The Elements of Style

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The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White changed my life.

In 1919, E.B. White was a student in William Strunk Jr's Cornell English class. The course textbook - written by Strunk a year earlier - impressed White enough that he decided to revise and expand it 40 years later.

While Strunk's version focused primarily on rules of proper English grammar, White added sections on writing style.

White argued that writing can be grammatically correct but poor quality, if it lacks good style. In his revised edition, White established guidelines by which a writer can improve his or her writing style.

The book has been revised several times over the years as the English language and the audience have changed and evolved.

The major points of the Elements of Style are

  • Know the basic rules of grammar. Be aware of the most common errors of grammar and spelling.
  • Tell your story in a clear and straightforward manner. The message is more important than the style.
  • Be Concise. Wasted words dilute your writing.
  • Excessive adjectives, adverbs and qualifiers detract from your message. Eliminate them.
  • Choose established usage, before deviating

Most of these rules can be broken, White tells us.

The Elements of Style is often criticized because many great writers ignore this book's advice. But White does not claim to preach dogma: He provides guidelines that will improve most writing.

But we should understand the rules that we are breaking and we should break them for good reason.

If you do any writing in English, you will benefit from this book. At less than a hundred pages, the time investment is small but it packs more information than much larger books.

This is a book that I read every few years because it reminds me of the power of strong, concise writing.