Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style
If you’re a freelance writer, there are many resources out there that tell you how to make the most money, how to deal with clients, and how to scale your business. But what many of the authors of these books tend to miss is: what do I need to know to write well? The answer is Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. This guidebook is an essential tome for writers, bridging the gap between rudimentary knowledge and stylistic concerns. In this modern age where it seems just about everyone can write, The Elements of Style tells writers how to write well. Best of all, it’s short.
A Brief History of The Elements of Style
The story of The Elements of Style begins in Cornell University in 1918. An English professor named William Strunk, Jr. decided to create a book to supplement his teaching. By 1919, he wrote The Elements of Style for exclusive use in his classrooms, privately publishing the book in 1920.
After a period of revisions and retitling, the “little book” was mentioned in The New Yorker, subsequently bringing it to the attention of one of Strunk’s former students, Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White. Commissioned by Macmillan and Co., White updated and expanded The Elements of Style, creating the “modern” version of the manual in 1959. This first edition was so valued that it sold nearly two million copies in the same year—quite a feat for such a little book.
In subsequent years, Strunk & White’s book has seen numerous revisions—some better than others—but its lessons live on. There’s even an illustrated version. Despite the additions, the core of the book remains as vital as ever.
What’s In It?
The structure of Strunk & White’s work is built for efficiency. Despite being a quick read, it functions as both a manual and an approach. The lessons don’t necessarily need to be adhered to, as Strunk & White were astute enough to foresee the ever-evolving nature of the English language. The guidelines are straight-forward and direct.
This book is not for absolute beginners, however. To receive the full benefits of the book, it helps to have a working knowledge of grammar. Strunk & White don’t waste time with basics, getting down to the most effective and overlooked bits of writing. Again, Strunk & White’s book is named The Elements of Style, not The Elements of Grammar. That being said, you can understand most of the rules from context, absorbing it by osmosis.
Most versions of the book contain 5 sections that follow a brief introduction by White, including a brief biography of Strunk and his initial work at Cornell. Following this, the sections can be summarized as follows:
1) Elementary Rules of Usage:
The first section begins with 11 rules on how words and phrases should be used, followed by examples of erroneous usage and the correction. It is the most grammar-intensive portion of Strunk & White’s work, but it forms a logical base for amateur writers.
2) Elementary Principles of Composition:
The second section is a continuation of the first section, concentrating on another set of 11 rules with a greater focus on how to best compose your work for maximum impact. This section contains more subtle changes that writers should adhere to, ones that amateur writers tend to overlook. If there are two topics that remain relevant and writers continue to struggle with up to the present day, they are “#14 Use the active voice” and “#17 Omit needless words”.
3) A Few Matters of Form:
The shortest section and possibly the most outdated, this contains more of the nuts & bolts of writing, similar to the first section. It includes such minutia as punctuation in regards to parenthesis (outside or inside?), but modern readers will be disappointed to find missing opinions on specific font styling, modern shorthand (no emojis?), or most features that come standard with most word-processing programs. If you’re looking to learn when to underline versus italicize, you’re out of luck.
4) Words and Expressions Commonly Misused:
The layout of this chapter is an alphabetical compendium of endemic errors prevalent in amateur writing. Not all citations of misuse may be agreeable with all of the usages and explanations provided (for example: data: “…the word, however is slowly gaining acceptance as a singular…”). The takeaway from this section is that writers should pay closer attention to common usages and really determine which Strunk & White stylistic choices are arbitrary, outdated, or correct.
5) An Approach to Style:
E.B. White is responsible for writing this fifth section. It remains just as vital and important as the other sections, expanding on Strunk’s groundwork. Like the first two sections, there are a number of rules to follow that guide writers on best practices, mostly beginning with “Do not X”, followed by an explanation and an example. However, there is a bit of an overlap from previous chapters, including “#6 Do not overwrite” and “#7 Do not overstate,” both of which seem like close cousins to section 2’s “#17 Omit needless words”.
What’s important about this chapter is that these are guidelines, citing how Thomas Paine’s “These are times that try men’s souls” could be written many ways, but those ways all have a different sound, rhythm, and length that alter how a reader interprets the meaning. Ultimately, this is what makes-up a writer’s particular style.
Is It Relevant?
Of course, this was written nearly a hundred years ago, so does it still hold up?
Yes, it forms the groundwork to build your writing skills upon, but it is not without questionable practices. However, that’s the point. In reading Strunk & White’s book, you SHOULD find guidelines that don’t jive with your sensibilities. For instance, The Elements of Style shows you the proper usage of a comma; famed author Kurt Vonnegut famously dismissed the use of a semicolon: “All they do is show that you’ve been to college.”
Stephen King also mentioned Strunk & White’s book in his own aptly-titled book on writing, On Writing. In On Writing, he highly endorses The Elements of Style while making his own suggestions. Then again, many people would criticize King’s profligate writing, but that is another matter altogether.
However, that’s how it works—take what you need and disregard the rest. After all, style is a personal choice. Ultimately your goal as a writer is to communicate your ideas to your reader. You won’t find a better starting point than The Elements of Style.