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Review: The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White


Pages: 105
Original date of publication: 1919
My edition: 2000
Why I decided to read: Read it for a class I’m taking
How I acquired my copy: Amazon.com, January 2012

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, is a short, concise guide to effective writing. This short guide covers everything from basic grammatical usage to composition, but it is more than just a guide to good writing. The book is filled with provocative axioms to keep in mind while writing. Because writing is a form of communication, a hallmark of it is to be succinct.

There is an overwhelming emphasis in this guide on clear, concise writing. “When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.” (p. 19). The best-known writers—Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare are mentioned—grab the reader’s attention by being “specific, definite, and concrete” and use words to create pictures (p. 21) in order to create impactful writing. It is always important to use the active voice in writing and to avoid conditionals such as should, could, and would, in order to prevent a piece of writing from sounding as though it lacks authority. The authors therefore recommend rewriting and revising and to “ruthlessly delete the excesses” (p. 72).

Composition is a major element in creating clear, readable writing. To be effective, writing must be organized and follow a specific plan—although that plan may not always follow the order of a writer’s thought process. However, it forces the writer to think; “the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind” (p. 70).

In the course of their writing, writers end up revealing something about themselves and their identity, and this is what makes good writing stand out. A writer develops their style through practice and patience. EB White suggests that the writer first place themselves in the background, so that a sense of style can be achieved by first having none. “Style is the writer, and therefore what you are, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style” (p. 84).

Although the authors are very definite in their opinions, they present them with humor in some places, preventing this book from becoming too pedantic. It is also important to consider that this guide is not the last word in what is “correct” writing or style; “the shape of our language is not rigid” (p. 39) and that “there is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course” (p. 66). However, The Elements of Style is an invaluable guide that gives a reader advice on how to think about their writing, how to write clear and concise prose, and how to achieve a unique sense of style.

Comments

Classic guide. More people should read this book and apply its principles.

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