The Elements of Style: Summary & Review

the elements of style book cover

The Elements of Style is the most popular book on how to write properly.
It covers all the bases and should provide the foundation for any writer out there (P.S.: if you got feedback on my writing, please please do let me know!)

Bullet Summary

  • Don’t use flowery and long sentences: they don’t make you look smart but dumber
  • Remove all the words, adjectives and expressions that are not necessary (and remove most adverbs)
  • Write in a chronological sequence and format in logical sequence (one paragraph: one idea, go from simpler to more complex)
  • Always make it easy and clear for the reader to understand

Full Summary

About The Authors: William Strunk was an American professor of English language at Cornell University. He is best known for this book “The Elements of Style”, which was revised and enlarged by a former student of his, E. B. White, which why the book is commonly referred to as “Strunk & White”.

Foreword

“The Elements of Style” has lots of example that I won’t always write here. So if you are serious about getting the most out of this book, you should consider getting the full version.

Use Active Voice

These days many software designed to help you write better text will suggest you to pick the active voice instead of the passive one.
And that’s also something Strunk and White recommend.

What’s active voice, and what’s passive one?
This is passive:

That the text was written in excellent form because I was feeling so inspired

And this is active:

I was so inspired, I really wrote that text in excellent form

The rule of thumb is that to write in active form, the person performing the action should come first.
If you are not too sure, you can also install software that will let you know whether you are using too much passive form.

Write in The Positive Form

The Elements of Style recommends you write in the positive form instead of the negative one. That means you write what happens instead of what does not happens.
For example, this is a negative form:

I did not make a good job that time

And this is a positive form:

I did a rather poor job that time

Exceptions: When You Want to Stress Something

The general rule mostly applies to the use of “not” in sentences that you do not want to particularly highly.
Indeed, there are many exceptions where you can use the negative form to great effect.
For example:

  • The fact that it never happened that the sun didn’t rise doesn’t mean it never will
  • It’s not just me… It’s pretty much common sense
  • He doesn’t have it in him anymore (when you want to stress the negative instead of the positive)
  • I don’t know (instead of “I know little of that”: sometimes negative is just more natural)

Don’t Overstate Your Argument

When you overstate your argument with words and adjectives, you can actually lose credibility.
It’s because overstatement makes you sound as more partial and less authoritative.

This is especially true when writing technical texts as well as copy to sell a product, where you would come across too “salesy” (read: Web Copy That Sells).

For example of writing:

I am 100% convinced that this season is going to be best we have ever seen so far

Write what convinced you it will be the best season:

Based on the trend we see from the past year and the early booking so far, this season promises to be the best we have ever seen

As you can see the second example makes you come across as more authoritative. In the first sentence people must believe you. In the second sentence, you let the data speak.

Place The Emphasis At the End

If you have a strong, emphatic word, you should place it at the end of the sentence. And if you have a strong, emphatic sentence, you should place it at the end of the text.

This is also true for more technical writing, where the last part of the paragraph should serve as a final summary and overview of the paragraph.

Exception: Aestethic Writing

Sometimes you might want to get creative and scramble things.
In that case, you can grab the reader’s attention right away with the emphatic sentence right at the beginning.

For example:

Such a joy I might never experience again my life

However, don’t overdo it or it comes across as too flowery and like you’re trying too hard.

One Paragraph: One Idea

The paragraph should be your basic unit of text.

One paragraph should represent one idea or one topic.
And starting a new paragraph means you have moved on to a (slightly) different topic or idea.

It should be as long as it needs to be, but keep in mind that too big paragraph represent what people refer to as “walls of text“, which might scare the readers from even attempting to read it.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, too many short paragraphs also makes your text hard to process.

Transition Words

Transition words or transition expressions help the readers make sense of the structure of your text (and of your thoughts!).

Example of transition words are:

  • Sequence words (to begin with, first, finally)
  • Additional information (furthermore, moreover, on top of that.. )
  • Examples (for example, for instance, such as.. )
  • Summary (to sum it up, overall, in conclusion)

Follow a Chronological Order

If you are telling a story, tell it in the chronological order with which it happened.

Related Words Should go Together

Place similar words and expression near to each other and keep them apart from other words and expression where they might give rise to confusion.

