[Book Review] The Elements of Style

Along with How To Win Friends and Influence People, The Elements of Style might be one of the ten best books ever written for one simple reason: Succinctly summarizing concepts can educate everyone. You don’t need to be crazy enough to write hundreds of words daily to benefit from reading The Elements of Style. The material is dense. It’s not leisurely reading. Yet the concepts it unfurls can benefit communicators of any wayward style.

Rating: ★★★★★ [5/5]

Clear communication always wins.

When you communicate, whether in spoken or written form, everything should be easy to understand. I like to think of writing as building up infrastructure and editing as tidying up the clutter. When unnecessary words clutter the script, your audience becomes disinterested. I’ll see writers online capitalize certain words for emphasis, and yet I think with a stronger sentence where superfluous words are omitted, there would be no need for that extra attention to certain words. If you, as a writer, value every word, then you convey that importance to your reader, who will then read with that same consideration.

Strunk might go too extreme with this, however.

Certain words have less weight than others. Those words are also the first I’ll edit out when I’m editing. There is little difference between very well and well, except when it comes to the rhythm of a sentence, where sometimes an innocent filler word gives the sentence some extra vitality through enabling a certain sing-songy cadence that might otherwise have been fumbled out in the editing process. The Elements of Style is an example where every filler word is omitted. It is so taut that there is no fluff in its entirety. Strunk might write that as: “It is entirely too taut.” It is more direct but lacks flourish.

Strunk does acknowledge the occasional need for flourish.

With that in mind, “the little book” does wonders in explaining the need for clear, concise communication. When ideas are scattered throughout a sentence or long-form piece, it can be difficult for the reader to keep track of everything. We might feel the need to emphasize certain words if we don’t have the right word. Studying linguistics and communication actually involves psychology for this reason. As White summarizes in the concluding chapter, writers will use words based on experiences they’ve had. If we write with too much filler, Strunk might conclude that we have feeble communication skills.

The Elements of Style teaches us to write, and therefore live, with vigor.

Strunk’s minimalist writing style is similar to the ethos of modern minimalists. Both do not value the addition of things in their space the same way hoarders, or purple prose writers, do. Although this might seem like a glass-half-full versus glass-half-empty debate, within communication, the clearer the communication the better. While filler words, adverbs, and passive voice can enhance certain sentences, their need is seldom, often hindering the quality of the writing.

In this way, Strunk uses The Elements of Style to teach us about life.

[Thoughts while reading]
[Around 10 minutes per day]

[01] January 15th – 4/5 – From the front cover to xvi.
Strong introduction. You know exactly how White is approaching the editing of Strunk’s original book with this introduction. Fantastic word choice.

[02] January 16th – 5/5 – From Page xvi to 4.
Usually, the preambles aren’t worth much at all, but here it gives context into how the reader should approach the book. The rules are straightforward and clear, even though at times it may seem a little tough to understand, just because the word choice isn’t dumbed down at all, and aimed for advanced academics.

[03] January 17th – 3/5 – From Page 4 to 6.
I’ll be honest. This is very difficult for me to understand. It’s too dense and difficult for me to understand. In criticism, is it the work or the person observing the work? Here I think some paragraph breaks could help. Or maybe definitions.

[04] January 18th – 4/5 – From Page 6 to 12.
The examples are less abstract, clearer, and easier to read now. It’s still not easy, but that’s the point. To read and understand takes time to practice the concepts in your head.

[05] January 19th – 4/5 – From Page 12 to 18.
These examples continue being more concrete. I think that example from two days ago that was esoteric perhaps set the bar of entry high, set the tone, and pacing, but also, could have been clearer. I’m also glad, too, that all the information so far has been more obvious than enlightening, because that at least somewhat validates that I’ve been writing in the right direction for all these years.

[06] January 20th – 4/5 – From Page 18 to 24.
Solid information here. I’d learned to write in active voice years ago. Seeing this spelled out as a rule, with a clear example, was refreshing.

[07] January 22nd – 4/5 – From page 24 to 30.
The rules here seem challenging. I’ve broken some of these rules. I’ve written “the fact that” three times in earnest on my website, besides this fourth inclusion. Other rules are only positive structural advisements.

[08] January 23rd – 3/5 – From page 30 to 34.
This part was dry and unclear. The problem with being too tight with your writing is that your reader, hi there, doesn’t have room to breathe. Strunk’s problem was firm with writers using plenty of ado. Some ado is OK, I suppose.

[09] February 4th – 4/5 – From page 34 to 40.
Random rules that make sense when compiled together.

[10] February 6th – 3/5 – From page 40 to 67.
Random rules that make sense when compiled together do not make the most engaging material. Gone is wit. The final chapter returns to that, so it is unfair to say: “It was merely a dictionary.” Perhaps I’ll read through this skipped section later. Perhaps not.

[11] February 7th – 5/5 – From page 67 to 74.
White’s dissection of the styles of many writers was fascinating. White uses Strunk’s succinct tone while not squeezing it dry. The alarm went off but I kept reading.

[12] February 8th – 4/5 – From page 74 to 80.
The psychology of styles regressed, a bit, into more rules. This is fine, but not as bold.

[13] February 9th – 5/5 – From page 80 to 85.
A commendable conclusion. Trust your reader. Write for yourself.

Quotes: None.
Sources: Reading the book.
Inspirations: Wanting to write more book reviews as a way to summarize my thoughts.
Related: My other Book Reviews.
Photo: Trying to summarize the book visually, I came up with the idea that it’s like a wall painted white.
Written On: February 12th [1 hour]
Last Edited: First draft; final draft.
My big goal is writing. My most important goal is writing "The Story." All other goals should work toward that central goal. My proudest moment is the most recent time I overcame some fear, which should have been today. I'm a better zombie than I was yesterday. I'm not better than you and you're not better than me. Let's strive to be better every day.