Note: This is a post in an occasional series of reprints. Not necessarily my greatest hits, these posts are just some of my most useful commentary that may have gotten buried in the mists of time. This post first appeared in April, 2009.
If you’ve been listening to NPR today you know that The Elements of Style is 50 years old. This is the book commonly referred to as Strunk & White after its authors, William Strunk and E.B. White (Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan, Charlotte’s Web).
Writers don’t need much — but a case can be made that this book is essential for any writer’s toolbox. I think they’ve tarted it up in recent years, but early editions were all of about 80 pages, and that’s the edition I suggest you find at your local used bookstore.
S&W is famous for its simple rules. “Omit needless words” is one of the most famous of its admonishments. You’d be surprised at how that works for writers. Try it on your next edit.
The book covers punctuation, usage (or grammar), style, and commonly misused words. It’s essential. Often aspiring writers neglect to pay attention to language and grammar, but you will find that professional authors rarely put a foot wrong. It’s not that the pros are naturally gifted with an understanding of the written word, although we tend to have a leg up — it does come easily to us. But it is essential to be familiar with and competent in the use of grammar and style in order to make the next step from aspiring to pro.
In addition to Strunk & White and a dictionary, look into a book on writing. Stephen King’s On Writing is a good source of inspiration, understanding, and solid rules for writers. The autobiographical details are fascinating too.
Ann Lamott’s Bird By Bird was my go-to book on writing. I wrote my first selling story after reading her book (The Warlord and the Princess, on this site). But choosing a book on writing is a pretty personal decision. You may find that Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin is more to your taste; plus, she has the home-court advantage, as it were, since she is one of us. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is an oldie but goodie. It didn’t work for me but I know people who swear by it.
One more thing — I mentioned a dictionary but not a thesaurus. People get sniffy about thesauruses, saying that they encourage irresponsible word choice. Why use an exotic alternative when a good basic word will do just as well? However, when used sparingly, a thesaurus can be an asset. Just don’t go overboard, because I will have to rescind my permission.
Finally, I will leave you with the words of Mark Twain, because really, what more do you need: “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.”