Our Short Answer: Strunk and White's “The Elements of Style” is undoubtedly a classic. It's grounded in fundamentals and great advice that every writer will find useful and valuable for now and into the future.
The sun has set on the typewriter long ago.
Today we live in the digital age, but the skill of writing remains relevant. A couple of months ago, I picked up a book, a classic that was published in the 1920s.
It’s what I like to call, my little writing guide book. It is small enough to fit in my shirt pocket and very much accessible. The book is, of course, Strunk and White’s “The Element of Style’. It’s been handed down from teachers and mentors to their students for generations.
What Today’s Writers and Bloggers Say About Strunk and White’s “The Elements Of Style”
Some writers like English Professor Geophry K. Pullum, say it’s riddled with inaccuracies. To him, it comes across as a book of grammar rather than offering the writer friendly advice.
Award-winning writer and blogger Rita M Reali finds “The Elements of Style” invaluable. It's suggestions like using specific, rather than general language. Being definite rather than vague is something that is important for all content creators. Everyone needs these reminders, it doesn't matter if you are a seasoned or new blogger.
Another helpful Strunk and White tip for writers is to put themselves in the background, so the readers attention is focused on writing. They also warn writers to avoid trying to impress their readers with pretty sounding words which distract their attention.
Something I found equally valuable is their advice is to write in a natural way that you are comfortable without feeling forced.
To the conscientious business blogger or content writer, writing well matters. There are plenty of more modern books of writing out there for the modern content writer. For example Gavin Turner’s book on Content Marketing, with tons of tips on to engage readers online.
Has Strunk and White’s “The Elements Of Style” passed its "sell by" date, or is it still relevant today?
Lets highlight the most fundamental elements for the modern blogger from Strunk and White’s “The Element Of Style”:
- The Basics: Base Your Writing On A Firm Structure
- Omit Needless Words
- Strunk and White’s Use The Active Voice
- Using The Right Words
- The Rewrite
Base Your Writing On A Firm Structure
“The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape. A sonnet is built on a fourteen-line frame, each line containing five feet.
Hence, sonneteers know exactly where they are headed, although they may not know how to get there. Most forms of composition are less clearly defined, more flexible, but all have skeletons to which the writer will bring the flesh and the blood.”
- Pg. 68.
Translation: the reader needs to be able to follow the writer’s train of thought. To accomplish this there needs to be some sort of structure. A skeleton or outline for the writer to arrange their thoughts in an orderly manner.
Although we don’t have many sonneteers today, if any, Shrunk and White’s point still holds true. In modern times, there are even more forms of writing than there were in the past, arguably more than in Shrunk and White’s era.
We have different types of blogging alone:
- The listicle - The Best Of 5
- The How To Blog- How To Write Better Prose
- Informational Posts
- Pillar Page Posts
- Newsjacking posts
Then there are ebook guides, white papers, case studies, testimonials. The list is almost endless.
It’s important to note that each type of writing has its own structure. Take blog posts: The listicle is a list of 5+ items, “The 5 Best Blog Posts to read.” This is structured in a significantly different way to “How To” Posts, in which the structure is a step by step tutorial.
Wall Street Journal best selling author and digital marketer Ann Handley writes that writing is like math (https://annhandley.com/about/). That means that there needs to be logic and a structure in any piece of writing. The writer has taken on the burden of piecing together their thoughts in a clear coherent form.
Omit Needless Words
“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 sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
- Pg. 32.
People simply don’t have the time to read excessive written online content. They are likely to find a competitors blog which is shorter and easier to read. Resources today agree with Strunk and White’s “The Elements Of Style” like Usability.gov on writing for the web recommend using shorter sentences. The ideal limit is 20 words per sentence.
Strunk and White say that it’s the writer’s duty to evoke sympathy for the reader. The goal of writing online content is to inform, help and interest the casual reader enough so that they’ll want to read on. Maybe they’ll even subscribe to your blog or email; one day maybe they’ll trust you enough that they want to be your customer.
Using The Active Voice
“The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.”
- Pg. 28.
The Elements Of Style States using the active voice “is more direct and vigorous than the passive voice”.
So instead of writing something like:
“My first visit to X, the advertising and creative agency in New York shall always be remembered by me”
Writers should always consider an active version:,
“I'll always remember my first visit to the X Advertising and Creative Agency in New York.”
This lesson in grammar is still relevant today. Readers need content to be as concise, direct and as engaging as possible. The active voice gets your point across easier and quicker.
In the slower moving days of Shrunk and White people had more patience than they do today. If you have a message that’s worth hearing, brevity and engaging is the key.
On Crazyegg.com they say that active voice is crucial because it enables prospects to visualize themselves taking action. That’s what makes it crucial for writing marketing copy, your aim is to get more people to download your offer.
Using The Right Words
Here is a little secret: sometimes, writers want to impress readers with words that sound fantastic; the problem is that they often use them in the wrong context. It’s a simple rule: if you are unsure of what the word means, look it up.
Think of it as doing a favor for your reader and yourself. You don’t want to confuse them. And you don’t want to look inadequate. The wrong word can also make a piece of writing confusing. “The Elements of Style” have a long list of words, and their correct usage.
My one criticism of Strunk and White’s “The Elements Of Style” is their use of word choice. For instance the use of anticipate and expected are fairly similar words. Although one can argue that “expected” is the better word in most contexts, “anticipate” isn’t altogether wrong. This is one of many antiquated examples of arguing semantics at a time of lower literacy levels.
Strunk and White advise is to use expected rather than anticipated in the following example:
They say it’s better to write “My brother expected an upturn in the market” rather than writing “My brother anticipated an upturn in the market”.
These words are very similar, and it isn’t so easy to distinguish between the two.
When writing marketing copy, there is a difference between using the right words and words which sound good. It’s understandable to use words like “awesome” and “mind-blowing” because you want your prospect to come away feeling those things about your products and services.
Words trigger powerful emotions in people so you want them to hit the right buttons. Give it a try: use colossal rather than large or cozy rather than small.
Revise And Rewrite
“Revising is part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try. Quite often you will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions.”
Revision and writing go hand-in-hand. It’s rare that a writer produces a world class draft. When you finish your article, you may find that you would like to organize it in a different way. You can always change the order of the paragraphs on your desktop.
It’s also best to get a new pair of eyes to look at your work. Writers need editors that are objective. When it’s your own work, looking at it impartially is very difficult, if not impossible.
Writing can be hard work and producing bad first drafts can be dispiriting. But you need something down on the page which allows you to create something which looks polished.
As Mark Twain said, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”
Our Bottom-line: Strunk and White's “The Elements of Style” is not only relevant today, it is essential. It is a useful guide for copywriters and content writers of today to adhere to the classic and timeless fundamentals of the English Language.
Your Articles Need SkimCatchables
Skim-Catchables are bloggers' - now- not-so- secret weapon to make readers' jobs easier because they can easily skim down a page and find the answer to what they are looking for. Engaging titles and subtitles, gorgeous infographics, and functions like TL; DR (Too long; didn’t’ read) not only help readers, but should be part of any writer's tool kit!Topic #blogging,#writing,#copywriting
Jonathan Gordon is the chief writer and PR liaison for an HR firm. His passions are creating inspiring and engaging content. Jonathan has a love for learning about new industries and acquiring new skills. Jonathan is also a trained classical and jazz pianist and loves meeting new people and is open to new experiences.