The Elements of Style

The classic text on writing. It offers practical, highly useful advice on improving your writing. Whether you’re a professional writer or an amateur, this book will help you communicate more effectively and in a simple, concise way.

I find the guidelines in the book very useful, acting as reminders when writing. Surprisingly, most of the instructions apply equally well when you’re programming. If you’re a programmer, this book will make you better at the craft of programming. Period.

The Elements of Style

An Approach to Style

Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by.

A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up. Like other gunners, the writer must cultivate patience, working many covers to bring down one partridge.

Here, are some suggestions and cautionary hints that may help the beginner find the way to a satisfactory style.

Omit needless words

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, paragraphs, and sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

  • the question as to whether » whether
  • there is no doubt but that » no doubt (doubtless)
  • used for fuel purposes » used for fuel
  • he is a man who » he
  • in a hasty manner » hastily
  • this is a subject that » this subject
  • Her story is a strange one. » Her story is strange.
  • the reason why is that » because

This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Use definite, specific, concrete language

The surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete.

Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, and the concrete to the abstract.

  • A period of unfavorable weather set in. » It rained every day for a week.
  • He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward. » He grinned as he pocketed the coin.

If your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority. Save the auxilaries would, should, could, may, might, and can for situations involving real uncertainty.

In exposition and in argument, the writer must likewise never lose hold of the concrete; and even when dealing with general principles, the writer must furnish particular instances of their application.

A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing

The first principle of composition is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape. The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better the chances of success.

Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.

Make the paragraph the unit of composition

one paragraph for each topic.

A paragraph is a convenient unit; it serves all forms of literary work. As long as it holds together, a paragraph may be of any length — a single, short sentence or a passage of great duration.

The object of treating each topic in a paragraph by itself is, of course, to aid the reader.

In general, remember that paragraphing calls for a good eye as well as a logical mind. Enormous blocks of print look formidable to readers, who are often reluctant to tackle them. Therefore, breaking long paragraphs in two, even if it is not necessary to do so for sense, meaning, or logical development, is often a visual help. But remember, too, that firing off many short paragraphs in quick succession can be distracting.

After the paragraph has been written, examine it to see whether division will improve it.

Use Active Voice

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.

When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.

Use Positives

Put statements in positive form.

Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, and non-committal language.

Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; the reader wishes to be told what is.

Hence, as a rule, it is better to express even a negative in a positive form.

  • He was not very often on time. » He usually came late.
  • She did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time. » She thought the study of Latin a waste of time.

Avoid the succession of loose sentences

A loose sentence contains two clauses, the second introduced by a conjunction or relative.

An occasional loose sentence prevents the style from becoming too formal and gives the reader a certain relief. Consequently, loose sentences are common in easy, unstudied writing. The danger is that there may be too many of them.

The position of the words in a sentence is the principal means of showing their relationship.

Confusion and ambiguity result when words are badly placed. The writer must, therefore, bring together the words and groups of words that are related in thought and keep apart those that are not so related.

  • He noticed a large stain in the rug that was right in the center. » He noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug.

The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end.

This applies equally to the words of a sentence, to the sentences of a paragraph, and to the paragraphs of a composition.

Place yourself in the background

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.

If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work.

A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts — which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward.

The act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.

Don’t steal from others, but don’t be afraid to imitate.

The usage of language begins with imitation.

The imitative life continues long after the writer is secure in the language, for it is almost impossible to avoid imitating what one admires.

Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains instead to admire what is good.

Work from a suitable design.

Before beginning to compose something, gauge the nature and extent of the enterprise and work from a suitable design. Design informs even the simplest structure, whether of brick and steel or of prose.

This does not mean that you must sit with a blueprint always in front of you, merely that you had best anticipate what you are getting into.

Write with nouns and verbs.

Don’t use too many adjectives and adverbs. In general, it is nouns and verbs that give good writing its toughness and color.

Revise and Rewrite

Revising is part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try.

Quite often you will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for revisions. Don’t be afraid to experiment with what you have written.

Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.

Do not overwrite

Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.

When writing with a computer, you must guard against wordiness. Do not add unnecessary words just because it’s easy. It’s always a good idea to reread your writing later and ruthlessly delete the excess.

Do not overstate

When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise.

Overstatement is one of the common faults. A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.

Avoid the use of qualifiers

Rather, very, little, pretty — these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.

Do not explain too much

It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,” “she replied,” and the like: “he said consolingly”; “she replied grumblingly.”

Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition.

Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.

Dialogue is a total loss unless you indicate who the speaker is.

In long dialogue passages containing no attributives, the reader may become lost and be compelled to go back and reread in order to puzzle the thing out.

Obscurity is an imposition on the reader, to say nothing of its damage to the work.

Avoid fancy words

Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute.

Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready, and able.

Be clear

Clarity, clarity, clarity. When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh; do not try to fight your way through against the terrible odds of syntax.

Usually what is wrong is that the construction has become too involved at some point; the sentence needs to be broken apart and replaced by two or more shorter sentences.

When you say something, make sure you have said it.

Do not inject opinion

We all have opinions about almost everything, and the temptation to toss them in is great. Unless there is a good reason for its being there, do not inject opinion into a piece of writing.

Opinions scattered indiscriminately about leave the mark of egotism on a work. To air one’s views at an improper time may be in bad taste.

Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity

Do not use initials unless they are easily understood. Write things out. Many shortcuts are self-defeating. They waste the reader’s time instead of conserving it.

The longest way round is usually the shortest way home, and the one truly reliable shortcut in writing is to choose words that are strong and surefooted to carry readers on their way.

Prefer the standard to the off-beat.

Young writers will be drawn at every turn toward eccentricities in language. They will hear the beat of new vocabularies, the exciting rhythms of special segments of their society, each speaking a language of its own.

All of us come under the spell of these unsettling drums; the problem for beginners is to listen to them, learn the words, feel the vibrations, and not be carried away.

A final note

Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.

Written on May 7, 2023