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21 Tips from Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style”

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

Strunk and White’s 105-page how-to-write classic, Elements of Style was first published in 1959 as a guide for writers and secretaries (remember what those are?). Because of its pithiness and focus on critical elements, it is still considered the gold standard in college classes and writing seminars. In 2011, Time Magazine listed what many refer to as the ‘Little Book’ as one of the 100 most influential books written in English since 1923. The most recent edition was published 51 years after Strunk’s death.

Strunk (E.B. White–better known as the author of Charlotte’s Web–was Strunk’s student at Cornell; as such, he didn’t change the elements, merely revised) may be the first–but not the last–to assert that writers must know the rules before they break them. You can purchase it through Amazon, or access it for free through Bartleby.com or Project Gutenberg.

The book includes five categories–topics like composition, usage, and form–each with a narrative to discuss the topic and then a list of reminders. Today, I’ll share 21 of my favorite tips with you.. These are essential to good writing, easy to follow, but sometimes forgotten in the flush of prose:

  1. Place yourself in the background
  2. Write in a way that comes naturally
  3. Work from a suitable design
  4. Write with nouns and verbs
  5. Revise and rewrite
  6. Do not overwrite
  7. Do not overstate
  8. Avoid the use of qualifiers
  9. Do not affect a breezy manner
  10. Use orthodox spelling
  11. Do not explain too much
  12. Do not construct awkward adverbs
  13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking
  14. Avoid fancy words
  15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good
  16. Be clear
  17. Do not inject opinion
  18. Use figures of speech sparingly
  19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity
  20. Avoid foreign languages
  21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat

I confess, I regularly fail at #11 and #21, and have a large section in my first thriller that tramples all over #20. How about you?

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More on grammar:

18 Tips on Grammar from William Safire

Can You Fix These Grammar Problems?

Five Grammar Errors that Make you Look Dumb

Questions you want answered? Leave a comment and I’ll answer it within the next thirty days.

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.


82 thoughts on “21 Tips from Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style”

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    • I just got back from a writer conference. They reinforced the point that writing rules must be followed, but the writer’s voice is paramount. It’s up to us how to balance what sound like contradictory advice.


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  13. Someone gave me this book and I need to move it higher up my TBR pile.

    To answer your question, in my critique group the readers take anywhere from 15-30 minutes to read and get a critique. We read out loud and bring copies for everyone, 10 pages max of our manuscript.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi Jacqui,

    This is a compilation of great tips.

    The ones which jumped out for me were relating to ‘Over-writing’ and ‘Over-explaining’. In my own case I have noticed these aspects when I am either not sure about the essence of what I need to convey or while I know what I need to say, I lack clarity about it somehow.

    I have not read ” Elements of Style” so thank you for pointing me to it.


    Liked by 1 person

  15. I fall for number 11 too, especially when I’ve been researching heavily. A lot gets scrapped in the first editing round! Great tips. I think we all fall into traps the first go around, but when we have the right tools to use it’s easier to spot the glaring mistakes 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Many, if not most, of the writers who “go down in history” as great writers break many (if not all) of the “rules” much of the time.

    Being a novice I the rules really help me. I suspect it’s starting out with the rules – writing “Dick & Jane” (that dates me) graduating to Jackie Collins (minus the sex OF COURSE) before proceeding to write like Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Agatha Christie, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison et.al.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I have to be careful of #14. Sometimes words that seem ‘everyday’ to me might not to others. This is where beta readers come in handy.

    ♬I like big words and I cannot lie. You other brothers can’t deny. That…♬ (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Actually, it seems well-suited to you, with your woodworking. Do you have a rough blueprint before beginning a project, even if it’s mental? That’s what this means. Design as opposed to impulse or emotion. If you download the book, it’s around pg. 70 (at least in my version)


      • With woodworking I am much more aware of the design before I start – often with plans (sometimes rough sketches, sometimes detail prints). My blog writing is mostly stream of consciousness writing that I impose an order on during editing. Now, my last book was designed – I had a clear set of subjects, scenes and emotions I wanted to convey.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It might be comforting to know that on page 71, it states: “Sometimes, of course, impulse and emotion are more compelling than design.” However, the above very important 21 tips or reminders are in the last chapter titled: An Approach to Style. And according to the authors (and Jacqui), the four preceding chapters are equally important if we want to be good writers.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I write the way you woodwork, Andrew–for better or for worse. Can’t change it cuz it’s who I am as a writer. It feels right.

        How long does it take to get past the blueprint stage in woodworking? Are they rough sketches or fully formed with a program like SkietchUp?


      • Of the total time I spend on a woodworking project, up to a third of that can be doing sketches. Normally, I use the drawing process to get past the difficult design and joinery problems. Once I am past that the work normal is very easy. Well, except for the heavy lifting and all the wood dust…

        Liked by 1 person

  18. First read in university freshman English class and followed faithfully for many years as best I could until I did not. Thanks, Jacqui, for the reminder about this writing foundation. I wonder if other languages have something similar? Many of the rules would have to be different.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the ‘fancy dialect’ can be confused with an author’s voice. Literary fiction authors are much more likely to use it than thriller authors. And certain authors–I pick them for the way they connect words. It’s beautiful!

      Liked by 1 person

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