The bible of writing

7 10 2010

It’s not a stretch to call The Elements of Style the bible of writing.

Published in 1919 by Cornell University English professor William Strunk Jr. and revised by famous writer and one-time student of Strunk’s, E.B. White, in 1959, the “little book” remains a trusted companion for anyone who writes for a living.

Heck, if you write anything at all, you should own a copy.

According to Strunk,The Elements of Style is dedicated to the idea of making “every word tell.”

In the book’s intro, he explains:

“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 the sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Certainly, a good portion of the 105-page book is about not overwriting, which is the No. 1 mistake people make. Strunk calls it cutting the “deadwood” out of your sentences. But there are so many useful tips on so many facets of writing that it’s impossible to sum it up in a paragraph.

Add to that the fact that it is written with a unique tone, wit and charm, and it’s no wonder that it is the only writing manual to ever appear on the bestseller lists.

Here are five tips from the “little book” that will make anyone, professional or not, a better writer:

1. Use the active voice

The active voice is usually more direct and attractive to readers than the passive.

* There were a lot of dead leaves lying on the ground.
* Dead leaves covered the ground.

When a sentence is made stronger through the active voice, it usually becomes shorter. That helps with that old overwriting problem.

2. Make the paragraph the unit of composition

The paragraph is a convenient unit; it serves all forms of writing. As long as it holds together, a paragraph may be of any length — a single, short sentence or a long passage.

Moderation and a sense of order should be the main considerations in paragraphing. You are trying to help the reader understand what is going on by bunching your sentences logically. The beginning of each paragraph is a signal that a new step in the development of the story has been reached. As a rule, begin each paragraph either with a sentence that suggests the topic or with a sentence that helps the transition.

3. Importantly

Avoid using this word by rephrasing.

* More importantly, he paid for the damages.
* What’s more, he paid for the damages.

* With the breeze freshening, he altered course to pass inside the island. More importantly, as things turned out, he tucked in a reef.
* With the breeze freshening, he altered course to pass inside the island. More important, as things turned out, he tucked in a reef.

4. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long summary

A dash is a mark of separation that is stronger than a comma.

* His first thought on getting out of bed — if he had any thought at all — was to get back in again.

* The rear axle began to make a noise — a grinding, chattering, teeth-gritting rasp.

5. It’s or its

A common error is to write it’s for its, or vice versa. The first is a contraction, meaning “it is.” The second is a possessive.

* It’s a wise dog that scratches its own fleas.

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2 responses

8 10 2010
Paul Salsini

it’s so good, in this age of gimmickry, to find someone who cares about the good, simple basics of good writing. How are we ever going to communicate with one another if we can’t talk in the language we all understand? And right now, there’s far too much shouting and not enough listening. So if we just settled down, wrote well and simply, maybe we could get along better with one another. OK, that’s rather profound and I didn’t mean it that way. But I want to thank Alex for writing this.

11 10 2010
Alex Mitchell

I appreciate your thoughts, Paul. Thankfully, the lessons in “Strunk and White” seem to be timeless.

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