You’ve heard it called by many names: The Elements, Strunk & White, Strunk’s Style Guide. It doesn’t really matter what you call it—just as long as you know what it is and how it can benefit your writing. And because business writing covers a wide range of topics and formats, this style guide deserves a place on your desk. So, if you are unfamiliar with The Elements of Style, here’s a little introduction and a few ways it will help you improve your writing.
Who wrote The Elements of Style?
Cornell English Professor William Strunk, Jr. originally prepared the guide in 1918. The 52-page edition was published in 1920. Strunk hoped the desk reference for English usage would prove practical and beneficial to students and writers. And he nailed it! The Elements of Style is still having a profound influence on writers a hundred years later. Strunk died in 1946.
Well-known and highly respected essayist E.B. White (yes, that E.B. White—Charlotte’s Web) edited, revised, and enlarged upon the guide in 1959.
Subsequent editions continue to be released. To date, over ten million copies have been sold.
Get to Know the Guide
The Elements of Style is generally arranged as follows (varies depending on which edition):
- Elementary Rules of Usage
- Elementary Principles of Composition
- A Few Matters of Form
- Words and Expressions Commonly Misused
The goal of the book is simple: To help you improve your writing. It’s written in a very straightforward manner. And the index makes it easy to find an answer to your question quickly.
How It Can Improve Your Writing
Here are just a few examples that demonstrate how The Elements of Style can elevate your writing.
Rule #6—Do not break sentences in two
This rule will help you correct poor sentence structure. You’ll never make the mistake again of incorrectly using periods for commas. For example:
“I saw the woman a year ago. At the store where she works.”
Correct your sentence structure like this:
“I saw the woman a year ago, at the store where she works.”
Rule #8—Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic
More than ever, people have short attention spans. They want their information in neatly wrapped, small packages. Writing that keeps to one topic per paragraph is what they expect and find easy to digest. It allows for a step-by-step development of the primary subject.
Rule #17—In summaries, keep to one tense
When you shift from one tense to another, it can get messy. In business writing, you may need to present statements or thoughts from another person. And from different time periods. Rule #17 will guide you through how and when to use “he stated” or “the speaker said” and so on.
Clean Up Your Vocabulary
Words and Expressions Commonly Misused—spend a few minutes getting acquainted with this section of The Elements of Style. Here’s an example that is termed “downright bad English.” Are you guilty of using this one? Or some of the other examples? Here it is:
“He is a man who is very ambitious.”
Avoid these types of redundant expressions. And as per Rule #13, a writer should strive to be concise. Leave out unnecessary words. So, a better option for the above example would be:
“He is very ambitious.”
As you peruse the many examples of misused words and expressions, it will serve as a reminder of what to avoid. And it will provide examples that reinforce the correct usage.
The Elements vs. Your Style
The Elements of Style is well-loved. And as you write professionally, you will need to identify the style guide that a particular editor, client, or company prefers. But, never forget your own style—that magic that only you can come up with as you let the words begin to flow. Allow your personality to shine through on the page through your choice of words.
So, if you are serious about improving your writing skills, set aside some time to read The Elements of Style. Too busy? Skim the contents and get familiar with the arrangement of topics. The time spent is an investment in yourself as a great writer.