Why I read this book: Because it’s Elements of Style. This book is considered a “must-have” in every writer’s library.
Did I enjoy it: Not really. I’m glad I read it, and think it’s a very important book for authors to read… But I had to work to turn each page.
What I will learn from this book: Tough to say. I’ve read enough books on writing that I’ve gotten all the information contained within secondhand. I’m familiar with all the concepts it painstakingly lays out. So what does this one teach me directly? No much.
CAVEAT: I sound really negative on this book, but I’m sure you’ll notice I still gave it 4 stars below… That’s because I really think every author should read it. If you intend to only own one book on writing, or read one book on writing…. I really believe this is an excellent book to select. Just be prepared for a siege!
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It is with some trepidation that I write this summary of the often quoted and much-lauded Elements of Style by Strunk, and later updated by his student White. This book has been hailed as the only book on writing you’ll ever need to read (by Stephen King), and is probably the most referenced book on writing I’ve ever seen (and I’ve read 20-30 books on writing). It is considered the penultimate go-to resource that belongs in every aspiring author’s collection. It’s even available for free online now.
Is it worth the hype?
It is, and it isn’t. On the one hand, there is a promise by all those quoting its venerable pages and all those singing its praises… A promise that is delivered. Just about any piece of advice you find in a modern (or old) book on writing is going to be found in this book. The pieces of advice provided anywhere in an almost off-hand way (show not tell, avoid adverbs in favor of stronger verbs, subject verb agreement, etc) are written in this text as Gospel. And with good reason. These are the staples of being a writer, and ignoring any principle in this book should be done so with careful thought and great hesitation. Know the rule before you break it, and make sure you are breaking it with purpose.
Other than that, the book falls short. It reads like a college textbook, which is fair since that’s what it was originally written as. It is very easy to want to skip sections to try and find something interesting to read, but turning pages in this book would be a terrible mistake. The authors practice what they preached… They have omitted needless words. Every piece of text is “meat” that you really shouldn’t miss. And yet, it’s so easy to miss it because of how congested the book can sometimes feel in its incredibly short pages. Most of the advice is timeless, but there is some that is clearly dated. An entire section focuses specifically on vocabulary and expressions, cases where the author was resisting words shifting in meaning or usage; fighting a private war against the fluidity of language, and that war has shown change to be the victor in several areas.
Don’t misunderstand me. As challenging as this can be to read, it is an imperative that every author know the principles contained therein. I am a huge advocate of “On Writing” by Stephen King and have often hailed it as the “must-own” book on writing… I agree with King at this point. The only book you really need to read is Elements of Style. Everything else is a re-hash of the content. This book does belong in every author’s collection, and should be revisited at least once a year by anybody serious about the craft. Just don’t expect to get through it as easily as the page count suggests.