A Writer’s Cheat Sheet

Go read Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.  It’s a tiny book, about sixty pages, but it holds the key to powerful writing.

I thought good, powerful writing was something one simply learned as they went.  I knew I didn’t quite have it down yet, but I figured that if I practiced enough, I’d get it.  That is probably true, but Elements of Style told me everything I needed.  It’s like a book full of cheats.

The first section is full of simple punctuation rules: how to use colons properly, when a dash is more apt than parentheses or splitting up a sentence, and what semicolons actually do.  The second section is full of rules for making writing strong and punchy.  Omit unnecessary words.  Put statements in positive form.  Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.  These are things that I don’t think about, but they’re so important.  The examples show exactly how much a sentence can change from indecisive to powerful with just a change of phrasing.

I’m a very conscious writer.  I don’t write without thinking.  I know what words I’m putting into my sentences, and I think about the sentence structure.  This, however, is far beyond anything I’ve thought about before.  I have no idea if I’m following even half of the rules right now, but I’ll learn to in time.

I highly recommend that book.  I’m only halfway through right now, but even if the rest of it is horrible, it will still have helped me immensely.  Read it.  Memorize it.  I’m sure going to try.

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55 Comments

  1. Charley R

     /  December 12, 2012

    Use of the actual prose has always been really important to me, so I might just pick up this book of yours. Some of what you’ve mentioned here I’m doing already, but . . . I wonder if there’s some sneaky secret in there I don’t know about?

    Can’t have you knowing things I don’t, you know 😉

    Reply
  2. Robyn Hoode

     /  December 12, 2012

    I have read and own this book. 🙂 It is a lovely guide. And yes, I don’t always follow the rules.

    Reply
  3. Yeah, it’s a good book and the rules must be studied if one wants to write a book (editors can instantly reject a manuscript based on sloppiness). But… one must also complete the book (or manuscript, which is all it is at that point). Strunk and White didn’t do the trick for me. So I got another one, forgot the title, but the reviewer said it was a great book for ‘those who love to read books and want to write them,’ or something to that effect.
    After reading that one, I had three abortive attempts wandering somewhere on my hard disk (three totally different and rejected stories), but the desire to write a book was still there. On a trip to Europe via England I strolled into a tiny branch of WHSmith in Torquay, Devon, with the intention to buy two things: 1) journal 2) book how to write. The first one was easy, and so was the second one because I had a choice between Writing for Dummies and the one I got. The one I got contained a lot of detail and as I am a detail freak, I’m glad I made the choice based on that.
    Writing Fiction, by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Lots and lots and lots of practice. They (various authors) tell you something about ‘How To’ and then it’s your turn. You could use your own story as the guinea pig or you can use their suggestions. You can also pick up this book any time you want to for a bit of inspiration.
    I got very far this time, virtually finished… some 300 pages, proofread by two avid readers and all! I totally ascribe that to having read the Gotham Writers’ work. But nevertheless…
    My project is on hold. Perimenopausal brain fog got in the way, or something like it. Now that I tell you about the book, I’m thinking, hhmmm I should actually pick it up myself and see what it can do for me!
    I hope you’ll look into it.

    Reply
    • You’re quite right– Elements of Style won’t help you finish a book, but it’ll sure help you polish it. If the story is sound, I’ve found that I can finish whatever book it is, even if the style is horrible. Using Elements of Style, then, I can fix the writing style and make it worth writing.

      I’ll definitely look into that book. It sounds like its worked wonders for you.

      Reply
  4. I love Elements of Style. It IS really helpful.

    Reply
  5. Hi there! I stumbled upon your blog last night and I came back today to tell you that I loved your style of writing. I’ll definitely be checking out that book! Also, I like your sense of humour. Something a book can’t teach you 🙂
    -JulieC

    Reply
  6. “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
    ― Dorothy Parker, The Collected Dorothy Parker

    If Dorothy Parker said it, it must be true. Do you have any other writing improving reading material that could improve my writing?
    Yeah, redundancy is the new thing. I’m kidding,I’m just strange.

    Reply
    • More improving reading material… Erm… No. I don’t read a lot of grammar or English books. I just read a lot of other books and get by that way. I’d suggest the same thing to you, but you don’t have to.

      Reply
  7. The Elements of Style sounds good, I think I will get it based on your recommendation.

    A good book I once read on punctuation was Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. That book was not only helpful, but, unusually for a book on punctuation, quite humorous. My punctuation probably isn’t a very good advertisement for the book, but don’t let it put you off — good advice passes through me like a sieve. I just have to hope that some of the advice comes in lumps too big to pass through the holes…

    Reply
    • I have heard of that book. I’ll look for it.

      That truly is unfortunate. Try just writing down three important things on Post-It notes and sticking them to your computer, or anywhere you’ll see them while you’re writing. Once you’ve memorized them and can implement them without thinking in your writing, pick another three.

      Reply
  8. That is a good idea, I think I may try it. Actually I am thinking now, my absorption, while not great, might not be quite as bad as I suggested: it is just that I can’t remember very much from Eats, Shoots and Leaves. I think I remember things better if I hear them in a few different places at about the same time— and this didn’t happen much while I was reading that book.

    I didn’t actually end up getting Elements of Style, because the version in the Kindle store was the old one without E B White’s additions. If I see something with his additions though, I’ll get it.

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! I don’t know why they picked that particular post, but you deserved to get something Freshly Pressed.

    Reply
    • It’s still good to keep yourself to only a few rules at a time so that you don’t overload yourself and go extremely slow with it.

      I think the original is about the same, but it’s your choice.

      Thank you! That post definitely wouldn’t have been my choice, but it worked. Thanks!

      Reply
  9. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure I have that book on my bookshelf somewhere… never read it before. I think I might, now.

    Reply

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