Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review - The Elements of Style (3rd Edition) by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White

Short review: Get it. Read it. Improve your writing.

Strunk and White's advice:
Clearer, simpler, shorter
Makes writing stronger

Long review: There are some books that everyone should own a copy of. The Elements of Style is one of those books. Although it is only eighty-five pages long (with an additional seven page index), the book is an essential guide to the basics of writing concisely, clearly, and effectively.

The book lays out rules and suggestions for writing in the English language, starting with the mandatory, moving on to the strongly suggested, and finally to the merely recommended. As a rule of thumb, it seems that the earlier an item appears in the book, the more critical it is that a writer follow the instructions given if they want their end product to be worthwhile. So, for example, a writer could ignore some (or all) of the advice regarding style in Chapter V and still produce a coherent and readable piece of work, but ignoring the rules of usage in Chapter I will almost certainly result in an incomprehensible mess.

Following the rules and advice laid out in this book will result in a clear and straightforward piece of writing. Most writers would do well to try to follow all of the rules and pointers in the book, especially those who are producing written material in a professional context. When writing a business letter, or a grant proposal, or even just an e-mail to a work associate, the most important goal for the writer is to convey his intended meaning properly, and following the advice in this book will substantially aid in reaching that goal.

But wait, I hear you cry, my favorite author routinely ignores several points that the book makes. I'm sure they do. But I would also lay heavy odds that they are aware of the stylistic element that they are flouting, and they are doing so deliberately, and after at least some consideration as to the impact of making such a choice. The Elements of Style provides the template for what might be called conventional writing. If one wants to be rebellious and engage in unconventional writing, and be effective when doing so, one has to know the conventional rules first. Even still, all but the most skilled writer ignores the advice contained in this book at his peril.

Anyone who writes should have a copy of this book on their shelf, and should read and reread it on a regular basis. Even the most experienced writer who peruses this manual is likely to be reminded of some tidbit of advice that could strengthen their prose. And even for those who reject all of the advice on the way to forging their own unique style, this book is a must read, as one should at least be conscious of what one is rejecting (although, to be perfectly honest, I cannot imagine the output of a writer who did reject all of the suggestions in this book being anything other than an unreadable nightmare). The Elements of Style is an essential part of every person's library.

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  1. Definitely a great resource. I keep a dog-eared copy of it on my desk at work, along with an old fashioned Webster's Thesaurus and my copy of Stephen King's On Writing.

  2. That is such a wonderful book. A professor in college gave me a copy of that book, and I have treasured it since then.