The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
This book should be regular, required reading for everyone, whether you are a student, copywriter, civil servant, or car mechanic, or you Tweet or Facebook. The tips in this short book will improve written communication, and everyone can benefit from that.
Originally written by William Strunk Jr., then edited decades later by Strunk's former Cornell University student, Charlotte's Web author E.B. White, The Elements of Style is written (as it should be) in clear, concise English and says all it needs to in 85 pages.
Surely everyone can read an 85-page style book every year or two?
Not only should its length make it easy to pick up for a regular refresher, its light, matter-of-fact tone makes it an enjoyable book to read.
For those who dare to write clear, effective prose, here is why I recommend The Elements of Style:
I. His section on Elementary Rules of Usage covers writing basics that are prone to cause office arguments. Do we use the Oxford comma or not? How should we use dashes — properly and effectively? Is it Charles's friend or Charles' friend? (P.S.: "It's Charles's friend!")
One thing that makes this section difficult to understand at times is the authors' use of proper grammatical terms. I consider myself a grammarian (please be gentle when commenting and pointing out all the mistakes I've made in this post), but there are some terms, like "appositive" and "gerund," whose definitions I need to read over and over again to understand them. As native speakers of English, we don't always know what elements of our language are called. Thankfully, there's a glossary of terms for reference, although I did find myself heading to Google for further clarification.
II. Section 2, Elementary Principles of Composition, is where you learn to place words in the best order to make your point. This section covers everything from structuring sentences with the strongest words at the end, to omitting needless words (e.g. "The fact that" is never necessary in sentence), to keeping related words together (especially subject and verb).
III. Section 4, Words and Expressions Commonly Misused, was illuminating. If you read only one section, read this one. You will be aghast at the words you misuse regularly, but will be glad to have these errors corrected before you are haunted by the ghost of Strunk. This section is also one of the funniest. Strunk does not hide his judgment of bad language:
E.g. "Certainly - Used indiscriminately by some speakers much as others use very in an attempt to intensify any and every statement. A mannerism of this kind, bad in speech, is even worse in writing." Hilarious! Can you imagine the comments he wrote on his students' essays?
IV. The final section, An Approach to Style, is where the book falls short for writers training to become the next Dickens. The advice in the other sections can be immediately applied to your writing; if you follow it, you will notice immediate improvements. The last section attempts to help elevate your writing, to make it art, but of course, art cannot be learned in a book. However, you will enjoy doing a close reading of famous one-liners, trying to determine what makes the authored line more powerful than versions that communicate the same message, but without flair or staying-power.
E.g. These are the times that try men's souls. — Thomas Paine
How does the above sentence compare to
The answer: they do not compare. Paine got it right.
I like to remind myself that celebrated writers like Thomas Paine had to start somewhere. Perhaps he was born with a gift for syntax and perhaps you and I aren't, but at the very least, I believe clear, effective writing can be taught — and The Elements of Style will help you learn it.
Whether you're in a book club or you enjoy chatting over a cup of Earl Grey about the book on your bedside table, you've probably, at some point, read a book someone has recommended.
Maybe it was your high school English teacher forcing you to read a 1000-page Dickens classic, or your mom buying you a "7 Steps to a Highly Inspired Future" self help sizzler. Either way, most of us enjoy sharing our thoughts on books, and also enjoy hearing about a book someone else is reading.
That's why I think the English Department of the University of Victoria chose the best way to celebrate their 50-year anniversary: by asking 50 special friends of the department to share their favourite book on the "50 Special Books" website.
While I was a student of English Literature, first at Laurentian University in my undergrad, and later at UVic in the graduate program, the focus on writing, analyzing, and researching, not to mention reading multiple texts at the same time, sometimes overshadowed what drove me to study post-secondary English Literature in the first place: a love of reading.
The English Department's celebration of reading reminded me – and all in attendance at this evening's website launch – that we were all called to study English first and foremost because we love books.
