In high school, my creative writing teacher called me the most illiterate writer he had ever had the displeasure of teaching. Then he went on to encourage me to go back to all my English teachers, starting with Grade 1, and slap them each across the face for having taught me nothing about punctuation. To add insult to injury, he put a sentence on the board—one that I had written as part of a short story assignment—and made the whole class punctuate it correctly for me.
To be honest, I was only slightly mortified because it was junior year and I could not have cared less what a teacher had to say to me. Teenage angst will do that to a girl. But I was worried about the future of my writing. I had known since the 5th grade that I wanted to be a writer and if I couldn’t get a grasp on grammar and usage—how the hell was I going to make a career in writing happen?
A few days later, that same teacher called my mom after school and congratulated her on raising one of the most brilliant writers he had come across in some time. Spoiler: He was talking about me! My teacher read my full short story and was so impressed that he not only planned to publish it in the literary arts magazine that we produced as a class, but he also wanted her permission to enter it into a Virginia High School League writing contest.
Now, I can’t begin to tell you why he decided to publicly shame me before giving me praise, but I am glad that it happened this way. What I took away from that experience was the importance of grammar and that knowing when and where to use a comma was critical to being a successful writer. That teacher, although unconventional in his approach, helped me identify a weakness that I would have to whip into shape if I ever wanted to become a writer. At the same time, he helped me discover that, grammar aside, I was a good writer who wrote with feeling and could strike rhythm and cadence in my pieces. He liked my short story because it made him feel; it was detailed and moving. Fast forward 12ish years and my entire professional career has been built on moving and inspiring people…to give to worthy causes. And, for the most part, I now also know how to punctuate a sentence. Kind of…
After years of writing assignments and writing positions, I should confess that I’m still guilty of dropping a comma or a semicolon in the wrong part of the sentence. I end phrases with prepositions. And run-ons and fragments pop up in final drafts more often than I’d like to admit. And to be quite honest, sometimes I break rules on purpose. But I’m always writing and rewriting and editing is never-ending—so I have a few go-to resources to remind me how the English language works.
I pulled out one of those resources—Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style”—last week and wanted to share some useful nuggets from the book with you. You may have heard of it—after all, it has been called the Bible of good, clear writing. Either way, I encourage all writers, novice and expert alike, to pick up a copy and keep it nearby. You can get a used copy for less than five bucks on Amazon. There have been several new editions produced of the classic guide, so be sure to get the most recent one that has been updated with modern examples. The book is a quick read that truly offers timeless advice.
I won’t spoil the book for you, but here are some of the gems that you can expect from each section of “The Elements of Style”:
Section 1: Elementary Rules of Usage. This section covers the basics of subject/verb agreement, commas and dashes, parentheses and participle phrases. You could only read this section of the book and still be a better grammarian than I was in high school.
Section 2: Elementary Principles of Composition. In this part of the book, you will be reminded to use the active voice, use definite, specific, concrete language and omit useless words—among other useful tips.
Section 3: A Few Matters of Form. This part will help you sharpen up on rules about hyphens, slang and colloquialisms and quotations. Meh.
Section 4: Words & Expressions Commonly Misused. This is my favorite section of the book! It’s probably most useful to editors because so many people misuse words. But I encourage any student of writing or professional writer to pay close attention to this section to be reminded of words that commonly slip into our writing that should not. Examples: allude vs. elude; among vs. between; effect vs. affect; comprise; that vs. which and further vs farther. MMM. Such dorky, good fun!
Section 5: An Approach to Style. The last section of the book offers a valuable list of reminders like: write in a way that comes naturally (which is what I was doing in high school); write with nouns and verbs; revise and rewrite; do not overstate and overwrite; as well as be clear and avoid fancy words.
At the end of the book, you will find a glossary of terms that is quite handy. In fact, when I’m done writing this, I’m going to reread each of the definitions. My co-worker asked me what a participle was the other day and I completely blanked. I’ll be ready next time, and if you remember to grab you a copy of “The Elements of Style,” you will be too!
On My Desk is an ongoing series that allows me to share what I’m currently reading, writing or exploring. I hope it will also be a useful platform for you to discover your next favorite book, writing tool or office supply. (I cannot wait to talk about stationary with you guys!)
PIN THIS FOR LATER: