A column by Jonathan Yardley, book critic for the Washington Post, took another look at a classic writing resource, The Elements of Style (William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White). This slim, no-nonsense guide to writing is on everyone’s short list of recommended writing resources, including mine. But it’s been a long time since I actually looked at this book. I most often turn to The Chicago Manual of Style when I have usage questions.
Yardley’s praise made me pick up my yellowed copy. (Second Edition, copyright 1972, price $1.65!) What a gem. Strunk and White set down in short form (my copy is 78 hand-sized pages) the writing issues that every writer faces. There is no waffling here: “Avoid fancy words.” “Use the active voice.” “Prefer the standard to the offbeat.”
And the explanation of conciseness –“Omit unnecessary words”– models this command:
“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 detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Yes, writing has changed since 1957—the year of first publication. There’s a new cyber vocabulary and new conventions (such as bulleted lists. But Elements of Style stands the test of time. It’s the first book a would-be writer should pick up and a touchstone for experienced writers.
In his introduction to Elements, which is based on Professor Strunk’s rule book, White offers this praise: “. . . It contains rich deposits of gold.”
–Marilynne Rudick (guest blogger)