The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White is another helpful writing book I picked up. It’s considered to be a small book packed with straight-to-the-point information. It’s been around a long time, and a lot of writers sing its praises, many calling it a timeless, constant writing companion.
Meh. It’s all right.
The start of the introduction was so boring that I struggled not to skip it. I wondered if this was going to be the tone for the entire book.
PART 1 – ELEMENTARY RULES OF USAGE
The first part of the book is all about punctuation, singular and plural usage, and pronouns. Most of it I know, but I screw up on some of it occasionally. I write more by ear, but I was raised by hicks so my ear sometimes fails me. My hope is my future proofreaders and editors will catch all the small, lesser known errors because I can’t remember all the differences. That being said, this book does act as a good reference if I’m able to catch that I’ve made a mistake in the first place.
PART 2 – ELEMENTARY PRINCIPLES OF COMPOSITION
Part two explains paragraphs to me like I was a second grader. I can’t believe this many paragraphs is needed to describe paragraphs. I thought this book was supposed to be succinct? It is over-complicating the subject.
Here’s just one paragraph on paragraphs:
As a rule, begin each paragraph either with a sentence that suggests the topic or with a sentence that helps the transition. If a paragraph forms part of a larger composition, its relation to what precedes, or its function as a part of the whole, may need to be expressed. This can sometimes be done by a mere word or phrase (again, therefore, for the same reason) in the first sentence. Sometimes, however, it is expedient to get into the topic slowly, by way of a sentence or two of introduction or transition.
Uh, yeah, you’re getting into it slowly right now.
So some parts are not super interesting or really even all that helpful, but it does lay out a lot of the tried and true advice that I’m used to hearing, but I enjoy hearing again. I figure the more I hear the same advice, the more likely it is to seep into my brain.
It covers things like – Use active voice. Make your sentences clear and positive – no hesitancy. Be specific. Omit unnecessary words. Vary your sentence structure (something I need so much work on). And there’s more, but anyway, it is dull to read through because so much of it is common sense.
PART 3 – A FEW MATTERS OF FORM
This part is all about when to use exclamations, hyphens, numerals, etc.
PART FOUR – WORDS AND EXPRESSIONS COMMONLY MISUSED
It’s a long list. Most of the words I already use correctly, but some of them I muck up from time to time. “All right” should always be two words for instance. I mess that up a lot.
Here’s an example of how the book explains proper usage:
Comprise. Literally, “embrace”: A zoo comprises mammals, reptiles, and birds (because it “embraces,” or “includes,” them). But animals do not comprise (“embrace”) a zoo – they constitute a zoo.
Okay. It’s interesting. Informative. Not sure how useful. I think I probably would have used the word comprise correctly without the explanation. “The animals comprise the zoo” just doesn’t sound right.
Oh, here’s one I’ve been using wrong. The word “however”:
However. Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is “nevertheless.” The word usually serves better when not in first position.
When however comes first it means “in whatever way” or “to whatever extent.” However you advise him, he will probably do as he thinks best. However discouraging the prospect, they never lost heart.
I use “however” all the time at the beginning of sentences when what I mean is “nevertheless.” So I guess I’ll stop doing that.
I also learned I shouldn’t use “nauseous” in the sentence: I feel nauseous. I’m supposed to use the word nauseated. I feel nauseated. Good to know.
PART 5 – AN APPROACH TO STYLE
This section, again, is filled with old news, but it’s still a nice reminder. Basically, it says your style will come through naturally, and you don’t need to force it. Then it gives a long list of reminders that include the following: Write with nouns and verbs. Do not overwrite. Avoid the use of qualifiers (rather, very, little, pretty). Avoid fancy words. Be clear. Prefer the standard to the offbeat.
There’s nothing there that’s really mind-blowing, but it serves its purpose as a list of reminders.
The end of the chapter encourages writers to please and satisfy themselves, not their audiences, which is excellent advice and advice that a lot of people get turned around. People try to write what’s trending and write what they think readers want, and I’ve always thought that was a very backward way of doing things. Writing a novel is a huge undertaking. Why would anyone put in this much time and work just to please someone else? You have to stick to your own passions and hope that the money will follow, and even if the money doesn’t, at least you wrote something you loved.
Then there’s an afterword, a glossary, and an index.
It’s a good book to use as a quick reference for something specific which is why it’s so small. If you’re not sure about a certain comma usage? Look it up. It’s not a good book to sit and read through cover to cover as I did. It’s too much of a bore for this since most of it’s common sense grade school stuff.
Honestly, if you were confused about a certain word usage or comma, you’d probably just type your question into Google, wouldn’t you? I do. I don’t think people really carry around pocket-sized reference books anymore, not when they’re already carrying their laptops, phones, and tablets.
That being said, I still won’t be parting with my copy. There were a few new gems in there for me, and it never hurts to read what you already know.
I will add that if you don’t already know the vast majority of this stuff, I’m not sure how helpful this book, The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, will be since it doesn’t come with exercises. When you learn these things in grade school, your teachers give you homework and tests, so you’re constantly practicing what you’ve been taught. Just reading a quick little book of lists and examples isn’t going to force the information into your brain. For instance, if you don’t know how quotes work, you’ll have to practice on your own and constantly go back and reference this book until you have it memorized. Whether or not you’ll actually do that depends on you.
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