Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.


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Who are Stunk and White and why is their book The Elements of Style< supposed to be on every writer's shelf?

When E.B. White was a student at Cornell, he took a course taught by William Strunk Jr. Strunk had written one of the required texts for that course, a slim book he had printed privately. Decades later, a publisher asked White to revise the book for commercial publication. The name E.B. White may ring a bell. He’s the author of Charlotte’s Web. He has also written fiction for adults, poetry and essays.

You’re right; The Elements of Style is often billed as a “must have” for writers. This comes with good reason. It includes clear, decisive rules, urging writers to “use the active voice” and “omit needless words.” The book focuses on the importance of concise writing. It is such a staple in the field that it’s been celebrated in other art forms. There’s an illustrated edition and a musical adaptation of the book.

Still, The Elements of Style has its detractors. In 2009, on the 50th anniversary of the book, Geoffrey K. Pullum, a professor of linguistics, outlines his concerns in an article titled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” claiming the advice in The Elements of Style ranges from “limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense.” Novelist and short story writer Adam Haslett argues that the book’s emphasis on brevity “leads young writers to be cautious and dull; minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem.”

It’s worth a read to formulate your own stance on The Elements of Style. Whether this book ends up on your shelf or not is up to you.