Booking Through Thursday: The Elements of Style: A Neti Pot for Prose

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

What’s the most useful book you’ve ever read? And, why?

The bible of simple and direct prose: The Elements of Style, aka Strunk and White. The slender volume, touted by such literary lions as Kurt Vonnegut and Francine Prose (who lists it as a must read in Reading Like a Writer), was holy writ for me as a student writer.

“Pound for Pound, no American writing guide is more revered than the five-ounce Elements of Style . . . .,” writes Arthur Plotnik in his tongue-in-cheek writing guide, Spunk & Bite. “No reference book sells more copies or draws gushier superlatives (Timeless!; Nonpareil!; The best book of its kind!). With some ten million  copies rooted on as many reference shelves, Strunk and White has become the ivy (if not the kudzu) on our great walls of clarity and correctness.”

Despite its dated 19th century prissiness, its heralding of Standard English — whatever that is — it’s a solid reference book, a swift guide to usage, a kick in the pants to those who overuse jargon, passive voice, and abstract language over the concrete. Reading Strunk and White and following its guidelines, cleared my prose like a Neti pot clears the sinuses, especially in grad school with its jargon-clogged literary theory.

For basic advice on writing, especially for beginners, few books beat it. At the same time, gushing aside, as Plotnik notes, it’s musty and wrinkled, and it’s rules are often too limiting, and allow for no rule bending.

“Both Strunk and White knew well that bending the rules — judiciously breaking them — can give writing its distinction, its edge, its very style,” Plotnik writes. “Bending the rules can spring writers from ruts — get them out of themselves, out of the ordinary, and into prose that comes alive, gets noticed, gets published.”

So, as useful as Elements of Style has been for me, I would ally it with Spunk & Bite and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well to goose your writing.


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