I was truly honoured to have been selected to share with the Department – and the world – a book that has meant something special to me. I chose Canadian writer George Elliott Clarke's unique novel, Whylah Falls.
In the write-up I submitted to the 50 Special Books site, you can read at what time in my life I read the book and what one line in it means to me (“Numbers reveal truth. Words always have something to hide.”). But what you can't read is why I chose the book.
To the best of my remembrance, Whylah Falls is the first book I read by a black Canadian writer. I studied black American literature extensively in university, but never black Canadian. The book introduced me to an entire new culture in my country, a new community and experience. Many in the book are sad experiences, but many are joyful and full of love, family, and music.
The book remains to this day the most beautiful piece of writing I have ever held in my two hands. Clarke plays with words in a way I had never experienced. If you thought there couldn't possibly be any way for a writer to string together words in a new, never-seen order, give this book a try. You'll be amazed at what a bit of rearranging can do.
I hesitate when I call this book a novel. It's a series of poems, letters, songs, put together like a novel. The influence of music pervades every line he writes. You can practically hear how these words would be sung. Clarke makes you want to sing them, to put them to your own music. I've been lucky enough to hear him read from it. His voice and tone is such that he seems to be singing the words he utters. But he's not.
Whylah Falls made me want to play with words, that's why this book has meant so much to me. The book makes me want to arrange and rearrange words until I create a sentence that makes someone feel. Something. Anything. If in my life, I string together one sentence as musically and beautifully as Clarke, I will feel peace.
Now I've recommended this book to you, I hope you'll consider picking it up. If I haven't convinced you to read it, check out the other 49 Special Books other friends of the UVic English Department recommend. There is something for every taste and every age. Sure, there's Shakespeare and Austen and Kafka represented. But there's also C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and authors I've never heard of. You are bound to find something to keep you up late at night. I can't wait to work my way through them all, maybe over the next 50 years. I invite you to, too! Enjoy.
A few months ago, I blogged about my experience editing my first cookbook, a collection of recipes from the kitchen of the Crest Hotel, in honour of its 50th anniversary.
The cookbook is now available! I haven't seen the printed copy yet, but thankfully, I won't need to travel to Prince Rupert to pick it up; the book can be ordered online.
If you're looking for unique recipes, this cookbook has much to offer budding chefs, especially when it comes to preparing fish and seafood. The book also features a great selection of appetizers and desserts, sure to bring out the Julia Child in you.
This cookbook was a treat (ha ha) to work on!
I am pleased to announce that one of my stories has been published in a new book, The Beginner's Guide to Chick Night, written by my dear friend and award-winning writer, Colleen Kleven.
Six years ago, Colleen approached me about an idea she had for a book—a collection of stories celebrating the time women spend together and emphasizing how important it is to get out and enjoy life with friends, and specifically, your girl friends.
In the very early days of my writing career, I wrote a version of the my story "Up with Fun," which appears in the book. Thankfully, Colleen gave me the chance to edit it last year—the story benefited from a few more years of experience (both writing and personal)!
The book is now available in hard and soft covers on Amazon and Chapters or from the publisher, IUniverse, where an E-book is also available. The collection of inspiring stories speaks to the importance of friendship, having fun, and taking time for yourself. It offers insight into relationships; inspiration for rainy days; and a healthy dose of comedy to put life in perspective. Chick Night will make life better!
Since starting the book, Colleen has founded Chick Night International, devoted to inspiring women to get out and play with their girl friends, which she sees as an integral part of a healthy life. Chick Night is run in a monthly club format, much like Toastmasters—only it's dedicated to having fun, not public speaking. (Although—having fun increases self-confidence, which can ultimately lead to ease while public speaking... Interesting.) No doubt, Chick Night chapters will pop up all over the nation!
My sincerest congratulations to Colleen! What an accomplishment!
Now, enough reading my blog—go curl up with a copy of Chick Night and prepare to laugh, cry, and crave chocolate.
Jessica Woollard, freelance writer in beautiful Victoria, B.C.