The Best of Strunk & White: An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders)

Dear Everybody,

On my first day as a speechwriter in 2009, General David Petraeus told me to buy a copy of the The Elements of Style, the classic handbook on English usage by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. “Follow the rules and apply the principles in that book,” he said. “I try not to deviate from them.”

The book is best known for its 22 elementary rules of usage and principles of composition, but I’ve always been drawn to a lesser appreciated chapter titled, “An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders).”

For years, I’ve wanted to summarize that chapter for my own reference. Here it is, organized and distilled from 6,500 words to 1,300. The summary includes ten observations about an approach to style, and the original 21 reminders, condensed and rewritten.


There’s no key that unlocks the door…

  • No infallible guide to good writing

  • No satisfactory explanation of style

  • No inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course

These reminders state what most of us know and at times forget…

  • Style is an expression of self

  • To approach it, turn away from mannerisms, tricks, and adornments

  • Move toward plainness, simplicity, orderliness, and sincerity

A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style…

  • The writer is the style, and the style is the writer

  • Who you are, not what you know, will determine your style

No writer long remains incognito…

  • A style reveals a writer’s identity, as surely as fingerprints

  • Writers reveal their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases

  • Writing is communication, and creative writing is the Self escaping into the open


1. To achieve style, begin by affecting none…

  • That is, place yourself in the background

  • Draw the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing

  • Solid writing reveals the temper of the writer, and not at the expense of the work

2. Write in a way that comes naturally…

  • The use of language begins with imitation

  • Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator

  • Take pains to admire what is good

  • Use words and phrases that come readily to hand

  • Then when you write naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating

3. Work from a suitable design…

  • Great writing will on examination be found to have a secret plan

  • Design informs even the simplest structure

  • Anticipate what you are getting into and build a scheme

  • Lest you miss the forest for the trees and there be no end to your labors

4. Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs…

  • Nouns and verbs, not their assistants, give good writing its toughness and color

  • No adjective can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place

  • This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable and cccasionally surprise us with their power

5. Revise and rewrite…

  • Few writers produce what they’re after on the first try

  • Therefore, revising is part of writing

  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with what you’ve written

  • It’s no sign of weakness that your work needs major surgery

  • This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers

6. Do not overwrite…

  • Guard against wordiness

  • Ruthlessly delete excess

  • Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest

7. Do not overstate…

  • Everything before and after an overstatement is suspect

  • A single overstatement diminishes the whole

  • A single carefree superlative has the power to destroy

  • Readers must have confidence in your judgment and poise

8. Avoid the use of qualifiers like rather, very, little, and pretty…

  • These are leeches that infest the pond of prose

  • Do a *little* better, be *very* watchful, for it’s *rather* important, and we are *pretty* sure to violate it

9. Do not affect a breezy manner…

  • Don’t cut rhetorical capers

  • Be compact, informative, unpretentious

  • Present items in a straightforward manner

  • Keep a tight rein on the material and stay out of the act

10. Use orthodox spelling…

  • Writers using unorthodox spellings defeat their own purpose

  • Unaccepted and oversimplified spellings distract attention and exhaust patience

  • Readers mentally supply the missing letters of an abbreviation, at the cost of a fraction of attention

11. Do not explain too much…

  • Be sparing

  • Do not overwork adverbs

  • It is seldom advisable to tell all

  • Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker's manner or condition

12. Do not construct awkward adverbs…

  • Do not dress words up by adding -ly to them

  • Such adverbs are easy to build

  • But you're probably be better off without them

  • Words not used orally are seldom the ones to put on paper

13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking…

  • Indicate who the speaker is

  • In dialogue, obscurity is an imposition

  • Make sure attributives don’t awkwardly interrupt a spoken sentence

  • Place them where the break would come naturally in speech

14. Avoid fancy words…

  • Use Anglo-Saxon words

  • Cock your ear and let it be your guide

  • Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute

  • Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy

15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good…

  • Be economical of your talents

  • If you use dialect, be consistent

  • Spare your readers as you convince them

  • Use the minimum, not the maximum, of deviation from the norm

  • Spell phonetically, or at least ingeniously, to capture unusual inflections

16. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear!

  • Clarity is not always the principal mark of a good style

  • But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue

  • And although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one

  • Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope

17. Do not inject opinion…

  • Try to keep things straight

  • The demand for your opinion is not brisk

  • Inject opinion only if there is a good reason for its being there

  • Opinions scattered indiscriminately leave a mark of egotism

18. Use figures of speech sparingly…

  • Rapid fire similes coming are more distracting than illuminating

  • Give readers time to catch their breath

  • Readers can't be expected to compare everything with something else, with no relief in sight

19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity…

  • Write things out

  • The longest way round is usually the shortest way home

  • The one reliable shortcut is choosing strong and surefooted words to carry readers on their way

  • Many shortcuts waste the reader's time instead of conserving it

20. Avoid foreign languages…

  • It’s occasionally necessary to borrow from other languages

  • Some writers, though, sprinkle their work with foreign expressions

  • It’s a bad habit and shows no regard for the reader’s comfort

  • So, write in English

21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat…

  • Young writers are drawn toward eccentricities in language

  • They hear the beat of new vocabularies and exciting rhythms

  • All of us come under the spell of these drums

  • The challenge for beginners is to listen, learn the words, feel the vibrations, and don’t be carried away


Break through barriers that separate you from other minds and other hearts…

  • That’s the purpose of writing – and its principal reward

  • As you get better, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge

  • When this happens, you’ll find it easy to reach other minds and other hearts

Feel free to experiment with language…

  • It’s not the intent of these cautionary remarks to suggest otherwise

  • You may ask, “What if it comes natural to me to experiment? What if I am a pioneer, or even a genius?"

  • Answer: then be one

But remember, what may seem like pioneering may be merely evasion, or laziness…

  • Writing good standard English is no cinch

  • Before you’ve managed it, you will have encountered enough rough country to satisfy even the most adventurous spirit

The beginner should err on the side of conservatism…

  • No idiom is taboo, and no accent is forbidden

  • But there is a better chance of doing well if you hold a steady course

  • Show concern for your readers and sympathize with their plight

  • Don’t paralyze their senses; instead, engage them

In your writing, four unpardonable sins show you haven’t done your work…

  • Adopting a patronizing air

  • Being humorless, dull, and empty

  • Saying something when you have nothing to say

  • Directing the attention of the reader to yourself

You are ready for exposure…

  • When you’re full of belief

  • When you’re armed with the rules of grammar

  • When you’re sustained and elevated by the power of purpose


Thank you for reading!

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Sincerely,

Justin