The Elements of Style, written by Strunk & White, has long been considered one of the greatest books ever published on the art of writing. Time magazine, for example, named it as one of the 100 most influential non-fiction books written in English since 1923, and the Open Syllabus Project consistently lists it as the most frequently-assigned text in academic college courses in the US.
In the following article, you will see a collection of guidelines and tips, which are based on the advice in the book. In essence, the article represents an informal summary of The Elements of Style, with some modifications from the original text, in terms of which content is included, and in terms of how it is structured. It was written with the goal of focusing on the key points in the book, and making them as accessible as possible for both beginners as well as for experienced writers.
Outline and how to read this guide
This article is composed of four sections, each of which deals with a different aspect of your writing. This includes a section on strong writing, a section on clear writing, a section on concise writing, and a section on good form.
The article itself is long, and full of useful material. If you are trying to learn how to write better, don’t try to read the entire thing at once. Rather, start by browsing through it, and find things that you feel are relevant for you.
Once you’ve picked a few guidelines that you want to work on, write them down, and try to implement them in your writing. When you grow to feel comfortable enough with them, come back to this article, and pick a few more things that you want to work on.
When learning how to apply these guidelines, make sure to use common sense. Some of the tips, such as “omit unnecessary text”, are always applicable in your writing. Other tips however, such as “write statements in the positive form”, are applicable in most cases, but not in all.
As such, keep in mind that these guidelines represent general suggestions, which are applicable most of the time, but which can sometimes be disregarded, when you are sure that doing so will lead to better writing.
Tips for strong writing
Use the active voice where possible
It’s generally preferable to use the active voice where possible, because compared to the passive voice, writing in the active voice leads to a clearer chain of events, and to sentences which are stronger and more concise. For example, instead of:
The cat was chased by the dog. (passive)
You should write:
The dog chased the cat. (active)
Note that in some areas of technical and scientific writing, using the active voice is becoming an enforced norm; the American Psychological Association, for example, suggests that researchers avoid the passive voice in their writing, as much as possible.
However, there are also exceptions to this rule, and it’s entirely acceptable to use the passive voice in some situations. For example, you might prefer to use the passive voice if your focus is on the entity which is affected by the action, rather than on the entity performing the action, as in:
Older workers were frequently treated badly by the management.
Similarly, you could also use the passive voice in cases where it’s unclear who performed the action, or in cases where the focus is on the action itself, as in:
A mistake was made.
If you struggle to identify instances of the passive voice in your writing, remember that the subject of the active sentence becomes the object in the passive sentence. Essentially, you should ask yourself whether the first entity that’s mentioned in the sentence is performing an action (active), or is having an action performed on them (passive).
For example, the following sentence is written in the active voice, since the first entity (the dog) is the one performing the action:
The dog chased the cat.
Conversely, the following sentence is written in the passive voice, since the first entity (the cat) is having an action performed on it:
The cat was chased by the dog.
Write statements in the positive form
Describing something using the negative form, using the word ‘not’, is almost always weaker than describing it in the positive form. For example, instead of:
He was not telling the truth.
You can write:
He was lying.
And instead of:
She usually did not show up on time.
You can say:
She was usually late.
However, there are a few things worth keeping in mind with regards to this rule:
- Using negative words other than ‘not’ can make for powerful statements. For example, “she never came on time”. However, this might still be weaker than a similar statement in the positive form, such as “she was always late”.
- Contrasting a negative statement with a positive one can have a powerful effect. For example: “this is not revenge; it is simply justice”.
- The negative form can sometimes be preferable, if the emphasis is on an action not being performed, or on an attribute being missing. For example, “he did not have his father’s strength”. However, a similar statement can usually be made in the positive form, as in “he lacked his father’s strength”.
- In some cases, the negative form is simply the most natural-sounding option. For example: “I didn’t eat any of the cake” or “I don’t remember what she said”.
Avoid modals of uncertainty
Modal of uncertainty are words such as could, can, may, or might, which appea in conjunction with action verbs, and which are used to express uncertainty. Unless you are intentionally trying to convey a sense of uncertainty, you should avoid thm in your writing.
