Want to Write Better? 21 Reminders about the Elements of Good Style.

Whether you write all the time, or only occasionally, you’ve probably thought about how to write better.

One of the best books about writing is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. It has been in print for forty years.

I don’t know anything about Strunk, but I’m a huge fan of the writing of E. B. White.  I love his children’s books of course — masterpieces like Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan — and I also love his brilliant essays, like Here Is New York, and the Letters of E. B. White.

So I pay close attention to whatever he says about style.

The reminders from The Elements of Style include:

 

  1. Place yourself in the background. Zoikes, so I don’t adhere to this element. Not an auspicious start.
  2. Write in a way that comes naturally. Phew, I do better with this one.
  3. Work from a suitable design. I couldn’t agree more. Structure is the most important element. Whenever I write a book, a blog post, a podcast episode, the first issue is the structure.
  4. Write with nouns and verbs. It sounds so easy, right? But as we all know from reading, many people don’t grasp this principle.
  5. Revise and rewrite. Re-writing is my favorite kind of writing.
  6. Do not overwrite.
  7. Don’t overstate. This reminder is literally a life-saver.
  8. Avoid the use of qualifiers. Sometime, it seems, they’re a little unnecessary.
  9. Do not affect a breezy manner.
  10. Use orthodox spelling. I’m still standing against “donut.”
  11. Do not explain too much. My editors and I often disagree about this one.  They want me to explain at more length, and I think that what I’ve said is perfectly clear and doesn’t need further explanation. Nice to know I have Strunk & White on my side.
  12. Do not construct awkward adverbs.
  13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.  Wolf Hall, anyone?
  14. Avoid fancy words. This is tough for me. How I love fancy words. But they’re right, better to use the simple, direct words. I learned this from studying Winston Churchill’s speeches.
  15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.  Sidenote: I love Flannery O’Connor’s use of dialect.
  16. Be clear.
  17. Do not inject opinion. I think that sometimes opinion is acceptable.
  18. Use figures of speech sparingly. Yes! It’s a sign of cliche!
  19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
  20. Avoid foreign languages.
  21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

Which elements do you think are most important? I would say #16, #3, #4.

 

If you want to read more books about writing, here are My 5 favorite books about writing.  What books have I overlooked?

  • Gillian

    Interesting list! #4 puzzles me – how can you not write with nouns and verbs?

    I would add: Avoid excessive use of the double negative. This is associated with #16 – Be clear. Very occasional use, to make a point, is not unacceptable but if in doubt, leave it out. Last year, I read a fairly weighty non-fiction book, with lots of words I had to look up. My understanding was not helped by the fact that the author was in love with the double negative and had them littered throughout the book. One sentence actually contained 3 of them! This morning, I read the phrase “it was nothing if not exciting”. Fortunately, I knew intuitively what was meant and didn’t have to parse it.

    I also reluctantly agree, partially, with #14 – avoid fancy words. I love interesting vocabulary and enjoy encountering the occasional new word. However, in the interests of clarity and reader enjoyment, fancy words should be used in moderation. A couple of years ago, I read a book in which the first 40 pages contained 20 words I had to look up. A short example: gnomic, quiddity, lapidary, concinnity. The author obviously had no interest in clear communication; his objective was to impress with big words.

    I would also add – If a sentence contains too many very short words and prepositions, it should probably be rewritten to make it more elegant.

    • Natalie

      One of my favourite authors is Stephen Donaldson (fantasy) and he uses many many fancy words. And I love it! I started reading him when I was 12 or 13 and he really helped expand my vocabulary. Eldritch! Stentorian! And if I didn’t want to look up words, the beautiful flow of language helped me get the meaning. But not everyone is Stephen Donaldson. Sometimes big words are just annoying.

      • cindy

        The one that gets my goat (oops! idiom and cliche alert!) is using foreign words. Some novels love to put French or Italian phrases in italics. Drives me spare. If I wanted to wrestle with Google translate every paragraph I’d get a French book and give it a try. So pretentious.

    • Anki Larsen

      The text in the book elaborates on the “write with nouns and verbs” injunction by following it with “not with adjectives and adverbs”. Adjectives and adverbs have their place in writing, to be sure, but as with seasonings in food you generally want to apply them with a light hand. Too much and it can muddle or outright spoil the intended effect.

      • Gillian

        Thank you, Anki, for elaborating. I think I’d agree with that one.

  • Maryalene @ The Mighty Widow

    Re #11: My editors don’t like this one either. One in particular said I gave modern readers too much credit. So now I am in the habit of painfully spelling everything out. Not as much fun when you have to write that way.

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s a fine line between enough and too much explanation.

  • PNWGal

    Could you elaborate on #3?

    • Anki Larsen

      Different types of writing will have different structures/formats. Think back to school and the five paragraph essay, or to poetry and the fourteen-line framework of a sonnet. In internet terms, a tweet has a *very* different structure from a blog post, and a comment on a blog or article is not likely to follow the same structure as the piece it is attached to.

      Basically, you want to take at least some consideration to the design, or structure, of the type of writing you want to do. A blog post composed as a series of tweets would be rather odd, to say the least, as would a novel written like an auditing report.

  • Mimi Gregor

    I’d say, when writing fiction, that 13 is very important. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reading a book and had to go back over what I just read, mentally ticking off who said what, because there was a long bit of dialog with no obvious indications of which character is speaking. One loses track if there is a lot of it. Every once in a while, the author should indicate the speaker somehow, so that the reader doesn’t have to reread the entire conversation.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, this really slows things down.

  • Can I gently say it’s funny how you do not follow the advice of number 1 — even while stating it?

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes! I pointed that out.

  • Michael King

    I like what you did with #8. I saw what you did there. As for #17 I think that is a rule routinely ignored in journalism and news broadcasting. It’s so important for them to stay unbiased. However, there are some forms of writing where inserting an opinion is not just acceptable, but necessary.

  • Devidasan Chathanadath

    Everything cited have relevance. But if you don’t have ideas marching like battalions, you cannot paint the whole world in a dew drop, ride a baby cloud to explore the universe, make a bowl of poison into that of nectar, draw a magnificent smile on the simmering, lingering pain of embers…..

    Affectionately

  • Pingback: Let's Chit Chat! - My Inner Shakti()