MihirChronicles

NotesBooksLinksWorkArtMe

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

01 November, 2022 - 6 min read


I. Brief Summary

An essential manual which offers practical advice on improving writing skills and writing style. The Elements of Style is short, precise, and to the point—keeping it with the rules of brevity and clarity it promotes. According to Strunk, students learn better through their own work and tailored instruction, as opposed to wading through large textbooks.

II. Big Ideas

  • 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.
  • Use the active voice where possible.

    • Instead of: The cat was chased by the dog. (passive)
    • Write: The dog chased the cat. (active)
  • Write statements in the positive form.

    • Instead of: He was not telling the truth.
    • Write: He was lying.
  • Avoid modals of uncertainty

    • Instead of: Proper dieting and exercise could help you lose weight.
    • Write: Proper dieting and exercise will help you lose weight.
  • Avoid overstating your argument.

    • Instead of: I’m completely certain that the current economic climate is definitely going to lead to a recession.
    • Write: Evidence shows that the current economic climate will likely lead to a recession, as evident in the fact that…
  • Place the key point at the end.

    • Instead of: He would never forgive such betrayal.
    • Write: Such betrayal he would never forgive.
  • Create an outline and stick to it.

    • Everything that needs to be said must be said.
    • Each part of the text should serve a purpose.
    • The structure of the text should be logical.
  • Use the paragraph as the basic unit of composition.
  • Use transitions to connect different parts of the text. These transitions include, for example, the following:

    • Sequence words: first, second, next, finally.
    • Examples: for example, for instance, such as, specifically, namely.
    • Additional evidence: furthermore, in addition, moreover, additionally.
    • Summary: in conclusion, in summary, overall.
  • The order of the text should reflect the order of the actions.

    • Instead of: I incubated the samples at room temperature, after I centrifuged them for 10 minutes.
    • Write: I centrifuged the samples for 10 minutes, and then incubated them at room temperature.
  • Keep related words together and unrelated words apart.

    • Instead of: John came over while I was working on my proposal with a box of pizza.
    • Write: John came over with a box of pizza while I was working on my proposal.
  • Split long sentences.
  • Use definite language.

    • Instead of: I like dogs more than most people.
    • Write: I like dogs more than I like most people.
  • In dialogue, ensure that the reader knows who is speaking.
  • Maintain consistency in verb tenses.

    • Instead of: During each session, we observed the fluid levels, and record them in the lab journal.
    • Write: During each session, we observed the fluid levels, and recorded them in the lab journal.
  • Convey connected ideas using a similar form.

    • nstead of: Richard’s favorite food was pizza, and he liked to drink soda, while Karen’s favorite drinkwas lemonade, and her favorite food was stir-fry.
    • Write: Richard’s favorite food was pizza, and he liked to drink soda, while Karen’s favorite food was stir-fry, and she liked to drink lemonade.
  • Omit unnecessary text.
  • Avoid repetition.
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers—very, really, etc.
  • Use the active voice and positive form.
  • Revise and rewrite.
  • Conciseness must not come at the cost of clarity.
  • Be cautious in the use of idioms and slang.
  • Use figures of speech sparingly.
  • Avoid “fancy” vocabulary.
  • Avoid using foreign-language terms.
  • Be sparing in your use of adverbs.
  • Avoid repeating the same sentence structure.

III. Quotes

  • Vigorous writing is concise. 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, but that every word tell.
  • To achieve style, begin by affecting none.
  • The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by. A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up.
  • If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud...Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?
  • When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.
  • Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason.
  • A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for the reader, the object of the writer's enthusiasm.
  • Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; the reader wishes to be told what is... If your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority.
  • It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.
  • Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.
  • 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.
  • A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to breakthrough the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts - which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward.