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Writing: Elements of Style

January 12, 2013

Since I’m a beginner blogger, I thought I’d read a bit on how to increase my quality of writing. I remembered this book from university days. Remembering that this book was short and to the point, and that it was available immediately at my local library, I put a hold on this book “Elements of Style”. The book is a collection of ‘rules’, common mistakes, and style guidelines for writing.

I decided to record how many of these guidelines I already follow in my writing to measure against these rules. The rules, common mistakes, and style guidelines were in separate sections, so I’ll separate them in this post as well.

Elementary Rules of Usage

Rules 1 through 11 were in this section. The rules were familiar to me from my primary education and also from other ‘good writing’ articles and blog postings. Since these rules are the elementary ones, I was happy that I used all of them properly. The most useful thing I learned from this section was the terminology of the grammar constructs I’d been using. A sentence beginning like “Upon arriving at the airport, he went directly to …”, has a participial phrase referring to the subject of the sentence, which it must do. And a sentence construct that I use frequently: parenthetic expressions. For example, Joe, my boss, made me work this weekend.

Elementary Principles of Composition

First rule stresses the need for an underlying design and maintaining it through out the writing. I like to think that I follow this principle as well as I can. The next rule defines a paragraph as a unit of composition. Thanks again public education, because that rule stuck pretty easily. Using the active voice has always been a favorite principle of mind, so I was glad to see it on the list. And the other side of the same coin, putting statements in the positive form. Ex. “He was not very often on time” -> “He often came late”. Vigorous writing tends to be concise writing following these principles. Use definitive, concrete language as much as possible to illustrate your idea to the reader. Brevity and clarity lead to the next principle: omit needless words. The avoiding of a succession of loose sentences rule, specifically refers to sentences with two clauses linked by a conjunction or a relative. Express coordinated ideas in a similar form rule, is a nice aid to the reader that this parallel construction is related in content and function.

I definitely did learn a few things in this section, but again did fairly well with what I learned in school. It was still fantastic to see the principles explicitly explained with example sentences in a “before and after” format for comparison. My favorite principle of this section was “place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end”. Why? Because there they’re most prominent.

A Few Matters of Form

Definitely some of these tips apply to the paper and print industries. Advice on how to break apart words by syllable so they fit on a page, or page margin guidelines just aren’t as important in the digital age. Colloquialisms should NOT be put in quotes or emphasized; doing so confers special status to it.

Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

This is the section that I really suffered in my comparison of my writing style to what this book recommends. Although this book correctly explains why certain words and phrases are used incorrectly, the fact of the matter is they are used incorrectly by many, many people. The author was even good enough to admit in print that if a certain usage is incorrect today, it might not be in the future if it continues to be used by the masses. The English language changes over time, albeit slowly. The amount of information people need to read on a daily basis, I doubt these technical points on usage will matter to most readers that are focused on absorbing content quickly and at an increasing rate.

So although I understand, and realize that I misuse a few words and phrases, this is not a concern to me because most people don’t use them correctly either.

An Approach to Style

This section has 21 reminders to guide the reader towards a style of writing that is concise, clear, and vigorous. The reminders echo the previously given rules; I suppose since they’re reminders that’s fine. Some great writing advice that I know, but don’t always follow is that nobody write exactly what they want the first time. Revising and rewriting is part of writing, not just an occasional process needed to correct exceptional mistakes. Clarity and brevity are hidden in a few reminders, and they remind me of the quote by Mark Twain “I didn’t have time for a short letter, so I wrote a long one.” 

I’m glad I read this book, and I hope to incorporate more of these principles and reminders in my daily writings. At 87 pages, this book is a must-read for anyone that wants to write better for their reader’s sake. 😉

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