Here's something you don't see every day: two legal-writing teachers engaged in a war of (and over) words. The arena is Idealawg, which, a few days ago, ran an interview with George Gopen. In the interview, George suggested that most writing teachers are doing their jobs poorly:
Almost all the advice we got from our writing teachers is wrong.
"Avoid the passive." Wrong.
"To make it better, make it shorter." Wrong.
"Write the way you speak." Wrong.
"Vary the way you begin your sentences to keep your reader interested." Wrong.
"Always begin your paragraph with a topic sentence that states the issue and point of the paragraph." Wrong.
Even the advice in that delightful classic, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style,
cannot help you write better. "Avoid needless words"? How do you know
which are "needless"? Yes, it is comforting to know the distinctions
between "affect" and "effect," or "lay" and "lie"; but with those
potential errors out of the way, we still would not know how to "write."
One writing teacher, Wayne Schiess, apparently took George's remarks personally; he left a comment defending Strunk & White, avoidance of passive voice, and improvement through brevity. This prompted George to file a reply brief.
My own take on this: I have found Strunk & White, Plain English for Lawyers by Richard Wydick, and the things Wayne teaches helpful. I've also found helpful books by Bryan Garner, Ed Good, Mark Painter, John Trimble, William Zinsser, Patricia O'Conner, and Roy Peter Clark. I've read — and recommended — George Gopen's books. Read them all. Learn what you can from all of them. But don't think that any one of them will give you The Whole Truth. Whatever you think you know, there's always more to learn.