Several times during my career I have read The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. (the version updated by E. B. White).
The thing is—and I can’t stress this enough—the book just never gets old!
If you are looking for an easy way to improve your writing, even as a researcher or academic, it is a book that I can highly recommend. For one, it is short. The paragraphs are broken down into tiny numbered blocks that communicate a tremendous wealth of writing knowledge in an incredibly small amount of space. Originally, Strunk intended for this book to be a writing guide to his students. I have to wonder if he ever imagined that it would gain the popularity it did and eventually become the Bible of the English-language style guides.
By now I have mostly memorized the rules within its covers—the elementary rules of usage, composition, form, and style—but I always seem to pick up a new tidbit every time I flip through the pages. I then remind myself to follow better rules and be a better writer. I’ve never been much of one to follow the rules, but I do think it is useful to have guidelines. Like a lot of things in life, I see writing as part art and part science. Guidelines may be more appropriate for scientific and academic writing, yet there are instances in which occasionally and artfully breaking those guidelines can sometimes be fruitful. Certainly, experimentation in the literary form has allowed for many great works of literature.
But, back to the book at hand—The Elements of Style is written true to Strunk’s form: short, concise, and to the point. The advice, above all, is practical and easy to apply to everyday writing. To me, the core of Strunk’s advice focuses on writing intentionally. He favors brevity and the use of powerful statements, but beyond simple conciseness, he advocates that every word truly occupy its place and be of value.
He clarifies many practical dilemmas, such as the use of “irregardless” (hint: don’t use it). He also clues us in to all the filler words that he wishes would be banished, such as “due to the fact that” (I’m guilty of this one). His disdain for the misuse of English words frequently borders on comical, similar to a modern (yet much more polished and eloquent) Facebook rant against the use of “each and every one” and “kind of” and all the other imprecise jargon that one could think of.
But this book is of great value since a lot of what Strunk recommends has been adopted as best practice in contemporary English usage and writing. Beyond a style guide, I am enamored with this little book since it seems to reflect greater changes in American culture during the 20th century, such as the worship of business-like acumen. Writing, just like many things in life, can now be precise and mastered by following the appropriate steps and rules. Writing is no longer a practice or a process, but a means of getting from point A to point B and communicating intentionally. As boring as this sounds, I don’t wish to disparage Strunk, as he is one of the main sources of my writing wisdom.
Inspired by Strunk, I am hoping in the coming weeks to write some more blogs on some of the advice that Strunk provides in his style guide.