It’s been 95 years since William Strunk Jr.’s guide to style was first published by Harcourt. In the years prior to its publication, Professor Strunk circulated his “little book” to English students at Cornell University, one of whom was a budding young author named E.B. White.
“The Elements of Style,” a slim, concise guide to writing that lives up to its own rules about clarity and simplicity, has gone through multiple editions and influenced English usage for generations. White would later revise and add to Strunk’s original work for a 1959 edition by Macmillan that became known simply as “Strunk & White.” Since then, there have been other editions, including my own copy that was published in 1972.
When I began writing seriously after college, there were four go-to books on my shelf: Webster’s New World Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, Stunk & White and the AP Stylebook. Now all of those are available online, and you can search any number of excellent grammar and usage websites.
Still, Strunk & White is what I return to, and I prefer my paperback copy.
I’ve taken on a writing project this summer that requires me to produce two to four news items every afternoon. They must be brief and to the point—no more than 250 words each. Most of my writing for clients consists of longer-form articles, white papers or speeches, so brevity has been a welcome change-up. It’s also been a challenge since the deadlines are fixed. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s remark about a hanging in the morning, nothing focuses the mind like a deadline!
So Strunk & White has come down from the shelf. The rules are timeless, and they remind us of our duty as communicators: to choose words carefully, to use the active voice, to be precise and accurate, to not overwrite or overstate, and to keep ourselves in the background.
Here are a few gems from the little book. See if they strike a chord with you.
Put statements in positive form. “Make definite statements. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as means of evasion.”
Use definite, specific, concrete language. “Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.”
Omit needless words. “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 his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, only that every word tell.”
Avoid fancy words. “Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”
Be clear. “Clarity, clarity, clarity. When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh…Usually what is wrong is that the construction has become too involved at some point: the sentence needs to be broken apart and replaced by two or more shorter sentences.”