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by Stephan Maldonado | March 19, 2019


Strunk & White, The Elements of Style

As an English major with an affinity for writing fiction that most academics might consider less than "literary" (think: less William Shakespeare than William Peter Blatty), I often disagreed with my professors on many things. However, there is one piece of advice I received from one advisor that resonates with me even to this day: as a writer, the single most important book I'll ever read is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. 

Strunk & White, as it is known colloquially, is a style guide for writers that was first published in 1920 and has been my best friend since my professor first recommended it to me. This slim volume got me through my honor's thesis. A boss at my first job (an SEO role that had very little to do with my English degree), recommended Strunk & White within my first few days of work, only to nod in admiring agreement when he saw I already had the book at my desk. In subsequent years, I relied heavily on this guide when crafting my personal statements for my applications to both MBA and MFA programs (I know, I'm all over the place).

A Brief History of Strunk & White

Since its initial publication, The Elements of Style has become almost ubiquitous in its usefulness and influence on writers of every ilk; in fact, Time named it one of the 100 best and most influential nonfiction books written in English since 1923.

The first edition of The Elements of Style was published in 1919 by William Strunk Jr., a professor at Cornell University who compiled a very short style guide for writers. The first version of the guide contained, among other things, some essential rules of form and composition, as well as a list of words and phrases commonly misspelled or misused.

In 1935, Strunk and fellow editor Edward A. Tenney revised and republished the guide, and in 1959, the famous writer E.B. White expanded and modernized The Elements of Style. His expanded edition, the first known as Strunk & White, is the version that has become so integral to the writer's lexicon (and is also the reason Time includes the book on a list of books published since 1923).

The Elements of Style's core principle is to "make every word tell". While the book periodically evolves alongside the modern English language, it's fundamental rules remain the same: to cultivate good writing by omitting needless words, using the active voice, and using parallel construction on parallel concepts. The most recent edition was released just last year, expanding the original text to include study guides, editors' notes, and new chapters on modern language trends. 

Who Needs The Elements of Style?

The short answer is, "everyone." Any professional who ever puts a pen to paper or finger to keyboard needs to communicate clearly and impactfully. Good writing skills are essential in virtually any business or academic setting, and for those of us who have not taken a writing or composition course since our undergraduate years, The Elements of Style is an invaluable refresher.