When I first started on my writing journey, my mentor offered me a few books on writing. One of them was this tiny gray book I’d never heard of before: The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. When my mentor handed it to me, he warned me that it could be pretty dense.
The Elements of Style is a book with a certain … notoriety. Do your own quick Google search, and you’ll find no end to people who hold it up as a holy text of the craft and just as many who admonish it as an abomination.
As it is with many things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. But whether you’ve never heard of the book before or you already have a strong opinion about it, here are four lessons every writer can learn from this little gray book.
My first few steps in the writing life were fraught with errors. I don’t mean typos or the wrong word here or there. I mean sentences that didn’t really work, paragraphs that felt disjointed, and overall muddled pieces. I look at some of the stuff I wrote back then and still cringe.
In hindsight, this was a sort of rite of passage that all writers go through. It often comes on the heels of being told you’re a talented writer or having a small success or two under your belt. You think you know what there is to know, and you don’t need to spend your time learning the rules of language.
But once your writing eye gets a little bit sharper, you’ll notice the same mistakes pop up again and again. Not just in your prose, but in other people’s work, too. Taking the time to read a book like The Elements of Style will get you up to speed on the basics so you can avoid these common mistakes in the future.
For example, rule #17 in the book is to omit needless words. I couldn’t tell you how many needless words I’ve killed in my day-to-day work as a copywriter; and not just from my own writing.
Seems a bit contradictory, right? I just told you to learn the rules so you can avoid common mistakes, and now I’m telling you to break them. Consider this the second step after learning the rules — learning when they can be broken.
I’ll give you an example. When I first started training in martial arts, I was obsessed with replicating the techniques I was learning exactly. In traditional styles — think karate, judo, or taekwondo — this stiff repetition is praised. You can win tournaments by performing kata, or choreographed demonstrations.
But as soon as I was put into a sparring match, I would freeze up. The stiff, exact techniques I’d learned didn’t serve me well when fists were flying at my face. Then, when I started taking boxing, I learned to loosen up, and that not every punch had to be picture-perfect.
The same holds true in writing.
The rules laid out in The Elements of Style are meant to get you to a place where you avoid common pitfalls. You shouldn’t let them restrict the creative aspects of your writing. First, learn the rules so you know how to avoid mistakes that make your writing unclear. Then you can have fun breaking them to generate creative effects.
Most writers hit a stage in their craft where they try to write in a fancier way, closer to the writers they read and respect. For some, it happens when they learn a new mark of punctuation — like the em dash — and they pepper their writing with it. Others get a little too comfortable with their thesaurus and look up a more obscure version of every other word. That’s how you end up with sentences like “the substantial freighter roared past the dwelling.”
The drive to improve your writing is a good one, and you should hang on to it. After all, it’s why you’re here, isn’t it? But that drive becomes a bit misguided when it leads to something writers call “purple prose,” or writing that is too elaborate. It can also lead to sentences that are overly complicated, stuffed full of fancy punctuation.
I’ve been guilty of this. When I learned how to use the em dash correctly, I stuffed it in every other sentence. I’ve actually had to make a rule for myself to avoid abusing it — I can only use them once per paragraph.
The majority of the rules in The Elements of Style are geared toward helping writers make clearer, simpler choices. That’s not because there’s anything wrong with crafting complex sentences or researching your word choice. Rather, it’s because writing sings when it’s brought back to its basics. James Baldwin said your sentences should be as clean as a bone. Keep that goal in mind, and use the lessons from The Elements of Style to get you there. Write simpler, and your creative choices will shine through.
The Elements of Style is an old, old book. That alone probably motivates much of the hatred for it. It was first published in 1918 when Germany was still an empire, the Great Depression hadn’t hit yet, and the world had yet to be exposed to the horrors of widespread internet access.
The necessary evolution of the craft of writing isn’t something that’s addressed in the book specifically, but it’s still an important takeaway. Some of the rules in it aren’t always applicable in modern writing. Take rule #1: form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s. Strunk and White use “Charles’s friend” as an example of correct usage. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in 2021 who applies this rule when a noun ends in an “s.”
English is a fascinating language because it’s a strange concoction created from the combination of multiple languages. Many other languages don’t share this history, and they’re much more rigid because of it. My mother tongue, French, has more tenses than anyone needs, incredibly strict usage rules, and many people where I’m from can’t write properly in it.
We live in an age where access to language and the ability to write is more democratized than ever. Anyone can become their own publisher, and everyone can create characters, stories, or entire careers writing for some of the biggest companies in the world. These things come at a cost — like the word “literally” literally meaning “figuratively.” But it means that you can achieve endless creativity by welcoming these changes, and it means we can elevate voices from a vast diaspora of diverse writers.
The Elements of Style isn’t a hard-and-fast solution for every rule in the English language. But few other tomes can serve as a better quick-start guide for the beginning writer, and it’s still a useful reference for even the most advanced writers. As you read, remember that it can help you avoid common problems, but that some rules benefit from the breaking, simple writing is your friend, and the book hasn’t always been able to keep up with the evolution of the language. Maybe reading it will be the beginning of your love story with the English language, as it was for me.
Nick wrote his first story at the age of nine when living in New York. It had a troll, a cave, and a magical voice, but not much else. There’s more to his stories now, but he can’t quite stay away from the monsters and dark places of the world. He does his best writing on a powder-blue typewriter—which he snagged for $25—despite the protests of those around him. Some of his best writing (and the occasional gushing post about the Marvel Cinematic Universe) can be found at whiskeyandstardust.com.