Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” is perhaps the most commonly read handbook for anyone looking to improve as a writer. The first edition of “Elements of Style” was published in 1959 and the book has been read since then to help guide young writers and remind experienced writers of the basics. While the book does hit on some common grammatical mistakes, overall the book addresses specific writing habits (or principles) people can adopt to make their writing go from boring to fresh. (We all want our writing to seem fresh to keep the reader’s interest.)
Correct grammar is a guide towards clear communication----it is not the end goal. The end goal for the writer should always be to communicate clearly and accurately. Writers write not because they want to show off their grammar skills, they write because they have some urgent idea they need to communicate to the world. Grammar and writing rules should allow the writer to communicate that idea clearly. Strunk and White’s book has helped people for decades because it suggests simple tips that help correct “muddy” writing and guides the writer to clear connection with the reader. Connecting with the reader and putting our message/ideas in his or her head is what we want to accomplish.
Below I’ve pointed out five quotes that stand out as being essential for me as a writer and a teacher. These are the highlights of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style.”
1. Be Specific.
Most people are more prone to write in general rather than with specifics. Rereading over the first draft of a paper often requires us to add details as we think more intentionally about what we are attempting to say. I would argue that the following quote by E.B. White is the most important writing tip in the book:
"If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers---Homer, Dante, Shakespeare---are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report details that matter. Their words call up pictures."
I've written the phrase "Be Specific" on student’s papers I would guess at least 400 times while grading. Perhaps I could wear a t-shirt to my ENG 111 class that says "Be specific." That might get the point across to my students. Whether you are writing a personal narrative for ENG 111, an argumentative essay for ENG 112 or a new entry for your blog, being definite in what you mean is the safest bet.
While observing an English professor once, I heard him say "Focus on breaking down the cliché lingo." Clichés often come more naturally to our minds. Yet by pushing ourselves to be definite and concrete in our descriptions we give our writing a freshness that makes the reader want to continue reading. Vagueness and clichés are so common they have no impact on the reader and you lose the reader’s attention. If you pay more attention to being articulate, original and detailed your words are more likely to see authentic and human which will keep your reader focused.
Vague and General: “While transcendentalism is known by popular culture as just a bunch of writers who loved the woods, it also had to do with casting a vision of democracy among all people.”
Specific: “Popular beliefs about Transcendentalism include the stereotypical idea of the movement as a bunch of writers who wandered around in the woods. However a closer looks will show us that Emerson and Thoreau wanted to cast a vision of democracy among all people. The movement certainly included the natural world, but wasn’t limited to spaced out nature freaks.”
Words like "stereotypical" and "nature freaks" are more definite than "known by popular culture" and "writers who loved the woods." It's not that the latter are wrong, but stereotypical and "nature freaks" shows a more definite picture of what I was trying to say.
2. Overused Words
Chapter 4 of White's book is titled "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused." One common habit is for students to use phrases that are filler for what they really want to say. Here is what he says about the use of interesting, kind of and certainly:
"Interesting: An unconvincing word; avoid it as a means of introduction. Instead of announcing that what you are about to tell is interesting, make it so...Also to be avoided in introduction is the word funny. Nothing becomes funny by being labeled so."
"Kind of: Except in familiar style not to be used as substitute for rather or something like. Restrict it to its literal sense: "Amber is a kind of fossil resin"; "I dislike that kind of notoriety." The same holds true of 'sort of."
"Certainly: Used indiscriminately by some writers, much as others use very, in attempt to intensify any and every statement. A mannerism of this kind, bad in speech, is even worse in writing."
I (sadly) use all three of these phrases whenever I write, especially on the first draft. I use interesting whenever I am not sure how to explain why I am curious about something. I use "kind of" whenever I am uncertain about to describe something. The phrase often pops up whenever I can't exactly remember how someone looked or how I felt at a particular situation. I don't use "certainly" but I use "definitely" instead. I want to persuade someone of something, so I say “definitely” to persuade them that I am certain. I typically am able to catch these words in my own writing after a second edit.
The word interesting works when you are talking to friends, but it does not work in writing. It is not powerful. This word is most often student's go-to word whenever they are writing a paper about a subject they either don't care about or haven't put the brain work into thinking of what they really think. I used to use this word in my journal all the time. I still do sometimes, but overall as Strunk says, rather than announcing you are about to tell something, just say it.
The edition of Elements of Style that I read was published in 1959. There are new editions of this book today, but the following paragraph dates this edition in some ways:
"Revising is a part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try. Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order....Do not be afraid to seize whatever you have written and cut it to ribbons; it can always be restored to its original condition in the morning."
In 2016 writers don't cut up their sentences with scissors to arrange what they want to say. Today we have Microsoft Word which makes it much easier to edit what we write. I'm not sure if people today are more accurate in their language because we don't have to cut up our essays to organize them make them "flow." However I do think “cutting up” what we’ve written helps. I am thankful that today I don't have to cut up something I've written to make sense of it. I've found that 90 percent of the things I "redo" or vigorously edit are better than what I had originally. When I begin editing it often feels stressful for the first 5 minutes. After that, I begin to see progress and I often feel better because I can see the progress happening.
Qualifiers can make writing powerful and definite but it can also make it muddy and vague. White says the following about qualifiers:
"Avoid the use of qualifiers. Rather, very, little, pretty---these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly depleting; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is rather important one and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then."
Here is an example of why qualifiers can weigh down writing. The second sentence above is White's advice, but it is an intentionally written with lots of qualifiers to show how qualifiers can get in the way. On the other hand, I believe that qualifiers can make language come alive. I normally pass out this worksheet from UNC's Writing Center to show my students the great advantages of putting a qualifier in a research paper:
"Do not overstate. When you overstate, the reader will instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement, as well as everything that follows it will, be suspect in his mind because he has lost confidence in your judgment or your poise...A single overstatement, whenever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for the reader, the object of the writer's enthusiasm."
I love the line "a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy." Since we live in age where there are thousands of unchecked promises and superlatives on television commercials and billboards, I believe we are on guard more than we realize. I often try to understate things myself because I know that when I get excited about something, I tend to rave about it and people tend to put their guard up. One of my favorite bands is Explosions in the Sky. When I talk about how unique and epic their songs are, some people might believe me. But if I say "They are they greatest post-rock band in history" I could lose my credibility because I am over-hyping and overstating.
Elements of Style has helpful in reminding me of certain writing habits that I need to avoid to make what I want to communicate true and to the point. I would like to be the kind of person who can ingrain in my own mind certain habits so that I naturally correct myself rather than having to revise. Even more, I hope that I can teach these principles to my students so they can be better writers than I am.