For example, instead of:
Proper dieting and exercise could help you lose weight.
Proper dieting and exercise will help you lose weight.
Avoid overstating your argument
There is often the temptation to overstate aspects that you are trying to emphasize, by repeating them or by using emphatic language. However, doing so can be counterproductive, since it disrupts your objectivity as the author, which tends to put the reader on guard. This is especially important in technical writing, where your neutrality and objectivity are crucial.
As such, if you must emphasize a point, you should do so by supporting that point by using additional evidence, or by presenting additional arguments that the reader can see, instead of making the emphasis explicit in your language by using superlatives and qualifiers.
For example, instead of:
I’m completely certain that the current economic climate is definitely going to lead to a recession.
Evidence shows that the current economic climate will likely lead to a recession, as evident in the fact that…
Place the key point at the end
If you want to emphasize a certain part of the writing, it’s best to place it at the end of the textual unit that it appears in. As such, emphatic words should be placed near the end of a sentence, while an emphatic sentence should be placed at the end of a paragraph, and an emphatic paragraph at the end of a section.
One exception to this rule is that you can emphasize an element by placing it first in a sentence where it is not the subject. For example, instead of:
He would never forgive such betrayal.
You can write:
Such betrayal he would never forgive.
You can achieve a similar effect by moving a sentence to the beginning of a paragraph, where such transposition emphasizes the importance of the sentence.
However, because this is a less conventional structure, you should use it only sparingly. In general, and especially in technical writing, which favors the use of conventional structures, you should prefer to place your key point at the end, where the reader will view it as the main takeaway from your writing.
Furthermore, in nearly all cases, you should avoid placing the key point in the middle of the text, where the reader is least likely to expect it.
Tips for clear writing
Create an outline and stick to it
Before you start writing, consider your goals for the text. Then, create an outline that accomplishes these goals, while taking into consideration the following factors:
- Everything that needs to be said must be said. This means that you should make sure to provide the reader with all the necessary information in the text.
- Each part of the text should serve a purpose. This means that you should not include anything in the text that isn’t necessary, and that doesn’t need to be said.
- The structure of the text should be logical. This means that you should construct the text in a way that allows the reader to easily process it.
Doing this helps you to plan ahead while you can see the big picture, and before you start considering the smaller details of your text. Of course, once you have the outline, make sure you stick to it while writing, although it’s possible to make modifications if necessary.
Use the paragraph as the basic unit of composition
Each paragraph in the text should convey a single idea or address a single topic; a new paragraph signals that you have moved on to the next point that you want to address.
In terms of length, a paragraph can be as long or as short as necessary. However, remember that the writing must be clear and compelling to the reader, so it’s generally preferable to avoid extremes.
As such, you should avoid overly long paragraphs, which can look daunting. If you find yourself writing such a paragraph, consider dividing it into a group of shorter paragraphs.
At the same time, avoid using many short paragraphs one after the other, since this can be difficult for the reader to process. Instead, consider whether such paragraphs could be combined with one another, or integrated into a longer paragraph.
Finally, when deciding on an appropriate paragraph length, make sure to account for your target audience, and for the medium through which they will read your text. Print-based academic books, for example, will generally have longer paragraphs than online pop-culture articles.
Use transitions to connect different parts of the text
When moving from one part of the text to another, the reader should be able to easily understand how the two parts are connected. You can accomplish this by using transitions, which help readers see the logical connections between different parts of the text.
These transitions include, for example, the following:
- Sequence words- first, second, next, finally.
- Examples- for example, for instance, such as, specifically, namely.
- Additional evidence- furthermore, in addition, moreover, additionally.
- Summary- in conclusion, in summary, overall.
Usually, the transition will appear either at the beginning of the relevant textual unit, whether that unit is a sentence or a paragraph.
The order of the text should reflect the order of the actions
For the most part, the order in which the different parts of the text appear should reflect the temporal order in which the actions in the text occurred. For example, instead of:
I incubated the samples at room temperature, after I centrifuged them for 10 minutes.
