Why read an arcane, outdated textbook filled with words that fell out of usage decades ago?
“The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. is a short (51 pages) English writing handbook published in 1918. It aims to teach the essential rules of usage, highlight common violations distracting the reader from your message, and enliven your writing by avoiding needless words and the dreaded and pervasive passive voice. In short, there is something for everyone, especially me, who probably spent years writing in passive voice exclusively.
The author approaches the topic from the perspective of, “know the rules before you break them,” . . . and you probably don’t know the rules well enough to break them. It’s not lost on me that my review of this book contains many errors that this book seeks to correct – this very sentence features at least two!
The book was enlarged and republished in 1959, and in 2011 Time named it one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923. However that isn’t how it came to land on my desk.
I purchased the book two or three years ago after hearing it referenced a number of times by respected authors. It has been recommended by at least four guests of the Tim Ferriss podcast as well as Tim Ferris himself. Then, probably due to the boring cover, I put it away and forgot that I owned it.
It came across my radar again in an interview with Shopify CEO, Tobias Lütke, who claims he keeps about 50 copies in his office to give to employees who send him memos written in the passive voice. Similarly, the President of Shopify, Harley Finkelstein, suggested (with obvious exaggeration) that everything he learned in law school could probably be gleaned from “The Elements of Style”.
If the leaders of a vanguard software startup such as Shopify feel their employees need this book, I probably need this book. I went searching online to purchase a copy, when, thankfully, my wife reminded me that I already own this book and it is sitting on the bookshelf. Win!
Here are a few examples from the book where I am a frequent offender:
- Use the word not as a means of denial, never as a means of evasion (Eg: “He was not very often on time.” is better written, “He usually came late.”
- The phrase, “the fact that” is an example of needless words.
- Similarly, “who is”, “which was”, and the like, are often superfluous.
- “Interesting”. Instead of announcing that what you are about to tell is “interesting”, just make it interesting!
- “While”. Avoid using this word as a substitute for “and”, “but”, and “although”.
I recommend this as a book to read in short pieces at a time, then look for ways to implement what you read ASAP. You’ll want to keep it handy as a reference tool wherever you write.
I am glad to have a copy of this book on my desk, and I intend to replace my original version with the enlarged version. Next up on this topic will probably be, “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process” by John McPhee.