For example:

My girlfriend came to visit me while I was writing this article with a nice bottle of wine

That’s a bit confusing.
Your girlfriend brought a nice bottle of wine or you were writing the article with a nice bottle of wine?
If your girlfriend came over with a nice bottle of wine, then rewrite:

I was writing this article when my girlfriend came over with a nice bottle of wine.

Much clearer right?

Write Shorter Sentences

While longer sentences are grammatically correct, they are not any easier to read and process.

I find that English speaking people already tend to write shorter sentences.
I come from a longer-sentences language and I used to write long sentences even for Italian. That means that I had to retrain myself to use more full stops.

Make Sure Readers Know Who’s Speaking

When you are writing text with a lot of dialogues, make sure the readers know who is it that is speaking.

The Elements of Style says that one way to do it is by inserting expressions such as “he said / she said” early in the dialogue.

Stay Consistent With the Tenses

If you start using a specific tense, keep using all along.

Use Similar Form for Connected Concepts

Imagine this example:

Andrea is a Mac user, but he prefers Android phones.
Which is funny, because his dad prefers Apple phones, but uses a PC.

This example inverts the order of the preferences and uses different words to express preferences.
Better would be to say:

Andrea is a Mac user, but he prefers Android phones. Which is funny, because his dad is a PC user, but prefers Apple phones

Write Concisely

I used to be a long, verbose writers because I used to take pride of my knowledge of language and adjectives.
Unconsciously I probably thought that writing was my way to show off intelligence.

That was silly, and I was only showing off my little knowledge of people and psychology.
Much better instead to:

  • Remove all words that add no real value
  • Don’t repeat the same idea multiple times with different words
  • Adjectives and qualifiers such as “very”, “pretty much”, “rather” can be safely removed
  • Use active voice (shorter)
  • Read your material looking for ways to streamline

Writing With Good Form

Similar to writing long sentences, I used to like a difficult adjective or a flowery expression to show off how well read I am and how wide and deep my vocabulary is.

Silly me: flowery language has the opposite effect.
When you use too many big words, people don’t think you are smart, they infer you’re trying too hard and you’re not smart at all.

  • Use simple words (unless to avoid repetition or to cause a specific effect)
  • Limit the usage of adverbs (and don’t rely on them to explain your text)
  • Change your sentence structure (or your text will seem monotone)

Elementary Rules From Elements of Style:

  1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s
  2. In series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last
  3.  Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.
  4. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.
  5. Do not join independent clauses by a comma.
  6. Do not break sentences in two.
  7. Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.
  8. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.
  9. The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.
  10.  Use the proper case of pronoun.
  11. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.

the elements of style book cover

Real Life Applications

My main takeaway:

Don’t Try to Look Smart in Your Text
This is a lesson that I am still struggling to fully internalize.
Your writing is not a tool to show how smart you are. The more you try to look smart, the dumber you’ll seem. Write for clarity and understanding instead.

CONS

There Is Less Need of This Book? 
Probably the chapter on spelling was popular decades ago.
But today, with spell checkers, it’s not nearly as needed (BTW: spell checkers will also help you learn good spelling for handwriting if you pay attention).

Same for the active and passive form and the “unneeded adjectives”. Yoast and Word gives you those suggestions today.
And plugins like Grammarly and Ginger are getting smarter and smarter by the day in helping people write more clearly.

Not Groundbreaking
This book got so many raving reviews that I am sticking my neck out here. I didn’t find much information that I wasn’t at least already aware of.

PROS

Many Examples
I loved the fact that many examples are provided, which is very very helpful.

Clear and Concise
Strunk and Write put their writing where their mouth is: The Elements of Style is clear and concise.

Review

“The Elements of Style” is the most influential and popular book on “how to write well”.
It’s the favorite book on writing by Stephen King, who later also wrote his own book on the subject.

Why did I read it?

Well, it’s because, in a way, I’m also a writer.
Not of fiction of course, but I think that good writing is still very important.

Result?

Well, to be honest I don’t think I learned hugely from this book.
Not because it’s not good, but because it was a bit too baisc and abstract. Maybe more examples on longer sentences structures would have been helpful.

I’m still looking to improve though.
Unluckily I never got much feedback on my writing -which I would love to get BTW-.

But, that being said, I learned enough to make it worth the time.
And if you have never read anything on writing before, definitely grab a copy of The Elements of Style.

Read more summaries or get the book on Amazon

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