Reference Desk #4 – The Elements of Style


The Elements of Style is a book originally written in 1919, expanded and published in 1957, and updated three more times since. It’s a little book, less than 100 pages. It’s easy to read, and you can purchase both the physical and e-book editions for less than ten dollars. It’s opinionated, specific and packed with clear examples.

Useful and Concise

Some books on writing seem to be trying to convince the reader that they’re useful through sheer wordiness. They’re full of advice that sounds good, but immediately breaks down when you try to apply it to actual writing. The Elements of Style would never presume to waste your time like that. It takes its own advice. As rule #17 states:

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 sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.

Principles of Composition – #16

It’s full of simple, straightforward advice and rules with clear examples. The book often provides two examples side-by-side: one good and one bad. It is specific enough that you can take any of these rules and apply them to a manuscript in progress. I find that my writing always comes out a little better for it.

A Surprisingly Fun Read

While there are a handful of things that feel a bit outdated, even in the most recent revision, the majority of it is relatively timeless. As much as popular styles of writing and word choice change over time, good writing holds up well.

Through brevity and style, the authors show in the descriptions of their own rules what good, clear writing looks like. This is a book I reread, in whole or part, every year or two. I always come across some passage here or there that makes me smile. Despite being a prescriptive rule book, it’s often a delight to read.

If you’re a writer and you haven’t read this book, you owe it to yourself to do so.

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed, and not at the expense of the work.

An Approach to Style – #1

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