It’s easy to get caught up in the particulars of terminology, syntax and style when composing academic works (or less formal messages) at the cost of the overall power and meaning. I think we’ve all sent a text message that started off as a straightforward idea but was tweaked beyond recognition and meaning, prompting an indignant “??” in reply.

Lately, I felt like my own writing had become muddled, and I like finding concrete rules to either follow or defy in grey areas such as these. Thus, I retrieved a copy of “The Elements of Style” from the lovingly ordered shelves of Main Stacks to see what a historically respected style guide had to say about retaining purpose throughout the development of a work.

William Strunk Jr. outlines what he sees as the “Elementary Principles of Composition” in his second chapter. The first rule is “Choose a suitable design and hold to it.” One of the most important parts of any sort of composition is the design from the outset. (This can, paradoxically, be no design, as Strunk notes for a love letter or a casual essay.)

It is important to recognize that any piece of writing represents a choice not only of what to say but how to say it and is a representation of meaning through the medium of text. The organization of your paper into paragraphs or the pacing of ideas can have as much of an effect as the particular words you choose.

When we write a paper or a text message, we can forget that we are not transmitting an idea straight from our own mind to our professor or our friend. That idea is flattened into the words we physically send. Those words have to be reinflated by anyone viewing them, based on limited information. If we don’t recognize that there is a medium through which we are transmitting, we have a lower chance at accurately conveying ideas.

Contact Patrick Tehaney at [email protected].