The Elements of Style

Some of the most well written books I’ve ever read have been the shortest. The ability to boil language down to only what is necessary, only what sends the message you want, is more important than almost any other skill for a writer. Being able to do the same thing while talking about writing is something even more impressive.

It seems hard to believe, but there are people out there who haven’t read The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. It is probably the single most important book I’ve ever read. It informs everything about my writing. From the constant scouring of excess words, to the way I write dates, its influence is tangible everywhere.

While the edition I use was published in 1979, the original version was published in 1935. How, you might ask, can something written before the second world war still be relevant in our era of Twitter and Facebook? The fact is, good writing hasn’t really changed. Keeping prose clean and organized will never go out of style.

Reading through The Elements of Style is like reading a user’s manual for the English language. The authors start with the nuts and bolts: how to form plurals, use commas, and structure sentences. Once you’re past that, they guide you through composition by laying out a blueprint. Using the paragraph as a basic unit of writing is a seemingly obvious piece of advice, but the details of how and why a writer should follow these rules are laid out simply and clearly.

I first read this book in university, when my mother passed her copy on to me. I wish I’d read it earlier. How this isn’t the standard textbook for high-school English classes I will never know. Not to discount the efforts of my teachers, but almost everything they taught me is available, in a highly condensed form, in the ninety-two pages of The Elements of Style.

But there’s nothing wrong with writers and teachers doing what they do best. Every profession has those constantly seeking some newer and fancier piece of equipment to help them create something ever more elaborate or original. At the end of the day, though, all writers are using the same tool, language. Only the hand wielding that tool changes. The Elements of Style is the guiding voice of an experienced technician. It won’t do the job for you, but if you follow its advice, a writer can make their job a lot easier, both for themselves, and for their reader.