Do you believe you write well? Or do you know you write well? By the way, what is good writing and why does it matter? A very small secret book has the answer. Do you know it?

In a business context, writing well and having clear guidelines for writing can help. First, it helps to write faster. Second, it saves editing reviews. Third, in case several writers work on the same memo, it creates a somewhat unified style. Have you ever written a business memo with ten people editing live in real time on the same version? I have. It accelerates the process to get a draft with content, but people may disagree on final edits to unify the document.

So, what rules would help if everybody followed them? By the way, neyond respecting the grammar, are there rules for good writing? Hemmingway and Proust have very different style. Can’t we all have our own style? That’s a point Stephen King touches in his memoirs. Let’s admit he knows a thing or two about writing. And he believes all books about good writing are useless. All except one. I could not help smiling when I saw which. Stephen King recommands “The Elements of Style” as the only book you should read about writing. Because it’s short, to the point and only states good rules. An American friend offered me that book 15 years ago for the same reasons and I have never found a better one.

“The Elements of Style” is small, short and was over a century old. It was published by a student of the author. The story in itself is touching. You may read about it on Wikipedia or in the book introduction. What content will you find inside? Beyond a reminder of good sentence construction and a list of words commonly, the book provides a set of rules for composition and style.

Here is a selction of the William Strunk commandments. For more details and to enjoy author’s humour, get the full book. It’s a timeless classic.

Principles of composition

  • Make the paragraph the unit of composition
  • Use the active voice
  • Put statements in positive form
  • Use definite, specific, concret language
  • Omit needless words
  • Avoid a succession of loos sentence
  • Express coordinate ideas in similar form
  • Keep related words together

Principles of style

  • Write with nouns and verbes
  • Revise and rewrite
  • Do not overwrite
  • Do not overstate
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers
  • Use orthodox spelling
  • Do not explain too much
  • Do not construct awkward adverbs
  • Avoid fancy words
  • Be clear
  • Do not inject opinion
  • Do not take shortcusts at the cost of clarity
  • Avoid foreign languages
  • Prefer the standard to the offbeat

There is much more in the book. And I excluded from this selection the rules whose titles were too cryptic to share without an explanation. Get a copy! You won’t regret it!

Curatus est une initiative pour faire lire aux professionnels plus d’ouvrages… professionnels. Lisez le manifeste. C’est aussi une sélection d’excellents livres pros regroupés au sein du Guide Curatus. Et une maison d’édition qui édite par exemple les Règles du jeu professionnel. Rejoignez le mouvement !

Envie de lire autre chose de bien ?

PS: here is Stephen King’s foreword to his book…

This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do – not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit. One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr and E. B. White. There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book. (Of course it’s short; at eighty-five pages it’s much shorter than this one.) I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style. Rule 17 in the chapter titled Principles of Composition is ‘Omit needless words.’ I will try to do that here.