Want to Improve Your Writing? Check Out These Writing Rulebooks

E. B. White was a famous writer long before he published Charlotte’s Web.  As a regular contributor to The New Yorker, he was soon recognized as a master stylist for his wonderful essays.  On more than one occasion, White credited William Strunk, Jr., one of his professors at Cornell, for schooling him in the basics of writing well.  Strunk had published what he called “The Little Book” with the official title of Elements of Style as a required handbook for many writing courses at Cornell.  White so admired the book that he was instrumental in having it updated and republished under the same title, Elements of Style, but with his name as co-author for the updates and additions he added to his mentor’s original work.

One of the handbook’s notable rules was number 13, “Omit needless words,” and it made such an impression on White that he later wrote, “I have been trying to omit needless words since 1919, and although there are still many words that cry for omission and the huge task will never be accomplished, it is exciting for me to reread the masterly Strunkian elaboration of this noble theme.”  Then White quotes William Strunk, Jr.:

“Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.  This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

I’ve owned the 1959 edition of Strunk and White for many years now, and, like E. B. White, as a writer and a teacher, I’ve benefited from its rules and suggestions for writing well.

There’s another book, though, that did more for my own writing.  It’s clearly a cousin to Strunk and White—its tone and style echo the same practical common sensibility of The Elements of Style, but key principles from Lucile Vaughan Payne’s little masterpiece, The Lively Art of Writing, still come to mind anytime I write a sentence.

I don’t know if it’s a better book than The Elements of Writing, but I came to know it better, much better, because I used it as a textbook for many writing classes I taught in the 1980s (yes, the 1980s—before Andy was born and around the time when Carol turned 40).  Like Strunk and White’s handbook, The Lively Art of Writing is based on some simple rules for writing, but each rule is accompanied by interesting elaboration, spot-on examples, and a series of practice exercises that give aspiring writers opportunities to try out the principles in their own writing.  As a book designed for use in English composition courses, it focuses on writing the essay, and as a book published in the mid-1960’s, it promotes some stylistic moves that today might be considered stuffy or old fashioned.  But it still has plenty of advice for all kinds of writers.  Here are some of its rules for style:

  1.  Do not use first person.
  2. Do not use the word “there”—ever.

Obviously, I’m still having problems following the first rule, but the second rule is one I have followed pretty conscientiously for decades, and it’s helped tighten and improve my style.

This little gem goes on from its chapter on style to discuss “The Size and Shape of Middle Paragraphs,” “Connections Between Paragraphs,” “The Passive Voice,” “The Sound of Sentences,” “Parallel Structure,” “A Way with Words,” and other practical writing principles.  My students and I especially benefited from Chapter 9, “The Sound of Sentences,” because it taught us how to start with what Payne called “the basic statement” and develop into more interesting sentences that she called the “strung-along sentence” and the “periodic sentence.”  Of course, these two forms can be combined to make other interesting kinds of sentences.

Here are the key ideas.  The basic statement is a sentence reduced to its bare bones.  If you remove even one word from it, you damage or destroy the meaning.  For example:  “Bells rang.”

The strung-along sentence is a basic statement with details strung along after it.  For example, “Bells rang, filling the air with their clangor, startling pigeons into flight from every belfry, bringing people into the streets to hear the news.”

Finally, the periodic sentence is a basic statement that has additional details added inside it.  From the basic statement “Love is blind,” a periodic sentences morphs into “Love, as everyone knows except those who happen to be afflicted with it, is blind.”

This isn’t complicated, earth-shaking stuff, but words and sentences are the bricks we use to build the mansions of our stories.  The better the bricks, the better the stories.

OK, kids, it’s homework time.  Here are some sentence writing drills from The Lively Art of Writing’s cool little chapter, “The Sound of Sentences”:

A.  Write a strung-along sentence at least 20 words long using each of the basic statements below as a starting point.

1.  The moon rose.

2.  The man was dead.

3.  He longed to be free.

4.  She liked the song.

5.  They had a good time.

B.  Using each of the basic statements below, write five periodic sentences at least fifteen words long.

1.  Mary left the room.

2.  The world’s greatest invention is the safety pin.

3.  Hate is based on fear.

4.  The man was dead.

5.  The circus was his life.

For more practice and insight, pick up a copy of The Lively Art of Writing: http://www.amazon.com/Lively-Art-Writing-Mentor/dp/0451627121

The 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style is also available for purchase, and it’s worth the price: http://www.amazon.com/Elements-Style-50th-Anniversary/dp/0205632645/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1320854297&sr=1-2

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Want to Improve Your Writing? Check Out These Writing Rulebooks

  1. Amy

    Just performed a word finder search in my novel. I had one (as in just 1) ‘there’ in it. On the other hand, I am using first person pov. Maybe I should re-think this.

  2. Juliette

    I’ve read a few books on writing and my favorite, favorite one is The Lie That Tells a Truth by John Dufresne. My creative writing teaching in college made us purchase it to use as our textbook and I will forever owe him for it.

  3. Gah. Writing exercises! Like I need anymore procrastinating. But, I like what you have to say and maybe I’ll do the homework. Later.

    Thanks for the tip on there. I’m going to do a word find and see how I stacked up.

  4. I’m up to my ears in revisions right now, and just did a search for ‘there.’ Oo. Guilty a few times. I’m cleaning my manuscript up now and ordering those books. Thanks for the help.

  5. Wow, I didn’t have those books in my collection, so I just went to order them. Thanks! I look forward to Christmas break when I have time to pen a few things.

  6. Nero Grimes

    My two all time favorite style books. My third, from close to the same vintage, is The Golden Book on Writing by David Lambuth, Each a gift from my college sweetheart / Comp 2 teacher.

    The Elements strikes me as much as a philosophical work, along the lines of the Tao Te Ching, as a brilliant style manual.

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