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The writing life  

Did "Elements of Style" inspire you?

© iStockphoto.com/Viorika Prikhodko

© iStockphoto.com/Viorika Prikhodko

If so, you weren't the only one. That brief guide to Good English won the most mentions when Mike Feinsilber asked 21 journalists to name the books "that drew them into the business." The rest of the list is heavy on the usual suspects — journo-whodunits like All The President's Men, political narratives like The Making of the President 1960 and The Boys on the Bus, and a few wild cards, like Tom Wolfe's collection The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

My writing was certainly influenced by ... Let me restate that: The Elements of Style certainly influenced my writing, but it was a memoir by NBC anchor John Chancellor, and a book on English by TV newsguy Edwin Newman that actually diverted me from completing The Great American Novel and into journalism.

Chancellor's memoir came back to mind year's later. He included an anecdote about reporters sometimes stealing the mic out of a payphone so that only they would be able to use it when the time came to phone in a breaking story. In 1990, As a UPI correspondent, I was one of a tiny pool of foreign press admitted to the Cambodian peace talks in Tokyo. When an agreement was reached, I dashed for the phone to file ... only to find it was broken. This being an Imperial palace, there wasn't another pay phone for at least a mile. When I finally placed the call, the editors had to wait several beats between each word while I panted for breath. By the time I was done, the AP story was all over the wires. Someone there must have read the same damn book!

The Elements of Style is elegant and helpful for Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots. I keep my disintegrating copy near.

But as a teenager, it was Edwin Newman's Strictly Speaking that made me double over with laughter about language (re politics, news, theatre, travel, and journalism). Who could resist a world of thinking and laughing because of words?