5 tips on writing from ‘The Elements of Style’

5 tips on writing from ‘The Elements of Style’

I’ve been re-reading ‘The Elements of Style’ by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White lately. Quite possibly, this is the best book about writing that there is.

There’s no fluff, no fancy tiptoeing, and definitely no waffle. It’s a book based on improving writing style, told in the most simplest of forms.

I recommend, if you’re serious about the craft, that you invest.

I wanted to share with you some of the key points I’ve learned from this book, and how it’s affected my writing. Here goes:

1. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas

First up to bat is rule number three outlined in the first chapter.

I’ve always been one for parentheses. I feel they give added context to the writer’s meaning without the need for an entirely new sentence. But I used to always use either ( ) or — — , and never a comma.

This writing style has allowed me to rephrase sentences on a page, and I’ve been able to use parenthetic expressions a lot more frequently, making my writing more concise and in turn, more authoritative.

2. Choose a suitable design and hold to it

The first rule of chapter two, rule number 12, talks about writing style. Writing is much more than good sentence structure and suitable words, it’s about style and personality.

In ‘On the Road’ by Kerouac, his energetic, upbeat and scatty style that lacks direction and a proper use of commas is exciting and invigorating. It gives the reader a real sense of a life lived to the extreme, of excitement and urgency.

3. Put statements in the positive form

Rule 15 from chapter two is about reducing the use of negative, toneless words. Quite simply, this rule is about becoming more sure of yourself in your words, cutting out anything that might be perceived as evasive and indefinite.

Not only did this rule teach me to cut the crap, but it educated me on sentence structure, and helps me become more assertive with the points I am trying to make.

4. Omit needless words

Again, this rule taken from chapter two (it’s a good chapter) is about composition. This argument is similar to that of George Orwell’s six rules for writing.

Good writing is simple writing, and simple writing is hard. I think it was editor Gordon Lish who made Raymond Carver into the minimalist writer he became. His aggressive editing style forced Carver to cut words he didn’t need. In Carver’s case, it wasn’t just a word or two, but rather entire sentences.

But, Carver once said about Lish:

If I have any standing or reputation or credibility in the world, I owe it to you.

5. Revise and rewrite

The master, William Zinsser, once said

Rewriting is where the game is won or lost; rewriting is the essence of writing.

Writers don’t become good on their first attempt. Even experts have to revise their work, it’s this revision process that makes them who they are.

So long as your personality isn’t lost in your revisions, good writing comes down to one thing and one thing only: your ability to edit your work.