Five Tools for Improving Your Writing

Writing has been on my mind this week. It probably has something to do with reading a stack of student papers and essays. Unfortunately, these papers and essays, on the whole, lacked any sense of style. Though good writing possesses a certain je ne sais quoi, good writing also possesses some easily identifiable traits.

Many students misunderstand the concept of “style” when applied to prose. They think it’s akin to fashion style. Writing style is merely preference right? It’s your own personal flair. Wrong. Prose style has some hard and fast rules. (Fashion style has some hard and fast rules too, by the way, and I notice my students disregard those as well.)

I found the following books helpful for developing style, and in some cases they are very entertaining too. Reading one or all of these will move you closer to literary elegance.

1. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This classic book is the first place students should go in order to improve their writing. At a slim 100 pages, it’s very accessible. Not only is it helpful, it’s also a bit snarky, which everyone appreciates. Now don’t get me wrong. I believe Strunk and White get too dogmatic at times, but really, there’s no better place to start.

2. Simple and Direct by Jacques Barzun. Strunk and White will keep you from embarrassing yourself in print. Barzun will move you a little closer to elegance. This book is a bit longer at 288 pages, but working through it is well worth any writer’s time. Barzun includes what he calls “time out for good reading” at the end of every chapter as well. These excerpts from classic texts allow you to see style in action, right after you’ve learned what to look for.

3. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. When I have a thorny grammatical or stylistic question, I reach for Fowler’s first. I cannot explain the great pleasure this 800-page volume gives me. (I know. I’m a nerd.) This reference book lists its entries in alphabetical order, and if I read one entry, I’ll end up reading about a dozen. Fowler is funny and even more curmudgeonly than Strunk and White. The book covers grammar, syntax, style, and idiom. If you’re not sure which preposition to use (a notorious difficulty of English, for English, in English?), you need a copy of Fowler’s. A word of caution: the second edition of Fowler’s is better than the latest. The later editions get more descriptive than prescriptive, and they also get a lot less fun. Just go ahead and get both.

4. Chicago Manual of Style. The CMS is another big beautiful reference book. This book is so good that I actually have two copies. There’s no question regarding style and usage that this thousand-page book can’t answer. It’s also even-handed. This book delivers no idiosyncratic snark, merely providing the information that any quality editor in America would give you.

5. The last thing you need is a good dictionary. In doubt about a word? Don’t just play it by ear, look it up. I recommend Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, but any dictionary with lots and lots of words will do.

You can improve your writing. Don’t just throw your hands up in despair; instead, spend some time with these writing tools. One final piece of advice: read, read, read. Putting good writing into your mind will eventually cause good writing to seep back out of your mind.

What are your thoughts on elegant prose? Leave a comment.

6 thoughts on “Five Tools for Improving Your Writing

  1. Because you brought up the subject, I just gotta say it; most contemporary historians suck at writing! Yeah, I said it. What is going on? Much of the prose is indecipherable; forget about style or flair. Hope dies almost every time I pick up a current history monograph. I often enjoy reading the older historians more. One thought I have is that historians seem to forget or think it’s wrong that they should tell a good story. I say none of this to imply that I am good at writing history, but thoughts anyone?

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