I centrifuged the samples for 10 minutes, and then incubated them at room temperature.
This is the default order expected in writing, and it helps the reader follow the logical progression of events.
Keep related words together and unrelated words apart
The position of words in a sentence is a strong indicator of their relationship. Therefore, words that are related should be placed as near each other as possible. Placing related words apart can lead to ambiguity and confuse the reader; the same can occur when unrelated words are placed side by side.
For example, instead of:
John came over while I was working on my proposal with a box of pizza.
John came over with a box of pizza while I was working on my proposal.
This principle also extends to larger units in the text. As such, related sentences within a paragraph should generally appear together, as should related paragraphs in a section, and so on.
Split long sentences
Sometimes, you’ll find yourself struggling to fit a lot of material into a single long sentence. The issue with such sentences is that even if they are grammatically correct, they can still be difficult for readers to process.
This is because reaching the ending of a sentence gives readers a chance to ‘pause’ mentally, and digest the new material that they just encountered. When the sentence is too long, readers don’t have a chance to process the material that they encountered, which confuses them, and hinders their ability to remember what they just read.
As such, if you find yourself with a sentence that you feel might be too long, try dividing it into two or more shorter sentences. For example, instead of:
We asked each participant a series of qualifying questions, before giving them a general background questionnaire, after which we provided them with the instructions for the experimental task, and showed them to the room where the experiment was conducted.
We asked each participant a series of qualifying questions, before giving them a general background questionnaire. Then, we provided them with the instructions for the experimental task, and showed them to the room where the experiment was conducted.
Note that here, the transition word ‘then’ is used in order to connect the two parts of the now split sentence, in a way that conveys to the reader that the two parts are related, and tells the reader in which order the actions in these parts occurred.
Use definite language
Avoid vague statements or language that can be easily misinterpreted. For example, the meaning of the following sentence is unclear:
I like dogs more than most people.
This sentence should be rephrased in order to remove the ambiguity. There are two possible ways to do this, each of which clearly conveys a single distinct meaning:
I like dogs more than I like most people.
I like dogs more than most people do.
In dialogue, ensure that the reader knows who is speaking
This is especially important in long stretches of dialogue, or in conversations between multiple characters. One way to accomplish this is by inserting attributives, such as “he said”.
These attributives should be placed where they can be read naturally as part of the sentence, without interrupting its flow. For example, instead of:
“Now, we shall see if the student had,” he said, “truly surpassed the master.”
“Now,” he said, “we shall see if the student had truly surpassed the master.”
Maintain consistency in verb tenses
Avoid shifting verb tenses within the same sentence or paragraph. This is especially important when summarizing information. For example, instead of:
During each session, we observed the fluid levels, and record them in the lab journal.
During each session, we observed the fluid levels, and recorded them in the lab journal.
However, note that there are cases where you have to shift tenses within the same section. For example:
- Describing antecedent action- for example: “X is the predominant method in use today. However, up until 2015, method Y was the preferable method to use in these cases.”
- Describing discourse- for example: “the authors of the paper state that they have made errors in prior calculations”.
Convey connected ideas using similar form
When expressing two ideas that are similar in content and function, it’s best to express them in a similar manner, in order to enable the reader to notice the similarities and differences between the two. For example, instead of writing:
Richard’s favorite food was pizza, and he liked to drink soda, while Karen’s favorite drink was lemondate, and her favorite food was stir fry.
Richard’s favorite food was pizza, and he liked to drink soda, while Karen’s favorite food was stir fry, and she liked to drink lemonade.
Richard’s favorite food was pizza, and his favorite drink was soda, while Karen’s favorite food was stir fry, and her favorite drink was lemonade.
Tips for concise writing
Omit unnecessary text
Every piece of your writing should serve a purpose, and directly contribute to the story that you are trying to tell.
As such, your sentences should contain no unnecessary words. Your paragraphs should contain no unnecessary sentences. Your sections should contain no unnecessary paragraphs. Your paper should contain no unnecessary sections.
