The Digital Strunk Project aims to instill some habits of clear writing by building on an existing style manual to reach students in their own language. Written first by William Strunk in 1918, later adapted and expanded by E. B. White in 1959, The Elements of Style has resonated for many years as a guide to clear writing. While it has become common in some circles to hold the manual up as a bad example, pointing to its inconsistencies and disagreeing with its principles, Strunk’s and White’s roles in instilling appreciation for clarity of expression have so permeated American culture that their names are synonymous with their work. For many, and for better or worse, “Strunk and White” means authority—the way to judge the rightness or wrongness of written communication.
While White deserves credit for augmenting, revising, and distributing The Elements of Style in its most well-known form, Strunk was its original author, sharing with students his list of rules for writing well. The later dual-authored version can be considered something like a spin-off or a fork, a branch of the original. In this spirit, and because the original is out of copyright, the Digital Strunk Project builds on Strunk’s 1918 edition, with students augmenting and revising—and with the internet distributing—a new fork as a sibling to White’s. And unlike White, who revised and rereleased his dual-authored The Elements of Style in four editions, we aren’t limited by the demands of a publisher. Networked distribution allows for countless versions to exist beside each another at once, with collaborative curators choosing among different explanations and with explanations circulating freely, improving with each revision.
When we meet new people, we form ideas of them based on a number of factors. When it comes to writing, a first impression is often the only impression. Without seeing a person’s clothes, gestures, hairstyle, age, gender, or ethnicity, his or her use of written language is the only evidence we have. John Fought tells us that “Language has always helped to signify who we are in society,” and we can see how that makes sense. English signals our connection to one of a number of countries in the world, American English connects us to others in the United States, regional vocabulary signifies our belonging to the place we call home, and dialect or slang signals our belonging to a particular social group. Fought’s truth is never clearer than when language is written down.
There is no one correct way to write, but there are a number of ways that traditionally signify error to readers steeped in an English tradition. Nobody wants his or her writing to be ignored simply because it neglects one or more of these traditions. A style manual cuts to the chase, helping writers avoid the most common pitfalls. A style manual compiled by students can, over time, adapt into something that can be most useful to students, helping them to move quickly away from rules of how to say so they can return focus where it belongs: what to say.
For now, this project is conservative, with the small aim of students translating Strunk into their own voices. In time, it will grow beyond Strunk to meet the needs students themselves identify as most relevant to writing in contemporary contexts.