If you’re reading this from America, you probably know both these books. Otherwise they might have passed you by. Personally, I discovered them quite late, by which time I already adhered to most of the principles in them. However, they summarise a lot of my views on writing clear and concise English language, so much so that I thought it worth blogging them here. Already famous in America, The Elements of Style was labelled one of the All-Time 100 Nonfiction Books by Time magazine – that is, one of the most influential books written in English since 1923. Otherwise called the Strunk and White (after its authors), this prescriptive language book is often forced upon students for its simple and effective rules. They are sometimes contentious, but mostly on point. The second book I want to highlight is Writing That Works, a business writing guide that novelist Louis Begley called “the Strunk and White of business writing” and famed advertiser David Ogilvy gave as his number 1 advertising tip: “read it three times”. Writing that Works is a similar style guide, from some of Madison Avenue’s most successful advertisers, and gives rules specific to communication.
How these books can produce clear, concise writing
Though mostly used by English students in America, these book can help anyone with an interest in producing clear, concise writing. They both contain valuable tips on writing and grammar, and, most importantly, advice on how to write direct language. They’re very simply written and easy to follow, with no fluff.
The latest edition of The Elements of Style contains 54 points to learn: a list of common errors in using words; 11 punctuation and grammar rules; 11 writing principles; 11 matters of form, and 21 reminders for a better style. Follow these points and your language will be as crisp and direct as it needs to be.
Writing That Works, on the other hand, is written in a more narrative style with each chapter covering a different area, often with quite amusing examples. It covers communications in business, but is universally applicable for getting your point across.
These tips are for quick reference or for people who want to get into the nitty-gritty of why you should write in a certain way. If you want to make your writing clearer and simpler, or have doubts about the finer points of English language, both books will help. Not all the advice is necessarily accepted English practice, but for my money they’re valuable tips and a great place to start. You should also note that even though Writing That Works is about business writing, it is useful for anyone that uses writing in communication. And with texting, emails and social media that is everyone. It is about writing to be understood, and making sure that you say what you mean.
Getting the books
Both of these books have been updated a number of times, but as the original Elements was written in 1918 it’s now available for free. Download it in its original form from the Gutenberg project here. It’s such a valuable book you will probably want to use it often, and thumb through it for easy access, so I’d recommend buying a copy. Get it from Amazon here.
Similarly Writing That Works is a small companion guide that’s useful to have nearby at all times for quick tips, get it here.