Writing books reviewed - The Elements of Style

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 someterms, 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

  • Times like these try men's souls.
  • How trying it is to live in these times!
  • These are trying times for men's souls.
  • Soulwise, these are trying times?

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.

Caribou Creative