For example, instead of:
Jane’s idea is a strange one.
You can write:
Jane’s idea is strange.
Both sentences convey the same meaning, but the second one does so in fewer words.
Essentially, when writing, you should always ask yourself: “does this word/sentence/paragraph/section directly contribute to the story I am trying to tell? Can I remove it? Can I rephrase it to make it shorter?” Then, revise the text accordingly.
Avoid repeating the same words, statements, or ideas multiple times, especially in proximity to each other, since doing this is often redundant, and can interrupt the flow of the reading process. If you discover repetition in the text, ask yourself whether you can remove one or more of the instances of repetition, or whether you can combine some of them.
Two alternative solutions, which can work in some cases, are to vary the phrasing of the repeated segments, or to increase the textual distance between them. This won’t necessarily make the writing more concise, but it will decrease the sense of repetition, which can help make the writing more compelling to the reader.
Avoid the use of qualifiers
Qualifiers are words such as very, pretty, rather, and little. They are almost always unnecessary, and can either be deleted outright, or replaced, together with the adjective they appear with, by a more appropriate adjective.
For example, instead of:
The house was very large.
The house was large.
The house was immense.
Use the active voice and positive form
The active voice is more concise than the passive voice.
John ate the apple. (active)
Is more concise than:
The apple was eaten by John. (passive)
In addition, statements written in the positive form are generally more concise than statements in the negative form.
Sarah arrived late. (positive)
Is more concise than:
Sarah did not arrive on time. (negative)
These modifications also have other benefits, as we saw in the earlier section on strong writing.
Revise and rewrite
It is unlikely that you will be able to produce a perfect manuscript on your first draft, and the willingness to revise your text is a key to producing high-quality work.
In terms of producing concise work, the benefit of going over the material is that when you go over the text, you will often notice unnecessary material which was added during the writing stage. However, revising is crucial not only for producing a concise text, and can also help you write better overall.
Conciseness must not come at the cost of clarity
While you should always prefer to write in a more concise manner where possible, it’s important not to let this get in the way of writing in a way that is clear to the reader. This will obviously necessitate judgment on your part, but in general, if it comes to choosing between writing something that is a bit shorter, or something that is clearer to the reader, your preference should be to write in a clearer way.
Tips for good form
Use consistent and conventional spelling
Some words can be spelled in more than one way. Use the following rules to decide which form of spelling to use:
- Prefer the formal spelling to the informal spelling. For example, write “night”, instead of “nite”.
- Use the spelling scheme which is appropriate for your intended audience. For example, if you are submitting a manuscript to an American journal, use the American spelling conventions, as opposed to the British ones.
- Once you pick a certain spelling scheme, use it consistently throughout the text. Sometimes, the choice of which spelling convention to use will be artbitrary (for example, if you’re writing for a diverse international audience). In such cases, make sure to pick one spelling scheme, and use it consistently throughout the text. This is the most important when it comes to individual words, which should be spelled the same way each time.
Be cautious in the use of idioms and slang
Idioms are traditionally used expressions whose meaning cannot be predicted from the usual meanings of its constituent elements. For example:
It’s raining cats and dogs. (Meaning: it’s raining hard)
It’s a piece of cake. (Meaning: it’s easy)
The ball is in your court. (Meaning: it’s your decision)
Similarly, slang is a type of informal speech, that is typically restricted to a particular context, or to a particular group of people. For example:
Both idioms and slang will often be unintelligible to many of your readers, and especially to those whose native language is different from the language in which the text is written. Furthermore, these forms of speech are generally considered to be informal, and consequently inappropriate for use in technical writing.
Therefore, minimize the use of idioms and slang as much as possible, unless they’re appropriate and pertinent to the discussion at hand (e.g. if you’re writing realistic dialogue). Furthermore, if you are strongly considering using an idiom or a slang word, make sure that it is relatively well-known, or that readers who are unfamiliar with it will at least be able to infer its meaning from context.
