Communication is at the heart of human relationships: reading, writing, speaking, listening.
“Writing means sharing. It’s part of the human condition to want to share things — thoughts, ideas, opinions,” wrote Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho.
Use care: what you write often impacts others much more and lasts far longer than what you say. How well you write influences the opinions of others about you.
In business, you need to write letters, memos, reports, and other specialized publications. Your writing skill will impact your effectiveness and your chances of promotion. I describe here a valuable and inexpensive little book [only 105 pages long] that will help you write better and avoid the most common mistakes.
Originally written and published a century ago by Cornell University Professor William Strunk, Jr., and updated decades later by E.B. White, this classic text on writing, The Elements of Style, has guided myriads of writers and editors through the thickets of English usage, grammar, and form.
I present here excerpts from Strunk and White‘s “little book,” with its original words in boldface, followed by my own examples in italics and by my comments:
I. ELEMENTARY RULES OF USAGE
1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s.
A dog’s life, Tom’s pen, and Charles’s paper are right. Note that possessives of plurals that themselves end in s take only the apostrophe, so we have: several friends’ birthdays. Plurals not ending in s do take ‘s: the children‘s hour.
2. In a series of three of more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.
This, that, and the other all qualify.
3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.
It is best, at least most of the time, to avoid parentheses.
4. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing a co-ordinate clause.
This is often done incorrectly, but it is important.
5. Do not join independent clauses by a comma.
This is also often done incorrectly; it is important to use a semicolon instead or start a new sentence.
6. Do not break sentences in two.
Be sure. Not to. Or only rarely!
7. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.
Trying to write well, you should heed this rule.
II. ELEMENTARY PRINCIPLES OF COMPOSITION
8. Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.
This can be tricky, as “topic” is a slippery term. Lately, short paragraphs have become fashionable and are quite readable and effective.
9. As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning.
“In conformity” does not mean repeating, however. Be more creative as you restate.
10. Use the active voice.
Active: She wrote the poem. Passive: The poem was written by her.
11. Put statements in positive form.
Do not put statements in this negative form, generally.
12. Use definite, specific, concrete language.
As done in “connecting Asian American women to the world.”
13. Omit needless words.
Be pithy, terse, and succinct, avoiding repetition and redundancy, unlike this sentence.
14. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
Loose sentences are distinguished from periodic ones, where the main idea comes at the end.
15. Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.
Use parallelism in sentence structure: she wrote the book and he drew the pictures.
16. Keep related words together. Make it clear what your modifiers modify.
17. In summaries, keep to one tense.
Generally, use the simple present or simple past tense: it does, it did….
18. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.
Easier said than done.
III. A FEW MATTERS OF FORM
Here the authors advise the writer on: colloquialisms, exclamations, headings, hyphens, margins, numerals, parentheses, quotations, references, syllabication, and titles.
IV. WORDS AND EXPRESSIONS COMMONLY MISUSED
Strunk and White dissect over 100 troublesome words and phrases, such as distinguishing “disinterested” versus “uninterested.”
V. AN APPROACH TO STYLE
1. Place yourself in the background.
Unless, of course, you are writing a memoir or autobiography. Even then, try not to brag.
2. Write in a way that comes naturally.
Write pretty much as you talk.
3. Work from a suitable design.
An outline will help greatly. In a formal piece, your first paragraph should outline the presentation such that each sentence could be a suitable topic sentence for a paragraph in the body of the work that follows.
4. Write with nouns and verbs.
Use specific nouns and descriptive verbs.
5. Revise and rewrite.
You will always find something worth improving; however, don’t let perfectionism cripple you.
6. Do not overwrite.
Avoid grandiosity, flowery words, highly complicated and “literary” sentences.
7. Do not overstate.
Understate, rather than overstate. Suggest, unless you can justly claim. Occasionally, be subtle. Shakespeare wrote, “by indirections find directions out.” Don’t sacrifice clarity, however.
8. Avoid the use of qualifiers.
Specific nouns rarely need adjectives. Apt verbs don’t need adverbs.
9. Do not affect a breezy manner.
10. Use orthodox spelling.
11. Do not explain too much.
While this is good advice for fiction, much nonfiction does need careful elucidation.
12. Do not construct awkward adverbs.
Don’t be adverbially challenged.
13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
In fiction, the dialogue and attribution (“Jill said“) should make this clear. In nonfiction, your facts and opinions need to be distinguished from those of others.
14. Avoid fancy words.
Eschew sesquipedalianism. Keep your words simple, usually.
15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
16. Be clear.
If “brevity is the soul of wit,” clarity should be the brain of wit.
17. Do not inject opinion.
Editorials and persuasive pieces of various types are allowed to violate this recommendation.
18. Use figures of speech sparingly.
Occasional similes and metaphors spice your prose, but they should not comprise the main course.
19. Do not take shortcuts as the cost of clarity.
U no wat ths means, prbbly.
20. Avoid foreign languages.
Having to look up a foreign term is my bete noire.
21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat.
This is the same advice I’d give my nieces about dating!
Let me emphasize: communication is often at the heart of business…and of love, but that’s a topic for another day.
Dr. Cooper (firstname.lastname@example.org), a retired scientist, is now a writer, editor, and writing coach. His first book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, published by Outskirts Press in 2011 can be obtained from on-line booksellers such as Outskirts Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, in paperback and ebook formats. Also available are two memoirs he subsequently co-authored, The Shield of Gold and Kidnapped Twice, and two memoirs he edited, High Shoes and Bloomers and But…at What Cost. On Twitter, contact him as @douglaswcooper. Visit his writing, editing, and coaching site, http://writeyourbookwithme.com/blog