   Prefer the standard to the offbeat
 
Now, some of these have obvious implication to writing in an internal auditor environment. Concepts such as “Revise and rewrite” and “Avoid the use of qualifiers” and “Be clear” are generally accepted practices. That does not mean we shouldn’t be reminded of them – constantly. (And I will accept no cracks here about people who write blogs.)
 
However, less obvious ones deserve thought also. “Use figures of speech sparingly” is a great reminder to avoid audit jargon. “Do not use dialect unless your ear is good” is also a reminder that we are not part of the auditees’ department and we should not write as if we have a greater familiarity with the subject than we actually have.
 
Twenty-one excellent points, all of which can make internal auditors’ reports that much better. Take them all; take one a day; review a few every once in a while. But get a copy of Strunk & White’s, keep it at your desk, and refer to it both as a reference and as a reminder.

Posted on Nov 17, 2011 by Mike Jacka

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