5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways from THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
The Elements of Style is the ultimate writer’s bible, reference guide, map, and harsh kick in the rear. Though small, this book contains 11 elementary rules of usage, 11 elementary principles of composition, and 21 ways to approach your writing style. William Strunk Jr., the analytical voice of precision, picks apart the particulars in an effort to aid the reader. E.B. White, the play-it-by-ear voice of practical application, adds modern flair and supports Strunk’s efforts to promote clarity.
The Strunk and White duo will refresh your knowledge of writing principles and practice and guide you to discover your writing style.
Without further ado, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White will address your writing questions (all answers are from The Elements of Style). Although I’m sharing many of my favorite quotes and advice from their book in a question and answer format, I recommend reading the entire book to learn the particulars of each rule and analyze the examples listed.
It seems that writing clearly and concisely is a theme throughout your book. How can writers improve their ability to write this way?
“Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract…The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures. It is not that every details is given—that would be impossible, as well as to no purpose—but that all the significant details are given, and with such accuracy and vigor that readers, in imagination, can project themselves onto the scene.”
“Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell…When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.”
“Keep related words together. The position of the words in a sentence is the principal means of showing their relationship. Confusion and ambiguity result when words are badly placed. The writer must, therefore, bring together the words and groups of words that are related in thought and keep apart those that are not so related.”
What are some other strategies that writers can use to strengthen their prose?
In “most cases, planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape...the more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success.”
Then, “make the paragraph the unit of composition…The object of treating each topic in a paragraph by itself is, of course, to aid the reader. The beginning of each paragraph is a signal that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached…the opening sentence simply indicates by its subject the direction the paragraph is to take.”
“Use the active voice [because it is] usually more direct and vigorous than the passive…Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.”
“Express coordinate ideas in similar form. This principle, that of parallel construction, requires that expressions similar in content and function be outwardly similar. The likeness of form enables the reader to recognize more readily the likeness of content and function.”
“Keep to one tense…Shifting from one tense to another gives the appearance of uncertainty and irresolution.”
“Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end…The principle that the proper place for what is to be made most prominent is the end applies equally to the words of a sentence, to the sentences of a paragraph, and to the paragraphs of a composition.”
“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”
How do you define writing style, and why is it important?
“Here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of word, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are high mysteries…there is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to writer clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course. Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”
“With some writers, style not only reveals the spirit of the man but reveals his identity, as surely as would his fingerprints…A writer, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication…it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.”
“A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts…”
How can writers discover or develop their own style?
“Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is nondetachable, unfilterable. The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style—all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”
“Place yourself in the background. Write in a way that draws the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work...”
“Write in a way that comes naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to hand. But do not assume that because you have acted naturally your product is without flaw.”
“Revise and rewrite. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try. Above all, do not be afraid to experiment with what you have written...Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.”
“The use of language begins with imitation…Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains instead to admire what is good.”
Every rule and principle from your book seems to be grounded in readers’ needs. How can writers learn to allow the reader to guide their writing?
“It is now necessary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the readers plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the readers’ wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the trend machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.”
Time for a quick self test: How many of Strunk and White’s “Elementary Rules of Usage” do you know and use correctly?
1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s (even when the noun ends in an s).
2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.
red, white, and blue
3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.
The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.
4. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.
The early records of the city have disappeared, and the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.
5. Do no join independent clauses with a comma. Use either a semicolon or a period.
Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining; they are full of engaging ideas.
Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining; they are full of engaging ideas.
Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining. They are full of engaging ideas.
6. Do not break sentences in two. (Do not use periods where commas should go.)
I met them on a Cunard liner many years ago. Coming home from Liverpool to New York.
7. Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.
Your dedicated whittler requires: a knife, a piece of wood, and a back porch.
Your dedicated whittler requires three props: a knife, a piece of wood, and a back porch.
8. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.
His first thought on getting out of bed—if he had any thought at all—was to get back in again.
9. The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.
The bittersweet flavor of youth—its trials, its joys, its adventure, its challenges—are not soon forgotten.
The bittersweet flavor of youth—its trials, its joys, its adventure, its challenges—is not soon forgotten.
10. Use the proper case of pronoun.
The culprit, it turned out, was he.
The ranger offered Shirley and him some advice on campsites.
Virgil Soames is the candidate who we think will win. [We think he will win.]
Virgil Soames is the candidate whom we hope to elect [We hope to elect him.]
11. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.
Young and inexperienced the task seemed easy to me.
Young and inexperienced, I though the task easy.
Whew, how did you do? I probably need to revise some of my stories…
My 5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways are:
Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract. Use the active voice to communicate as directly and vigorously as possible.
Omit needless words. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.
Place yourself in the background. Write in a way that draws the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.
Style is an expression of self. Don’t worry too much about it. As you practice, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge.
Your first priority is to please and satisfy yourself.
I challenge you to choose one of these five principles and apply them to your writing today. Comment below with any resulting epiphanies or challenges.
Keep freeing the writer,