The Elements of Style, Strunk and White’s little manual to good writing, has been around for more than half a century. Its authors would likely admonish me for the cliché, but good things, such as this book, do indeed come in small packages. Much like yours truly, this little guide’s teensy size belies its durability, its usefulness and its brilliance. Let’s consider some of its more thoughtful commandments:
• Omit Needless Words. This was good advice back in the first half of the twentieth century, but it’s hardly necessary now. Why? Because people today produce nothing but needless words. If we were to omit all needless words, nary a text message would be sent, nary a cellphone would ring. The entire world would be enveloped in wordless silence. I suppose I could live with that.
• Avoid Fancy Words. “Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute,” Strunk and White wrote. “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.” Dear me, if I had ten cents for every twenty-dollar word I’ve ever written, I’d be one splendaciously prosperous female! (Whoops. I mean, one very rich gal.)
• Be Careful with Colloquialisms. If you’re going to use a slang word or phrase, just go ahead and use it. Don’t italicize it. Don’t put it in quotation marks. “To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better,” the authors advise. I keep forgetting this “highfalutin” rule.
It’s not easy or lucrative to be a writer; we need all the help we can get. For experienced and aspiring writers alike, The Elements of Style is a priceless gem—although you can pick it up at a used bookstore for pennies. Speaking of aspiring writers, here’s my advice: If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style.
The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they're happy.
Dorothy Parker most recently appeared in YOU MIGHT AS WELL DIE, the second book in the series. She returns in the third installment, A FRIENDLY GAME OF MURDER, coming in December.