Ode to Style (and Grammar)

Tips for strengthening your writing, part I

Following the launch of our book contest last week, I’ve been thinking about the authors who are writing and revising their manuscripts in preparation for submission. There is a huge amount of writing advice out there, but one of the most widely used guidebooks to the subject is The Elements of Style.

Self-published by William Strunk Jr. in 1918 and expanded by E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web) in 1959, the book is a legend to anyone who has ever studied the English language. I love it for its usefulness, brevity, and occasional humor.

In the weeks leading up to the January 10 contest deadline, I’ll be sharing some rules and advice from the book in the hopes you’ll find it as helpful in writing and revising your work as I have.


I’ll start with the first of Strunk’s “Elementary Principles of Composition”: Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

Says Strunk,

A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. The writer will in part follow this design, in part deviate from it, according to his skill, his needs, and the unexpected events that accompany the act of composition…The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.

Strunk’s example is a sonnet, which has a strict form, but he admits that this rule gets fuzzier when dealing with other forms of writing, like novels. I’ve always found that the best way to “foresee or determine the shape of what is to come” is to create an outline before I start writing.

There are no real rules for an outline. It doesn’t have to be an extensive multilevel list delineated with Roman numerals, etc.—I usually just jot down a list of the essential parts of my story in a logical order. Once you start writing, you might learn that you need to deviate from your outline. There’s nothing wrong with that. But an outline is still useful, even if you don’t always stick to it. As White says, writing an outline “does not mean that you must sit with a blueprint always in front of you, merely that you had best anticipate what you are getting into.”

This rule doesn’t apply only to fiction. Nonfiction, including biographies and memoirs, also benefits from the author contemplating the grand design before she starts writing. As White notes, “to write a biography the writer will need at least a rough scheme; he cannot plunge in blindly and start ticking off fact after fact about his man, lest he miss the forest for the trees and there be no end to his labors.” An outline can help you decide which facts, events, descriptions, etc. are important and which are nonessential to the real story you are trying to tell.

If you’ve already started writing without an outline, it’s not too late. You can “reverse-outline”—reread each paragraph or chapter, note the main point, and decide how it fits in with the whole story. This might lead you to move a whole paragraph to a different section or even delete parts that are unnecessary. In the end, you’ll have a more coherent, readable piece of writing.

Next week: Make the paragraph the unit of composition.

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