Discourse on the Style Manual Strunk and White

by Dr. Jasmin Bey Cowin

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In his style guide, Strunk discusses in detail the defining principles of composition and writing. His 11 Elementary Principles of Composition contain several noteworthy points. Among his recommendations are “to choose a suitable design and hold to it, make the paragraph the unit of composition, begin each paragraph with a strong topic sentence and thoughtful use of the active voice”. Essentially, writing with these elementary building blocks can be compared to creating a music composition. Paragraphs symbolize harmony, topic sentences depict the melody and the active voice represents the dynamics.
Paragraphs comprise the first unit, the body of the composition. After introducing the main idea at the beginning of a paragraph, three to five sentences follow and support the main idea within. A closing sentence finishes the paragraph and serves as the recapitulation of the main idea put forth. As harmonious building blocks of coherence, paragraphs aid the reader to follow the logical development of the composition.

Focused, clear, specific topic sentences state the main idea of the paragraph. A strong topic sentence serves as the ‘hook’, the ‘melody’ – an invitation to the reader to further explore the text. A topic sentence focuses on and highlights the main idea of the paragraph. The format of a topic sentence is topic + a controlling idea. The controlling idea shows the direction the paragraph will take. Example sentence: compelling writing of compositions requires certain characteristics. The topic is “effective writing of compositions” and the controlling idea is certain characteristics. To summarize, paragraphs are introduced by topic sentences which are comparable to a catchy tune.

The use of active voice generates positive impact, robust dynamics and an elegant flow of sentences and paragraphs. Active sentences contain an active subject. The subject is doing the action. A straightforward example is the following sentence, “The king loves the queen.” The king is the subject, and he is doing the action: he loves the queen, the object of the sentence. An active voice makes it clear who is doing what, it sings in forte or piano.

Strunk models the treatment of paragraphs, topic sentences, and the importance of active voice in writing direct and concise sentences as key in clear and logical writing. Without proper scaffolding and interlocking sequences, writing is prone to lose its focus and thrust.

In conclusion, actively voiced paragraphs and topic sentences are the basic foundations of engaging and thought-provoking writing just as musical compositions use the building blocks of harmony, melody and dynamics to create transcendent symphonies.

Author: drcowinj

Dr. Cowin is a visionary with executive and education experience who believes transformative leadership happens through cooperation plus collaboration resulting in personal and institutional transformation. Her values of integrity, ethics, innovation, empowerment of those less fortunate, diversity, and growth are encapsulated in her belief of “Service above Self.” She holds impeccable academic credentials as a Fulbright Scholar with two Masters Degrees and a Doctor of Education from Teachers College/Columbia University As the President of the Rotary Club of New York, Chief Marketing Officer of PeopleMovers® and former faculty, she brings over 25 five years of experience as an educator, tech innovator, entrepreneur and institutional leader in the areas of financial stewardship, governance, marketing, teaching and implementation of strategic partnerships. The principles of growth, differentiation, and adaptation guide her professional life. She believes in high ethical standards in her personal life and business, the recognition of the worthiness of all productive occupations, and the dignifying of each person's occupation as an opportunity to serve society. As a connector, she displays stamina, the ability to listen and reflect, diplomacy and a lifelong passion for education as the path to personal empowerment. Her extensive background in education, administration, not-for-profit leadership, entrepreneurial spirit, commitment to institutional success, technology innovation, and demonstrated ability to work with others provide her with unique skills and vertical networks locally and globally.

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