The elements of style

I spent the morning searching high and low for a postcard I bought in a New York bookshop nearly two years ago. I had chosen it especially for my friend Megan, but hadn’t given it to her, so I thought it would be perfect for her upcoming birthday. Using some clever detective work, I found it nestled between the pages of my copy of The Elements of Style, which I purchased in the same bookshop.

The Elements of Style was first published in 1918 by William Strunk Jr. a professor of English at Cornell University. It was later expanded and updated by his most famous student, EB White. Some of you might recognise EB White as the author of such classics as Charlotte’s Webb and Stuart Little.

Often simply referred to as Strunk and White, it’s a slim little book. The salesperson tried to convince me to buy a facsimile of the original, but I didn’t like the old-fashioned font, so I bought a newer, easy-to-read version. I was delighted to get my very own copy, but until recently, I hadn’t bothered to read it. It was only when I found my missing postcard that I realised that this very short book contains pretty much everything you need to know about writing well.

In chapter two, The Elementary Principles of Composition, it offers the following advice.

  1. Put statements in a positive form. For example, instead of saying “she did not think that the apples were very tasty” say “she thought the apples were sour”.
  2. Use definite, concrete language. Instead of saying “a period of unfavourable weather set in” say “it rained every day for a week”.
  3. Place the emphatic words in a sentence at the end. Writer and editor Allison K Williams also says that you should start sentences with a strong verb and end with a strong noun. “Bring me your dead” is a good example.
  4. And my favourite piece of advice: omit needless words. What can I say?

These suggestions will strengthen your writing, but they all take practice.

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