Strunk & White

October 11, 2006

When it comes to revising your work, the best resource is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

The original Elements of Style was used in 1919 for Strunk’s college course at Cornell University. One of his students that year was E.B. White, who was hired 38 years later to revise and update the book for re-release by Macmillan.

Since then, it has become THE tool of the writer’s trade. As someone who handles an enormous amount of written material, both in the various projects I head up, the work I do for other publications, and my critique/coaching business, I see the same mistakes over and over and over again. Most of them are mistakes that I remember covering in Third Grade English. There’s no excuse for an adult not to know the difference between “it’s” and “its” at this point. It’s sheer laziness. Errors like that will get an unknown writer tossed into the garbage can instead of the publication pile. It is the writer’s responsibility and part of the job to learn the craft.

As a writer, I am awful at proofreading my own work. Trusted Readers are a must before submission. Also, I have some bad writing habits that I fall into, having to do with passive in early drafts and sometimes picking the wrong word for a shade of meaning. By re-reading Elements of Style – cover to cover – during the revision process, I can go back to the draft and read it with an eye only to those elements of style to which Strunk refers in the text and catch most of them. Again, part of my job as a professional is to turn in a manuscript as polished as possible. Third-grade level errors are not acceptable.

And the book is funny. Take, for instance, on p. 57, under “Misused Words and Expressions”:

“Prestigious. Often an adjective of last resort. It’s in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.”

Personally, I have no problem with the word “prestigious”, although I can’t remember the last time I used it. But every time I read that paragraph, it makes me laugh.

And any time one can catch a laugh during the revision process – grab it! It will help you retain perspective on your work.



  1. I always amazes me how terrible I am at spotting typos, missed words, or other errors is my own work. I agree, trusted readers are a must.

  2. Whenever you mention “its” and “it’s” I always start to feel terribly guilty! 🙂

    I agree about the book. Several weeks ago when faced with a whole shelf of reference books, I picked out Struck&White as the one to purchase. I don’t know why, because there were other great books there, it just appealed.

    Then I found out how much other writers, including yourself, use it and I knew it was a special book full of great advice.

    I’ts already become one of the most used reference books I own, apart from my dictionary.

    (ps – the mis-placed apostrophe was a joke. I thought it was funny at the time) 😀

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