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

open notebook blank page

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?



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