The Elements of Style

Dear friends,

Are you ready for more writing advice?

I first encountered the timeless dispensary of advice—Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, (or “the little book, “ as it’s affectionately called, for where else can you find so many nuggets in just 85 pages?)—in my freshman English class, and when I became a college teacher myself, I continued the tradition: requiring it in all my writing classes over the last twenty years.

Those of you who have read The Pen & The Bell met my beloved journalism mentor, Rags, who used to not only assign The Elements of Style in his journalism classes, but required that students actually memorize the rules—and then he’d give quizzes to ensure they did. He taught many of the country’s top journalists, and I can’t help but think they succeeded because they’d memorized these “elements of style,” and had taken the critical next step: incorporated them into their own writing.

It would have been Rags’ 101st birthday yesterday, and I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute than to have us return to our dog-eared copies of The Elements of Style, choose one rule and consciously incorporate that rule into our writing this week. I’m starting with  “Omit needless words”:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all details and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell. “

He then gives examples of common phrases that violate this rule:  “there is no doubt but that” (doubtless),  “the reason why is that” (because)  “owing to the fact that”  (since), in spite of the fact that (though).

See what writing advice you find in “the little book.”  If you don’t have a copy, you can order one from your local independent bookstore or download a free e-book here:

Yours, ever in pursuit of clarity & brevity,

2 thoughts on “The Elements of Style

  1. Thanks Holly. Good reminder. One of the reasons I think this rule is so important in ALL genres is that in the end it illustrates a thinking and considerate mind behind the writing. The author actually considered their reader’s intelligence and desire for clarity. In poetry of course, needless words muddle the emotional content and impact. Hence, the old Dobyns ‘ advice of “The best words in the best order.” Thanks again.

    • Good point, Tina, that the rule “illustrates a thinking and considerate mind behind the writing.” Thanks for reminding us of that good quote from Dobyns, too.