Use figures of speech sparingly
Figures of speech give phrases an additional meaning beyond their literal one. For example:
- “This backpack weighs a ton” is a hyperbole (an intentional exaggeration).
- “The man was as big as a house” is a simile (a direct comparison of two things).
- “Face the fire at freedom’s front” is an alliteration (a repetition of the first sound in a series of words).
It’s perfectly fine to use figures of speech in your writing, but you should do so in moderation. Overusing them weakens their dramatic effect, and can annoy the reader.
Avoid “fancy” vocabulary
Given the choice between a frequently-used word that many of your readers will recognize, or a fancier word that almost no one will understand, you will generally be better off going with the simpler word.
This is because using rarer words disrupts the reading process, since such words take longer to process, and since readers often won’t know what they mean, especially if they’re non-native speakers. In addition, a study on the topic found that using overly-complex language needlessly in an attempt to sound smart is generally counterproductive, since it negatively affects readers’ perception of the writer’s intelligence.
Note that it can be fine to use “fancy” vocabulary sparingly, in order to achieve a specific effect, or to avoid repetition of a more common word. However, when doing so, you should consider your intended audience, as well as the context in which the word appears. If the use of such a word will render the text unintelligible to most readers, then you should use a simpler substitute instead.
Avoid using foreign-language terms
Some foreign-language terms which English readers might encounter include the following:
Using foreign-language terms in your writing leads to similar issues as “fancy” vocabulary. Essentially, unless the term you are using is widely known, you risk the reader not understanding what you are saying.
Therefore, avoid inserting foreign-language terms into your writing when a term in your native language is available, unless there is a compelling reason to do so. If you do choose to use such terms, make sure that they are relatively well known.
Be sparing in your use of adverbs
First, don’t rely primarily on adverbs in order to explain what is happening; rather, this should be clearly evident through the rest of the writing. For example, a common mistake is to add adverbs after phrases such as “he said…” in dialogue, as in:
“I miss her so much,” he said sadly while crying.
Here, the emotion that the speaker experiences (sadness) should be inferred from what he is saying (“I miss her so much”), and from what he is doing while saying it (crying). The adverb ‘sadly’ is redundant, and detracts from the writing.
In addition, resist the temptation to create awkward adverbs, by adding a ly suffix to random words (e.g. thusly). A good guideline to keep in mind is that if you wouldn’t use that adverb when you talk, then you most likely shouldn’t use it when you write.
Avoid repeating the same sentence structure
When the same sentence structure is used repeatedly, the writing sounds monotonous, which makes it more difficult for the reader to follow. As such, make sure to vary the structure of your sentences as you go along.
For example, in the following paragraph you can see a problematic repetition of the same sentence structure:
Then, we divided the sample into plates. Then, we placed dye in each plate. Then, we placed the plates in the incubator…
A notable exception to this rule is when you list several examples in a row, in order to contrast them. In such cases, using a similar structure can make it easier to compare the different items on the list.
Jason’s favorite sport was hockey. Dave’s favorite sport was football. Kelly’s favorite sport was basketball.
You can also use a similar structure in other types of lists, where related parts in the text are intentionally discussed using a similar form, in order to give the reader a structure that is easy to follow.
Summary and conclusions
- The Elements of Style is one of the most influential books ever written on the topic of writing. The present article contains a modernized summary of the original text, with the goal of providing simple and accessible writing advice.
- Guidelines for strong writing: use the active voice where possible, write statements in the positive form, avoid modals of uncertainty, avoid overstating your argument, and place the key point at the end.
- Guidelines for clear writing: start with an outline, use paragraphs as the basic unit of composition, use transitions to connect different parts of the text, maintain a logical order in the text, keep related words together, split long sentences, and avoid ambiguous language.
- Guidelines for concise writing: omit unnecessary text, avoid repetition, avoid the use of qualifiers, and revise the text.
- Guidelines for good form in your writing: use consistent and conventional spelling, avoid idioms and slang, don’t repeat the same sentence structure, and be sparing in the use of fancy vocabulary, figures of speech, and adverbs.