The Elements of Style

elements-of-styleI don’t even know how long I’ve been sitting at this computer, or the computers before this one, or the typewriter before the first computer, or the legal pad before that. I was the only member of the Creative Writing Club in my high school to have a new story every single week. In college and graduate school, I kept writing. Mostly term papers, of course. I still have all my term papers; stacked up, they’re as tall as I am. Now I have seven published books and I’ve edited more than two hundred books for beginning authors with good ideas but limited writing skills.

My authors sometimes ask me what they need to get started. After a good idea, that is. I always suggest The Elements of Style by William H. Strunk and E. B. White, which has been the “writer’s bible” since it was first published in 1919. Yes, it was published a long time ago, but nearly everything Strunk and White tell us about better writing still works today. Rule 17 may be most famous: “Omit needless words.” Yes, it’s fun to pile five adjectives in front of a noun. It’s fun to stack three or four adverbs in front of a verb. It’s fun to write at length about what a character looks like or the history of your favorite idea. But all those traffic jams of words get in the way. Modern writing—you and I are not Charles Dickens or William Makepeace Thackeray—tends to be “tight.” That means it’s not highly decorated. Modern writers don’t aim at sentences that are fifty or a hundred words long.

I recommend The Elements of Style to all my students (even when I’m teaching public speaking) and authors whose books I’m editing. I say, “Read it. Read it again. Read it one more time. Make notes in the margins.” The Elements of Style should be your first tool.

Barbara Ardinger – To see what’s sizzling in my imagination and drizzling out through my fingers, see my web site, Do you want to write a book but not embarrass yourself in print? Let me be your editor!