One month from today is a momentous occasion: The release date of the 50th Anniversary Edition of Strunk & White’s tiny stone tablet of writing commandments, The Elements of Style. You can scuttle on over to Amazon and preorder it there for $14.

The Elements of a Pile (of You-Know-What)

My advice: Don’t. Instead, go dig up your copy and run it through a paper shredder. It’s less expensive, more fun, and better for you as a writer.

Self-help books on writing (or “advice” books, to be nicer) are universally bad. The best writing advice is easily summed up. Read a lot, especially good stuff. Write like what you read. Write often, and revise to make your writing better.

Other books related to writing fall into three categories:

  1. House style guides
  2. Writing prompts
  3. Memoir

“House” style guides are in-house guides to matters of style, grammar, and mechanics where there is no universal “right” answer. (The preceding sentence provides one such example—is there a comma before the final “and” in a list?) They exist primarily to maintain consistency. The best and most-used example of house style guides come from the Associated Press, the New York Times, and the University of Chicago Press. Anyone who writes should shoot for a consistent “style” (in this sense of the word), and there are books to help you with this, too, the best coming from authors Bill Walsh and Patricia O’Conner. A good resource for the set “rules” is Merriam-Webster.

Books of writing prompts include your classic “writing composition” course textbooks, where you are given an example followed by an assignment. These are good for beating writers block and for growing in technical ability. I have never found one that I really like—does anyone have suggestions?

Memoirs are mostly-autobiographical books about what it’s like to be a writer. This category is reigned over by Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. Anne Lammot’s Bird by Bird breaks these categories, including bits of memoir, prompt, and advice—and much of her advice (write “shitty first drafts,” get in tune with your instincts) is really anti-advice.

So, the best advice stands: read good stuff and write frequently. My advice, therefore, is that if you must buy a book to mark this 50th anniversary occasion, grab hold of E.B. White’s collection, Writings from The New Yorker 1927-1976, for about the same price as the re-re-re-release of The Elements of Style. E.B. White’s writing (when he is writing about real stuff, rather than writing about writing) is a top-notch model. That’s because he (and Strunk, too) include effective passive sentences, bits of “grammatical whimsy,” and a healthy sprinkling of adjectives and adverbs, against their own advice.

The writerly hypocrisy of White is railed against by the good folks at the Language Log, with Geoffrey Pullum leading the charge. In his view, The Elements of Style is

a horrid little compendium of unmotivated prejudices (don’t use ongoing), arbitrary stipulations (don’t begin a sentence with however), and fatuous advice (“Be clear”), ridiculously out of date in its positions on appropriate choices among grammatical variants, deeply suspect in its style advice and grotesquely wrong in most of the grammatical advice it gives.

He’s right on this, and on the observation that Strunk and White treat you like the abused 9-year-old daughter of a pair of grumpy dads. I imagine them as unfunny versions of The Muppets’ Statler and Waldorf.

So, this October 25th, join in the fun and bludgeon the curmudgeons. There’s no easier way to start than by joining the regal Good Grammar Is Hot, But Strunk & White Are Not group on Facebook.

2 thoughts on “Omit Needless Books: The Elements of Style

  1. I loved Bird by Bird. Like you said, it wasn’t advice on writing as much as it was advice on how to handle yourself as a writer. it was great. William Zinnser’s “On Writing Well” was a decent read on how to write well. But it basically boils down to this. “Write something, realize half of the words are unnecessary, and get rid of the ones you dont need. this might take a few drafts”

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