Craft Book Recommendation: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

by Ruta Rimas

July is coming to an end and so the back-to-school sales are on. These dog days of summer seem the right time, then, to recommend a back-to-basics text, one that plants the roots of good writing: The Elements of Style. It’s an informative, straightforward writing manual from the grandfather of writing instruction, William Strunk, Jr., and updated by one of his former students, E.B. White. Yes, E.B. White, author of the children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web. The Elements of Style is generally used in college or upper-level English courses to instruct young writers on how to clearly communicate.

The fourth edition of the classic writing book.

Though it’s an introductory text, it’s invaluable to those of us who have been writing for a very long time, too. “Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time,” says Roger Angell in his introduction to the fourth edition. It’s true. Writing is hard, and it’s smart practice to remind ourselves of the basics.

In this slim volume, Strunk and White take us through the rules of rhetoric. It’s not a comprehensive text, but instead offers easy-to-understand rules of usage, principles of composition, commonly misused words and expressions, and a list of approaches to style. Strunk and White remind readers to embrace the Oxford comma, use the active voice, and put statements in the positive form. My favorite edict, one that I share with the writers I edit, is to Omit Needless Words (S&W consider one phrase, “the fact that,” to be particularly excruciating to encounter, and offer a chart with other options to use).

This thin and mighty reference allows us to reflect on our own writing.  Are our sentences convoluted, complicated, or overstuffed? Are we more in love with the purple of our prose rather than the information we are conveying or the purpose of the passage?  S&W value definite, specific, and concrete language (ex: “He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward” is vague and wordy; rewrite that in definite terms and you’ll have “He grinned as he pocketed the coin.”). Word choice matters. Sentence construction is important. Style and mechanics go hand in hand.

After reviewing The Elements of Style, pick up Charlotte’s Web. You’ll notice that E.B. White takes to heart all that Strunk taught him. His storytelling is clear, written with deliberate precision, utilizes varied sentence length, and is never overabundant in its descriptions.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Consider this excerpt, when Charlotte, a spider, begins weaving a new web to praise her pig-friend, Wilbur:

And so, talking to herself, the spider worked at her difficult task. When it was completed, she felt hungry. She ate a small bug that she had been saving. Then she slept.

Next morning, Wilbur arose and stood beneath the web. He breathed the morning air into his lungs. Drops of dew, catching the sun, made the web stand out clearly. When Lurvy arrived with breakfast, there was the handsome pig, and over him, woven neatly in block letters, was the word, “TERRIFIC.” Another miracle. (p.94)

Perhaps find inspiration from the book’s arachnid star who weaves simple words into her web to describe her porcine companion. One word, sometimes two, was all she needed. Maybe it’s what your writing needs, too.

Reading Like a Writer: Poetry Every Day

by Kristen Holt Browning

When the poet Lucie Brock-Broido died in March, I felt a pang of shame. I had never read her, even though throughout college and grad school, I read lots of poetry. Heck, my MA thesis focused on the poets Anne Carson, Louise Glück, and Jorie Graham. And before that, I wrote way more than my fair share of crappy adolescent poetry.

But…I graduated. I got a job. I moved to the city. I read novels, I kept up with The New Yorker. And poetry seemed so much less relevant to the everyday. Once my life expanded to encompass a husband, a house, and kids, there was even less space for poetry, which looked by then like a rarified, obtuse genre, suitable only for college campuses and late nights.

I stopped reading poetry around the same time I stopped writing. I realize now this was probably no coincidence. I stopped making time and space for poems, and without that hot language pouring into my mind, it seemed I stopped being able to produce my own words, too.

The day after Lucie Brock-Broido died, I bought her first book, Hunger. That night, before bed, I read the first poem, “Domestic Mysticism.” Actually, I read it four times in a row. Every time, my heart swelled against my ribs as I read the final lines:

Everyone knows an unworshipped woman will betray you.

There is always that promise, I like that. Kingdom of Kinesis.

Kingdom of Benevolent. I will betray as a god betrays,

With tenderheartedness. I’ve got this mystic streak in me.

Poetry can be intimidating, it can appear inscrutable. But for the last several weeks, almost every night, right before I go to sleep, I’ve read a single poem. Sometimes Brock-Broido, sometimes someone else (if I may plug a GetLit regular, I’ve also been reading Ruth Danon’s latest book, Word Has It). As it turns out, poetry doesn’t exist on some purely celestial plane; it fits quite well into a life already crammed full of deadlines, appointments, and PTA meetings. No time for a 500-page novel? Let me suggest you try “Parable” by Louise Glück tonight. Or, if you’re up for something a little longer, maybe Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” And don’t think that poetry has nothing to say about the political world of now: read Morgan Parker’s “If You Are Over Staying Woke” or Danez Smith’s “Two Movies” to see how poets are speaking poetic truth to political power.

As a writer, there’s  value in this practice: in my last moments of consciousness each night, I absorb pure, essential language. I like to think the words are burrowing into my mind, and supporting my own writing in some unknown, unseen way.

One poem, every night. Why not give it a try yourself? Whatever kind of writer you are, let poetry infiltrate and influence your relationship to language. Couldn’t all of our stories—hell, all of our lives—use a little more poetry?

Reading Like A Writer: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

By Kristen Holt Browning

My inaugural post for Get Lit Beacon is the first in a series I’m calling “Reading Like A Writer.” Each month, I’ll briefly discuss a book of fiction or poetry that I’ve just read—but rather than a traditional book review, I’ll share my thoughts on what I learned from this book as a writer myself.

So, on to Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion.

I admire Wolitzer for situating “women’s issues” as the central theme of a large, ambitious novel. Although, unlike Wolitzer, I write short works—stories, poems, essays—like her I’m primarily interested in writing stories about women. Even in a shorter work, I want the experiences of my female characters and subjects to be central, not secondary, and to resonate as big, essential narratives that speak to and reflect the world.

This novel covers feminism, ambition, idealism, money, sexuality, aging, death and grief, and generational divides. The story centers on Greer (a college freshman when we meet her, a celebrated 31-year-old author by the novel’s end). Wolitzer uses this focus character from which to dive deeply into the lives of Cory (Greer’s boyfriend, who suffers a massive tragedy that throws his life off its comfortable course), Zee (Greer’s best friend, who stumbles through jobs and a variety of activisms before she finds meaningful work), and Faith (a star of second-wave feminism who runs a foundation financed by a venture capitalist, and struggles to balance her activism with her funder’s bottom line).

As a writer, I’m impressed by Wolitzer’s ability to not only trace, but delve deeply into, the storylines of all of her characters, each of whom have full storylines of their own, beyond their relationships to the central character of Greer. Wolitzer clearly cares about all of her characters, and believes they each deserve a full story. And, she trusts herself to write a wide variety of characters: young and old, male and female, straight and queer.

We may write in different forms, but Meg Wolitzer provides an excellent roadmap for writing women’s stories as the complex, essential narratives they are.